POET, teacher, sports administrator, energetic campaigner for socio-economic justice and opponent of racism and globalisation – Dennis Brutus, who died in Durban on 26 December 2009 in his sleep after a fight against cancer, was a larger-than-life figure. Tributes were paid from many quarters, but it was as a leader of the sports boycott of South Africa that he first made his mark.

Born in Salisbury (in present-day Zimbabwe), he grew up in Port Elizabeth and graduated from the University of Fort Hare. While his political origins lay in the Trotskyite Teachers League, he later joined the Congress Movement. As secretary of the South African Sports Association, in 1958 he was instrumental in stopping a proposed tour by the West Indies cricket team led by Frank Worrell. In 1962, he helped set up the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC), the main vehicle of the international sports boycott, and became its president.

Brutus, serving a banning order, broke it by attending a meeting and was out on bail when he tried to travel to the 1963 Baden-Baden meeting of the International Olympic Committee. With a Southern Rhodesian passport and a Mozambican visa he was arrested en route to Lourenço Marques by the Portuguese security police who, describing him as ‘leader of the most dangerous sabotage group in South Africa’, handed him over to the South African police.

Fearful that he would disappear into detention, or worse, Brutus escaped in central Johannesburg and was shot in the back by a policeman (whose name, fittingly, was Kleingeld or small change). Famously, he lay bleeding on the pavement for 30 minutes before an ambulance of the correct race group arrived. Prophetically, the Rand Daily Mail suggested that the bullet would inflict greater harm on South Africa’s reputation than on Brutus. The Transvaal Indian Congress plotted to rescue him from hospital in a coffin. Consternation reigned in British diplomatic circles over his father’s possible St Helena origins, but South Africa claimed jurisdiction on grounds of residence and passport applications. Although a magistrate poured scorn on a supposed link with communism, Brutus received 18 months hard labour for breaking his ban. The boycott became truly international news.

Some of his sentence was served on Robben Island where he was assaulted, probably because of South Africa’s exclusion from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. On release he was placed under house arrest and banned from publishing, which he evaded by writing letters to his sister-in-law, later printed as Letters to Martha. In July 1966 he left South Africa for Britain on a one-way visa.

He worked for International Defence and Aid and SANROC in London before taking up a succession of academic appointments in English at various American universities, including Northwestern and Texas. All his work was banned in South Africa, although some of it evaded the censors for a while under the pseudonym John Bruin. His poetry contains many references to the authoritarianism that had forced him into exile and to the boycott. In A Simple Lust, he described ‘the monolithic decalogue of fascist prohibition’; and in Let Me Say It, wrote, ‘I have deprived them of that which they hold most dear’.

Although aligned to the African National Congress, he was one of few sports activists who regarded the lifting of the boycott in 1991–1992 as premature. Brutus was always his own man in a movement that harboured its fair share of opportunists and careerists. Not for him lucrative positions in the international sports bureaucracy: shrewd and consistent, he was one the first commentators to draw attention to the links between sport, big business and injustice.

Brutus’s death is a timely reminder of the enormous personal sacrifice made by some to achieve a just society based on democratic institutions in South Africa. He was a true hero of the struggle, fighting tirelessly on the international stage for the dignity and human rights of black South African sportspeople. This brought great heart to those in the non-racial, anti-apartheid sports movement under siege from a government that menacingly called them terrorists. But his passing contains more than a hint of poignancy. As later campaigning against globalisation suggests, his vision of the role of recreation in a democratic society was ruthlessly discarded by the new czars of South African sport.

This article was first published in The Witness on 29 December 2009 and entitled ‘Always his own man’.