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Lee Sustar and Aisha Karim (eds), 'Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader'

Haymarket Books, 2006; ISBN 1 9318 5922 1; 424pp; £10.99

During my years of work in the international and local anti-apartheid movements and my pursuit of poetry that speaks to political reality, I discovered Brutus's poetry and heard of his activism. But I knew few details of his life and work. This book of memoirs, speeches, interviews and poetry is an excellent account of Dennis Brutus, and informed my admiration of his courage, commitment and perseverance.

Classified as “coloured” by the South African government, Brutus's parents were schoolteachers and they instilled a love of literature in their son; he also was able to get a reasonable education. At an early age he became aware of the injustice and inequality in South African society; he saw the results in sport - where non-whites had not the opportunity, equipment nor place to become good athletes. None were allowed on prestigious national teams.

He saw the system in South Africa as a form of Nazism, developed and strengthened by the white South African government after the Second World War. Brutus was a schoolteacher by then and he began to challenge apartheid on many levels, including education and sport. He lost his job, was arrested, shot, and jailed for his activism in 1964.

The prisoner

The accounts of his time in jail are horrific, the conditions were appalling, and both guards and prisoners were dehumanised and brutal in this terrible system. Brutus, as were all prisoners, was beaten and tormented; but he still cared for others he saw as weaker and more vulnerable - young men who were tortured until they accepted rape and constant sexual abuse. He managed to express his feelings and observations in poetry that carries the smell and feel of horror.

Brutus not only survived; after leaving prison and going into exile, he helped bring the conditions in South Africa to world attention. He organised massive and wide-reaching actions that saw the government South Africa isolated and despised throughout the world.

The betrayal

When the jubilation over the fall of apartheid and the possibility of true democratic government in South Africa had passed by, and world attention moved on to other issues, Brutus and many others saw the beginning of betrayal of commitment to social justice by the new government they had worked so hard to support and elect in the new South Africa.

Even as early as 1974 Brutus saw a deeper and more complex reality. He said then that the struggle was deeper and more complex than apartheid, “...the significance of the Southern Africa [he was including Namibia, Mozambique, etc] Liberation movement is that it goes beyond resistance. It is not resistance to oppression; it is not even liberation merely in the sense of freedom to govern yourself... It is not a local nor even a national struggle. We see ourselves as an element in the global struggle against imperialism...”

Connected engagement

In spite of his disappointment with the current policies of South Africa, he remains connected, optimistic and active. When speaking about cultural change he says that, “...one of the things we are doing is to engage ourselves in the struggle to recover and rediscover our humanity”.

That the answers lie in all of us - not in the powerful forces that help create the problem - seems to me to be at the heart and to be the strength of Brutus's life work. Not only protest, but constructive resistance that creates new ways of living together and serving liberation and justice.

This connected engagement is very clear when he talks about his poetry: “We ought all to be committed because we are people, we're all part of the same human environment.”

Although some of his poetry may seem fleeting and fragmented, when looked at in the total context it is part of a continuous flow of life, work, feelings and relationships. That gives it a vivid power and a particular strength.