Dennis Brutus was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) in 1924. His parents moved to Port Elizabeth where he grew up. He graduated from the University of Fort Hare with distinction in English. His studies in law at the University of Witwatersrand were cut short by his imprisonment.
Brutus did news reporting and was an organiser with the Teachers’ League and the Congress Movement. An ardent cricket and table tennis player in his youth, he was also a founder member of the South African Sports Association, an alternative to the White sports bodies of the time. As Secretary of the South African Sports Association, he was instrumental in stopping a proposed tour by the West Indies cricket team led by Frank Worrell in 1958.
In 1961 he was banned from teaching, writing, speaking in public and attending social or political meetings under the Suppression of Communism Act.
In 1962, he helped set up the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (Sanroc), which spearheaded the international sports boycott against apartheid South Africa. He was elected as this body’s president.
Brutus broke his banning orders by attending the 1963 Baden-Baden meeting of the International Olympic Committee. With a (then) Southern Rhodesia passport and a Mozambican visa, the Portuguese security police arrested him en route to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). He tried to escape from the police in central Johannesburg, but a policeman shot him in the back. He lay bleeding on the pavement for 30 minutes before an ambulance for the correct race group arrived. The Transvaal Indian Congress plotted to rescue him from hospital in a coffin but they were unsuccessful.
Brutus went to trial, the magistrate rejected a supposed link with communism, but Brutus received 18 months hard labour for breaking his ban. Some of his sentence was spent on Robben Island where he was assaulted, probably because of South Africa’s exclusion from the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Brutus’s cell was next to Nelson Mandela’s on the Island. Upon his release, he was placed under house arrest and banned from publishing. In July 1966, Brutus left South Africa for Britain on a one-way permit.
In 1966, he joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United Kingdom. In London, he worked for International Defence and Aid and Sanroc. In part it was due to his activism that South Africa was banned from the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968 and from the Olympic Movement in 1970.
In 1970 he moved to the United States where he taught literature and African studies at Northwestern University (1971-1985) and at the University of Pittsburgh (1986 - 2009) where he was head of Africana Studies and a Professor Emeritus. Apart from his professorial duties, Brutus was a harsh critic of Washington Consensus institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. The Reagan administration attempted to deport him but a judge granted him political asylum to remain in the USA in 1983. All his works were banned in South Africa, although some of his writings made it past the South African censors, as he wrote under the pseudonym, John Bruin.
He was one of few sports activists who regarded the lifting of the sports boycott in 1991 as premature. He was one of the first commentators to draw attention to the links between sport, big business and injustice. In 2007, he publicly rejected induction into the South African Sports Hall of Fame.
Brutus, with others, was a founding member of the World Social Forum, in 2000, an international movement in opposition to “corporate globalisation”. He was also one of the litigants in a reparations case, which is suing in the USA to try to get banks and corporations to pay reparations for conducting business in South Africa during apartheid. He was also elected as a patron of the Jubilee 2000 Campaign.
He evaded his banning order’s publishing restrictions on him by writing letters to his sister-in-law, later published as Letters to Martha. He published several volumes of poetry including, A Simple Lust, Stubborn Hope, Salutes and Censures and Still the Sirens. A volume of his new poems was due for publication by Worcester State University in the USA in 2009.
During the 1990s, he was at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) first as a guest lecturer and a honorary doctoral degree recipient. Brutus espoused violence and lectured at UKZN on the philosophy, strategies and tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King.
He participated in solidarity campaigns with the people of Palestine, Zimbabwe and people under oppression. He taught hundreds of UKZN and visiting students.
From 2005 until his death Brutus was a visiting scholar and honorary professor based at the Centre for Civil Society in the School of Development Studies. In 2006, the UKZN Press co-published Brutus’s 400-page book Poetry and Protest, including his classic poems and previously unpublished verse as well as extensive autobiographical sketches, interviews and articles.
In April 2009, Rhodes University and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred him with an honorary literature doctorate. He held six other honorary doctorates. The South African Department of Arts and Culture honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Amongst many other awards, he was bestowed with the Kenneth Kaunda Humanism Award, the Steve Biko Award from Trans Africa, the City University of New York’s Langston Hugh’s Award and the Paul Robeson Award for excellence, political conscience and integrity. Among other recent accolades bestowed on him was the US War Resisters League peace award in September 2009.
One of the most recent campaigns that Brutus championed was the battle between the eThekwini Municipality and the Durban Warwick Junction informal traders over a proposed shopping centre in the area in 2009.
A political activist to the end, Brutus wrote an open letter about the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (Denmark) published in the Cape Argus and the Cape Times in 2009 in which he criticised South Africa for not taking a tough enough stance at the Copenhagen climate talks.
Dennis Brutus died in Cape Town on 26 December 2009 at the age of 85. He was cremated on the 29 December 2009.