There will come a time we believe
Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, a fighter against apartheid which had led to prison and exile, died on 26 December 2009 in his Capt Town home. Brutus was born in 1924 in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, but his family had returned to Cape Town when he was six months old. Dennis Brutus was, to use the racial terminology of his youth "coloured" - part of a larger and old metis community of Cape Town, many of whom were educated and along with the South African Indian community held an intermediary position between the whites on the one hand and the black community on the other. There were enough "coloured", especially in the Cape Province to be a significant social class from which leaders of the early opposition to racial laws sprang.
The apartheid government insisted on keeping the whites, coloured, Indians and blacks separate, later trying to divide the blacks on tribal or ethnic lines, often leading to absurdities. As Brutus said in an interview "When, after having been shot in the streets of Johannesburg, I was lying on the ground, a staring crowd around me, someone thought I was a white man and called the ambulance. When the white ambulance-men arrived, they took a look at me, put the stretcher back in the van and drove off. It was an ambulance for Whites, and it would have cost their jobs, if they had helped me. So I had to wait for the ambulance for my color." (1)
He was educated in South Africa at the leading university for coloured and black students, Fort Hare, graduating in 1947. He then became a university lecturer in English literature and started writing poems as well as articles for newspapers.
The apartheid-creating Nationalist Party had come to power in May 1948 and during the early years of the 1950s, they legislated to legalise racial segregation and discrimination at every level of existence. To enforce these laws, a series of security measures were enacted so as to entrench a racial oligarchy. As movements for independence started growing throughout Africa, the South African government feared that "the wind of change" would start blowing in South Africa as well and hardened its policies and restrictions. As a reaction, the coloured, Indian and black communities increased their resistance. By 1956, the Freedom Charter calling for a multi-racial South Africa had become the framework of the opposition to the ideology of apartheid. The Freedom Charter was considered by the government as a call to overthrow the state and so began trials for "treason".
Poetry has always played an important role in articulating the demands for change in South Africa. 1912 was the start for a black organization at the all South Africa level with the creation of the South African Native National Congress, which later became the African National Congress. Its first leaders, John Dube, President, Solomon Plaatje, Secretary, and Pixley Seme, Treasurer, all expressed their views also in poetry and were the first of the "people's writers".
In March, 1960, the police fired into a non-violent demonstration at Sharpeville, what became known as "the Sharpeville Massacre". The government panicked and hastily outlawed the African National Congress, with the result that there was no legal voice for the black South Africans. All organizing was considered a form of "treason". In August 1962, Nelson Mandela was captured and tried with others for "treason" and "sabotage" and sentenced to life imprisonment.
By 1962, Dennis Brutus had been expelled from his post as university lecturer. In 1963, he was arrested, then escaped and fled to Swaziland where he was caught by the Portuguese Secret Police who were concerned with the struggle in their territory of Mozambique and who operated anywhere they thought anti-colonial agitators might be working. The Portuguese handed Brutus over to the South African Security Police. Brutus escaped again from the police but was shot in the back in the street of Johannesburg. He was condemned to 18 months to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela was being held.
During his period in prison, he wrote
poem-letters to his wife which were later published as Letters
to Martha (Heinemann, 1968). As he said concerning the letters
After his release from prison, all his writings were "banned" - that is, they could not be published and even his name could not be mentioned in print - the status of a "non-person." His poems, however, circulated underground and his fame grew. (3) The government's security services thought that he was more trouble living in the country than he would be outside. Thus, an "agreement" was reached that he could leave the country for a permanent exile but that he would be arrested if he ever returned. Thus Dennis Brutus and his family left for England in 1966 and later took up a teaching post in 1971 at Northwestern University, near Chicago, which had the leading African Studies program in the USA, directed by Gwendolen Carter, a well-known American scholar on South African politics. In 1986 he moved to the University of Pittsburg, and in 1991 as the political situation had changed, he returned to South Africa.
After his return to South Africa, he was active in poetry circles and helped organize a yearly poetry festival at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal. He became increasingly concerned with ecological issues, calling for stronger measures against global warming. While always concerned with the socio-political situation in South Africa, Dennis Brutus considered himself a citizen of the world, stressing that Nature knows no frontiers. During his years teaching in the USA, he was active in reform movements and promoting a stronger United Nations.
(2) Ibid pp77
(3) For a good analysis of the role of Dennis Brutus within the context of the opposition of poets to apartheid, see Jacques Alvarez-Pereyse The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa (1984)