Dec 29, 2009
South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus, who broke rocks with Nelson Mandela on Robbins Island, died in Capetown at the age of 85 on December 26.
Brutus was a stalwart of the local anti-apartheid movement while he was on the faculty at Northwestern University in the 1970s and ’80s. In South Africa, he had first been banned as a teacher, for teaching his students that they were not inferior; then he became a journalist, and soon received an order making it a crime for him to write for any paper. He said he never took his poetry seriously until the government served him with an order making it a crime to publish his poems. He continued under a pen name.
In a sense he was also a forerunner of No Games Chicago, since the crime he for which he was imprisoned was organizing against South Africa’s inclusion in the Olympics. He was arrested by South African secret police in 1963 at a meeeting with South Africa’s Olympic committee, where he went to present the case for including blacks on the nation’s team. It was primarily due to Brutus that South Africa was kicked out of the games in 1964 and 1968, and out of the Olympic movement in 1970.
At the Progressive, Matt Rothschild has an incisive post on the conjunction of Brutus’s death with the opening of the film Invictus, which also deals with sport and apartheid, but reduces the anti-apartheid movement to one great man, Nelson Mandela; he also notes Brutus’s criticism of Mandela’s turn to neoliberalism.
A year ago Brutus scandalized the South African Sports Hall of Fame by showing up at a lavish ceremony only to refuse induction “alongside those who flourished under racist sport” while “so many talented black athletes were excluded from sports opportunities.” Cheering Brutus’s stance last January, Dave Zirin also noted the history of racism in U.S. baseball and a hall of fame where its proponents and beneficiaries are enshrined.
(This week at the Nation, Zirin offers a fascinating eulogy for Daily Worker sports columnist Walter “Red” Rodney, who died December 22 at the age of 98, noting his place in “the central role of the radical press in agitating for the integration of Major League Baseball.”)