Tyrone August, Dennis Brutus: The South African Years (Cape Town: BestRed, 2020)

ALTHOUGH renowned as a poet, political activist, journalist and teacher, with a life story that is relatively well-known, Dennis Brutus has proved an elusive biographical subject according to Tyrone August. Brutus himself argued that there was no unifying thread to his life. August more judiciously describes him as a multi-tasker, although he does also suggest that he could be evasive and secretive.

While both his parents were middle class, little is known of his grandparents who led peripatetic and undocumented lives. One grandfather was a seaman, the other a Uitenhage postman; one grandmother was German and the other a descendant of slaves. His father was probably born on St Helena; while Brutus was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia but grew up in Port Elizabeth where he converted from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism. Living in Dowerville, his early schooling was erratic but compensated by voracious reading. At Paterson High School he had a good academic record and exposure to the left-wing politics of the Trotskyite-influenced Teachers League of South Africa. By 1944 he was a student at Fort Hare, a place of racial mixing but conservative administration.   

Brutus gave up teaching to become a social worker but later returned to Paterson to teach English, at which he excelled while conscientising his pupils politically. He also became involved in school sport administration, acutely aware of its developmental and political importance. From the mid-1950s onwards he was central to every initiative in anti-apartheid sport that culminated in SANROC and the campaign to exclude South Africa from the Olympic movement.  

He was also a significant activist in the struggle against Group Areas removals at South End in Port Elizabeth: Brutus was representative of many teachers involved in anti-apartheid activity. In the early 1960s he was a member of the convention movement, which established him firmly on the radar of the police security branch. On 21 October 1961 he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act from all non-work meetings. The police regarded him a dangerous agitator and he lost his job, ushering in a period of insecurity for him and his family. At this point he returned to poetry which he regarded as a medium of defiance. He managed to evade a total prohibition on publication under the Sabotage Act by using pseudonyms. During 1963 his restrictions were tightened, but Brutus continued his involvement with SANROC clandestinely.

When he left the country via Swaziland to represent SANROC he was arrested by the PIDE, the Mozambican security police, and handed over to their South African colleagues. Famously, he was shot outside the Anglo American headquarters in Johannesburg while trying to escape. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison which he served at Leeukop and on Robben Island. Brutus was a committed Christian using non-violent means to advance the cause of sport for all South Africans. Yet in prison he was subjected to a special level of humiliation by sadists who drove him near to psychological meltdown from which he saved himself through religion and poetry. The Robben Island warders emerge as evil and vicious and fellow prisoners such as Eddie Daniels reckoned that Brutus was exposed to arbitrary, seemingly limitless and near lethal abuse for his stand on sport. The anti-apartheid sports movement knew exactly where to hurt white South Africa; but this came at a price. On the Island warders used criminal prisoners to persecute the political.

Perhaps the main achievement of this book is to show that Brutus was a man of pragmatism, and of ideas and issues that advanced a cause, not ideology; a person who moved in a number of circles without compromising his individuality. The struggle against apartheid did not leave much room for such people. These qualities are highlighted by his poetry in which the political was ever-present without descending to propaganda and sacrificing artistic integrity. Brutus was able to link poetry with the reality of lived experience, but keep his political role separate. Above all, he refused to be typecast; a South African on white terms.

This account of the early life of Brutus is a reminder of an age of unreason and sheer criminality that characterised apartheid, for which many whites voted at election after election. He was released from the Island in July 1965 under a punitive banning order that made his home a self-policed prison and supporting his large family virtually impossible. As a person arbitrarily deemed a communist, he had to break his restrictions to attend mass; an emblem of the insanity of apartheid. In mid-1966 Brutus accepted the opportunity of an exit visa and political exile. At this point the South African government was happy to see the permanent departure of some of its critics. In the long-term this was to prove most unwise.