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I Am A Rebel

Dennis Brutus

On 26th December 2009 the global anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist movement lost a powerful and respected African voice in poet and activist Dennis Brutus. Last week we heard of the death of American historian and friend to Brutus, Howard Zinn, and with this came tributes from academics and freedom fighters everywhere, including the likes of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. Likewise, the death of Brutus received tributes from many of those who knew him, as well as those who were simply inspired by his determination and dedication to causes that he had spent his entire life pursuing. Among those paying tribute were Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!), Sokari Ekine (fellow New Internationalist main siteger and voice behind the Black Looks blog) and the late Howard Zinn. After overcoming the sadness of his death, people worldwide dedicated the month of January to celebrating the life of Dennis Brutus.

Brutus’ activist path began under the rule of apartheid government in South Africa. One of his first endeavours was ensuring that a segregated South Africa did not take part in the Olympics, as they operated a ‘Whites only’ policy in international sports. Dennis campaigned against this in the early 1960s and saw its success when South Africa was eventually expelled from the Olympic movement in 1970. During this decade Dennis was ‘banned’ under the Suppression of Communism Act, fled over the border, was arrested, shot in the back whilst escaping police custody and eventually shipped to Robben Island where he carried out his sentence in the prison cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. Whilst imprisoned. Brutus spent time writing poetry and after his death left the world with 13 collections of his work. Towards the end of the 1960s Brutus was based in England, where he continued his campaign against the segregationist regime in his homeland. He then spent a large part of his life in the United States, never letting up on his dedication to activism and poetry. When Brutus returned to South Africa to witness the end of apartheid he was at a crossroads and could, like many who campaigned alongside him, have taken a seat in parliament and lived a rich life. Alternatively, he could have continued addressing the ills of the world and fighting relentlessly for a fairer society. As to be expected he chose the latter – campaigning against structural adjustment and the infamous culprits who force-feed it down the throats of developing countries, campaigning against the atrocities committed in Gaza, against racism, climate change, and all the while blessing us with his poetic accounts of our world. 

Throughout the month of January Patrick Bond, friend and director of South Africa’s Centre for Civil Society, wrote updates on tributes taking place worldwide celebrating Dennis’ life and work. From Philadelphia, Washington and New York to Benin, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the World Social Forum in Brazil. One of the final events to be held was here in Harare, the city of Dennis’ birth, where people recollected encounters, no matter how brief, with the man. The event was open to the public and had an atmosphere that encouraged people to step up and share their thoughts. He was touchingly likened by one Zimbabwean pro-democracy activist who had met him to Santa Claus, not merely because of his snowy beard but also because of the gifts he showered, and through his poetry will continue to shower, upon those who face similar battles with injustice. A film called I Am A Rebel, named after a poem of his, was shown and pieces were read from his collection of poetry to commemorate the life and beliefs of a true African rebel:

I am a rebel and freedom is my cause

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 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?

Their guilt

Is not so very different from ours:
— who has not joyed in the arbitrary exercise of
or grasped for himself what might have been
and who has not used superior force in the
moment when he could,
(and who of us has not been tempted to these
things?) —
so, in their guilt,
the bared ferocity of teeth,
chest-thumping challenge and defiance,
the deafening clamour of their prayers
to a deity made in the image of their prejudice
which drowns the voice of conscience,
is mirrored our predicament
but on a social, massive, organised scale
which magnifies enormously
as the private deshabille of love
becomes obscene in orgies.

© Dennis Brutus

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