A Fond Farewell to Dennis Brutus

In this interview, I spoke with Dennis Brutus about his experiences as a poet and lifelong activist six months before his death in December 2009.

A graduate from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, Brutus taught in nonwhite schools, joined the underground campaign against apartheid, and led social movements against segregation, climate change and corporate capitalism. His poetry on his experiences in Robben Island, his exile, and service for the causes of justice, peace and freedom are still taught across the world.

SHIRIN SHIRIN: Perhaps you could start by telling us about your experiences growing up and becoming an activist in apartheid South Africa?

DENNIS BRUTUS: I grew up in a segregated ghetto in Port Elizabeth on the east coast near Cape Town and went to a segregated school, of course. I ended up at Fort Hare, a college where many black students went. In 1948, I started teaching at Fort Hare and also started working in the community. The apartheid government came to power just as I started teaching. New ones were replacing the old apartheid systems. What was called segregation was now being replaced by a much more vicious system. The big difference was that it was enforced very strictly by law. Before that, in the old days it was rather like the American South, I think. It was racism and segregation by convention and by general acceptance. It wasn’t legal. But when segregation becomes legal, you have a much more severe system to combat.

As a teacher, I was doubly influenced for it meant separate education for blacks and whites and browns. Housing was segregated and shops were segregated. I found myself in conflict with the system. I ended up being served with an order making it a crime for me to teach. I was banned from teaching. But, there are always different ways to challenge injustice. I began challenging the apartheid through sports. At the time, all the teams were exclusively white, although they were supposed to represent South Africa. When I challenged that, I got into real trouble, which led to my arrest. I tried to escape and was shot in the back at point-blank range. Before I could recover fully, I was sent to Robben Island. There I spent time in the section with Mandela. My time on Robben Island was quite short. It was part of a 16-month sentence out of which five months were in solitary confinement. When I came out of prison in 1965, I was put under house arrest for five years, but after one year I was allowed to leave the country on the condition that I never return.

I based myself in London in St. Paul’s Cathedral and started working for political prisoners. I made presentations on behalf of political prisoners. I exposed for instance the conditions of Robben Island by appearing before the United Nations. I also exposed the U.S. corporate support for the apartheid regime, testifying before the U.S. Congress and other bodies.

SHIRIN: Skipping ahead a few years, what appealed to you about the movement for global economic justice coming from the long campaign against apartheid?

BRUTUS: One of the things that struck me profoundly was that as we emerged from the terrible oppression of the apartheid, we were suddenly confronted with a new oppression on a global scale. The apartheid was essentially racial, but it also had an economic component to it in the form of labor exploitation. The global oppression came from organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, the Bretton-Woods organizations, and of course, subsequently the WTO.

What had been happening in South Africa — where you had a kind of privileged elite while the masses were oppressed — was really happening on a global scale and specifically through mechanisms like the repayment of debt. The poor countries were being bled dry. The little wealth they had was being transferred to the wealthy countries by various mechanisms like aid, where you could put a billion dollars into Africa and take out several billion. In other words, these so-called “developmental projects” that were supposed to help the poor countries were only making sure that the investors were making huge profits. They were taking out far more than they were putting in. When I understood that this was in fact what was happening in South Africa, and also globally, it was very easy for me to make the transition. It was really a replication of the problems I had seen before, but now I was seeing them on a much bigger scale.

SHIRIN: And how do the social forums fit into this movement for global justice?

BRUTUS: They are at the heart of it, both in the case of Africa and in the United States. And of course a lot of the energy came out of Brazil. I think we must give them credit for that, especially to people like Chico Whitaker, one of the principle thinkers who helped set up the World Social Forum.

But beyond that, there are two other elements that I see as very important. One was November 1999, in Seattle, when for the first time people took the streets, and confronted corporate and political power. With Bill Gates there and Microsoft, George Soros, Bill Clinton, Jaques Chirac, and the other heads of state that were all there, the WTO was set to meet, and talk of writing a trade agenda for the whole world. It was billed as a new round based on the decisions they had taken in Uruguay. We were out in the streets with the 50 Years is Enough network, and other groups marching to our chant: “No New Round, Turn-A-Round.” We rejected the notion of the corporate powers writing the agenda for the whole world. We took them on. We paralyzed them. There was no meeting of the WTO; there was no new round. I think a lot of the energy that we say in the WSF, whether it was in Porto Alegre or in Mumbai, came from Seattle.

I should add one other credit. I think that the action of the Zapatistas in Mexico, when they announced their opposition to the attempt to create the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) was important as well. This was the meeting with George W. Bush, Vincente Fox, and others in Quebec City where many of us were tear-gassed in a protest. So energy for these movements comes out of Brazil, but it also comes out of Seattle, Mexico, and, in fact, it comes out of grassroots people everywhere. Whether they’re fighting for jobs or housing or water or electricity, or better roads or better schools, there is a global movement with many components. The difficulty is pulling all those energies together and mobilizing them to demand change, and then defining clearly what changes we want.

Let me just add one footnote on that issue. It seems to me that at the heart of the present system of exploitation and oppression are the concept of private property and profit. Sooner or later we’re going to have to grapple with that issue. If we don’t, I think that we cannot say that we are serious about changing the world.

SHIRIN: I’d like to move us towards the U.S. but before we get there, perhaps we could spend a little more time on Africa. With the rise of the G20, South Africa has taken on more regional significance — almost a regional superpower. Can you comment on what that means for the southern African region, and for Africa as a whole?

BRUTUS: I am delighted because it seems to me that this is a central question we are discussing in African civil society. I was part of serious discussion in Cape Town recently hosted by a trade union, which asked the question: “Is South Africa becoming a sub-imperial power?” In other words: Is South Africa acting mainly in the interest of the United States? You will remember that George W. Bush came to Pretoria and appointed Thabo Mbeki as his “point man.” So we are very conscious and very troubled about that aspect. There’s a second aspect as well. South Africa now is becoming a place where you can accumulate a great deal of capital, and it’s also a place where foreign direct investment is pouring into the country in a significant way. This means that South Africa has the capacity to export this capital and to set up industries elsewhere. You have this corporate role of penetration, and I think it’s actually twofold, though it’s still being debated.

Others are saying that this is not a sub-imperialist role that we’re describing, that instead this is an imperialist role. But, in my view, that’s much too ambitious. It also extends the present resources of South Africa far more than what they really are. But I don’t exclude the possibility that South Africa might play an imperialist role in the future, especially if South Africa finds it convenient to become very cozy with China. At the moment China is very busy penetrating Africa, whether in the Sudan, looking for oil, or whether it’s Zimbabwe, looking for an alliance with Mugabe.

My current analysis is that presently South Africa is performing a sub-imperial role, which is related to its relationship with the United States. Especially since the United States is now budgeting for an enormous expansion of military expenditure in Africa, and an increase in the number of military bases in Africa. It may reflect some of the U.S.’s insecurity about what is happening in the Middle East. They find Saudi Arabia an unreliable ally. They’ve had a disastrous adventure in Iraq, where they’ve ended up in a quagmire. Even the Israelis have taken a beating when they tried to penetrate Lebanon a couple of years ago. So to sum up, I would say that South Africa is functioning both as a corporate extension and as a military extension of U.S. power and its imperialist agenda.

SHIRIN: I want to now take us across the Atlantic, but perhaps now would be a good time for you to share one your poems.

BRUTUS: All right, if I can find an appropriate one.

There’s one I wrote which has been used very widely, but it’s rather odd because it’s actually based on what I call a “found poem.” I took some lines from Yasser Arafat’s speech to the UN and turned them into a poem. So maybe I’ll just read some lines from that one:

I am a rebel and freedom is my cause
many of you have fought similar struggles
therefore you must join my cause
my cause is a dream of freedom
and you must help me to make my dream reality
For why should I not dream and hope?
Is not revolution making reality of hopes?
Let us work together that my dream may be fulfilled
That I may return with my people out of exile to live in one democracy in peace
Is not my dream a noble one worthy to stand beside
freedom struggles everywhere?

SHIRIN: You’ve lived now for many years in the United States and I wonder if you could share with us a little about your experiences in the U.S. and with the people in the United States in general.

BRUTUS: Well, I’ve clearly had negative experiences, but there are other encouraging ones. I was arrested in California protesting banks that had lent money to South Africa, and I was arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington protesting the death penalty on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal. We can return to those if you wish, but in addition the U.S. government served me three times with a deportation order. One time I was to be deported to Zimbabwe; another time I was to be deported to South Africa; a third time to Britain. Each of the deportation efforts failed and eventually I was given political asylum.

So clearly I didn’t always have it easy in the United States, but I should mention that there was also the positive side. I was called to appear before the U.S. Congress to testify about corporate support for apartheid, I also appeared before the UN describing conditions on Robben Island, (which I think led to some improvements in the conditions there), and I was able to form what has become probably the most important African literature association in the world when I was a visiting professor down at the University of Texas. I’ve lectured at many universities and was a tenured professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and chair of Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and tenured there as well.

So when I look at the big picture I come up with a rather curious notion. It seems to me that in the United States you have a very peculiar mixture of repression and freedom, which leads to people thinking that they live in a democracy but in fact it’s only a democracy for some people. And in fact Gramsci used to talk about the “soft power” of the United States, and how the U.S. could persuade the world that it was really a very free democracy — the land of the free, home of the brave, etc — when in fact there’s not only great repression inside the United States, but the U.S. is guilty of enormous repression in other parts of the world, and yet people go about their lives complacently. Not only were they complacent, but they would be relieved that they lived in a democracy — some of them would describe it as the greatest democracy in the world. It seems to me that nobody has really examined the degree to which that deception — partly self-deception — was very effective in the United States.

Periodically they break out of that kind of coma. We’ve just seen it now in the rejection of John McCain in the recent elections, which were not only a rejection of George W. Bush, but also a rejection of the war in Iraq. These are very hopeful signs that the climate is changing politically in the United States though perhaps we shouldn’t be too optimistic because the Democrats are as compromised as the Republicans and many of them are invested in the enormous war machine which is running so much of U.S. politics today — the military-industrial-academic complex.

So these are some aspects of it. One reason that the U.S. government can maintain control the way it does is because of this illusion of democracy. It pretends to be a democracy, nearly all of its residents believe that it is, but it isn’t a democracy, at least not for all. It certainly doesn’t tend to support democratic regimes — consider Saudi Arabia or even Israel which has carried out a 40-year occupation. I realize that this is a controversial point and I’m bound to get some criticism for it, but I think it’s worth discussing at least.

SHIRIN: Some of us have the impression that organizing in the United States is at a very primitive stage when compared with organizing in parts of Africa or Latin America or Asia. Do you have any insights as to why that may be the case and suggestions as to how organizers here can improve?

BRUTUS: Well, you’re right about that. In some cases, people think that the protest movement in the United States is nonexistent, which shows how uninformed they are. But you’re quite right in the sense that the development of the movement in the United States has been backwards in relation to other parts of the world. In South America, I think — Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, even Mexico — the degree of political sophistication is much higher there. By comparison the United States development is very primitive.

It’s a long story. There have been periods in the United States when radicalism was very strong particularly through labor, trade unions, and at times you’ve had a real respectable left in the United States. But you’re right that at the moment: a) it’s really rather backwards, and b) it’s not well known outside the United States. Now that’s a problem because it seems to me that the media is deliberately not covering activist events. I’ll give you one example. I served in New York on the commission which found the Bush administration guilty of crimes against humanity. We not only announced the verdict, we announced it at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. We also delivered the verdict at the White House, where in fact it was received with tongs — but that’s a separate story. What I’m saying is that when we are taking significant action against government, the media does not cover it or they will bury it somewhere. This to me says that the media itself — or the mainstream media — is so much in the pocket of the corporations that we cannot get the information out to the people of the United States. Even more seriously, we cannot get it out to the people of the world, all of whom should know that there is a very lively, active and caring center of people in the United States who are engaged in protest against the wars and in demanding social justice, both in the U.S. and internationally.

SHIRIN: You’ve lived through World War II, through the Cold War, you’ve been part of the struggle against apartheid, you’ve seen that regime come and go, you’ve seen many American presidents come and go, and yet throughout all these years — you’re now in your 80s — you’ve managed to keep a sense of optimism. What gives you hope?

BRUTUS: Well, it certainly helps to be able to have a sense of humor, so you survive various catastrophes with a laugh or two. Secondly, I think we’re always winning small victories. They’re happening all the time. Here in Durban, we challenged the city council because they’ve cut off people’s water because they can’t pay. There are always grounds for at least a little cheerfulness and a little optimism. If you have a sense that there is this global struggle going on, where one is winning little victories in a number of places, then the real question in my mind should be how do we combine all these successes and develop them into a powerful force. But it certainly seems to me that the mere fact that one is occasionally winning a few victories, however small they might be, it is one way to keep going.

The other way is the WSF itself, which for me is the basis for great optimism, even though I recognize it may take a wrong turn, it may betray us, it can always fall apart.

But when I flew back from the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and arrived in Jo’berg in the darkness, with little lights burning where people were reading and so on, I felt in that enormous space, that there was so much hope, so much optimism, that people had a vision that an alternative world was possible. And I felt so good about it that I wrote a poem:

At Night, After Porto Alegre
In South African Airways 747

In this dim-winged cathedral
soaring above oceans of silvery cloud
far beyond Atlantic’s tumultuous heave
we move, star-girt, distant
from greed’s debris, genocides, calcined bones
curled in our own private shrines
or bent over light-pooled pages
we move to a new world, a new earth, where finally
our dreams can be fulfilled.

Shirin Shirin is a freelance journalist, activist, and analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus. Her work includes using popular education to campaign against religious violence and promote the rights of women, workers, minorities, and dalits throughout South Asia.