Many students of literature even in Nigerian secondary schools will remember some of his lucid poems depicting the evils of apartheid, the refusal to submit and the hopes of overturning the tide and one day bring social justice, not only to South Africa, but all over the world. His evocative poem, The Sun on this Rubble, still rings out a haunting warning to all who delight in suppressing others under their boots.
Brutus was born in 1924 to a mixed race couple in then Salisbury, now Harare, capital of Zimbabwe. Though he was white in appearance, he was never fully accepted by the apartheid regime in his native South Africa. His anti-apartheid sentiments evolved in the cause of his youth when, as a rugby player, he was described by his coach as a “future springbok.” That should have made him happy because the Springbok was the South African notational rugby team. It was also symbolic of white dominance because only whites played in the team. Upon reflection, Brutus decided to fight the discrimination around him.
He was a graduate of Fort Hare College and the University of Whitewatersrand and for 14 years taught literature in some South African colleges until his anti-apartheid stance made the government uncomfortable.
He was subsequently banned from teaching, writing and publishing in the apartheid enclave, as well as attending sports and political meetings. But the activist would not be stymied. He defied the ban and was arrested in 1963 for attending a sports meet. In trying to escape, he was shot in the back and left on a Johannesburg Street, waiting for an ambulance while his blood continued to pour onto the asphalt. The irony was there was an ambulance standing by but it was meant only for whites. Brutus had to wait for hours for the ambulance reserved for blacks to arrive before he was eventually taken to hospital.
He survived and was imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island, next door to Nelson Mandela. He was there for 18 months. While in prison, his first collection of poems, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots was published in Nigeria to critical acclaim. The collection was awarded the Mbari prize for literature. Surprisingly, Brutus declined the award because the prize was exclusive to black poets of distinction.
Upon his release, he was allowed to flee to Britain on an “exit permit” with his family. The permit meant he was forbidden to return to South Africa. He lived in London from 1966 to 1970 and worked as a teacher and journalist.
Brutus was famous not only as a poet but also as an activist. He was instrumental in having his native South Africa suspended from the 1966 Olympics and campaigned vigourously until the country was excluded by the International Olympic Committee for its discriminatory policies in 1970 and until the end of apartheid in the mid 90s, South Africa was excluded from all major sporting events largely due to Brutus’ campaigns.
It was not uncommon to see him on the streets protesting on behalf of the oppressed. His poetry was as engaging as his passion for causes and till his dying moment, he was campaigning against green house emissions and encouraged the protests in Copenhagen during the recentworld climate summit.
In 1983, after a protracted legal battle, Brutus won the right to live in the United States as a political refugee. While there, he continued to teach while actively campaigning against apartheid in South Africa.
He was not to return to his country until the eventual collapse of apartheid. Even then, he was still not satisfied with the social order and said during an interview, “We come out of apartheid into global apartheid. We’re in a world now where, in fact, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few; the mass of the people are still poor … a society which is geared to protect the rich and the corporations and actually is hammering the poor, increasing their burden, this is the reverse of what we thought was going to happen under the ANC government.”
In December 2007, Brutus was to be inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, he publicly turned down his nomination, stating, “It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It’s time—indeed long past time—for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.”
Many may want to remember him as a poet per excellence who contributed immensely to the downfall of apartheid but others will prefer to remember him as that contemporary of Christopher Okigbo and Leopold Senghor, who survived to show the world what they could have been like. He will also be remembered as a campaigner for global justice, whose familiar face was everywhere there are mass mobilizations against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, G8, and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.
“After a protest they would grab a bite to eat and he bought everyone a burger and ice cream. He combined caring and enjoying with his activism,” his son, Anthony, said.
His poetry is astounding as Richard K. Priebe, professor of English at Virginia’s Commonwealth University wrote; “Brutus brings diverse experiences to his poetry, unifying them through his attention to social injustice. There is great passion, even anger, in some of his lines, but the verse is always restrained and controlled. One sees a clear progression from a somewhat lush, even romantic, tone in his early poems to an increasingly austere precision after the prison experience.
There is no denying that Africa has lost one of its finest poets who actually influenced the course of events, not just from behind his desk but from the frontlines of the battle for social justice. Truly his life was all about “Poetry and Protest”