ALL HIS LIFE, DENNIS BRUTUS, who died on 26 December 2009 at the age of 85, was considered a "traitor"–in the manner of Shakespeare's character of the same name, by South Africa's apartheid authorities. But he was proud to earn their hatred, and wore it like a badge.

Ironically, in one respect, he was indeed like the Roman member of nobility whose name he bore. You only had to meet Dennis Brutus and take in that sculptured head of his, his broad face and the well-shaped beard beneath it–to realise that he carried something like noble Roman blood in him.

Actually, it was French blood that was acknowledged in his family. But as a "coloured" or mixed-race person in the South Africa of his childhood, all sorts of possibilities existed in his genes: the magnificent Dutch painters, for instance (his middle name was Vincent, which could remotely be linked to Vincent Van Gogh, though Brutus would probably be revolted by the thought, given the role the Dutch had played in the history of South Africa).

But whatever the cosmopolitan nature of his genes, in his soul, he was jet-black. Although the South African racists treated the "coloureds" marginally better than the blacks, Dennis was not interested in accepting a position that put him above the majority of his countrymen. At Fort Hare University–the highest educational institution for non-whites–he saw with his own eyes that given the opportunity, every human being could excel in acquiring the education and skills of modern life. So he fought, all the 85 years of his life, to level the playing field for all his countrymen.

Brutus was born in Harare, Zimbabwe (then Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia) in 1924 "where his South African parents were teaching". He was educated in Port Elizabeth; among his schools were Paterson High School and Schauderville High School. He went to Fort Hare University on a full scholarship in 1940, and graduated with a distinction in English. He then began teaching at his alma mater, Paterson High School, before enrolling in the most prestigious South African University, the University of the Witwatersrand, to study law.

It was while he was teaching that Brutus fully realised what a wasteful system apartheid–or racial separation–really was. His exposure to young talent, through inter-school competitions, enabled him to realise that the players lionised throughout the country, were not actually the best available. They only appeared to be so good because they never competed against blacks and coloured players. No matter how good these were, they were not allowed into the best and richest schools, colleges and clubs, where players were given facilities and the best coaching.

But despite this disadvantage, many black and coloured sportsmen shone in their chosen fields, and Brutus realised that when compared to their white compatriots, many ought to be at the top of their sports, and ultimately, could be selected for the South African national teams.

Sporting heroes

Now, white South Africans take their sports very seriously indeed. Their rugby and cricket teams of the time were in regular contention for the top honours against teams from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. International matches with these countries were something of a sporting festival each season. This "deification" of sports was accorded not only to rugby and cricket but also to athletics. But rugby ruled supreme. Football, on the other hand, was largely reserved for the "townships", where the blacks and coloureds intensely competed for the top honours in it.

Anger boiled in Brutus when he saw promising black and coloured players ignored by their nation, while inferior white players were turned into wealthy national heroes, so lionised that it was as if the very ground on which they walked was worshipped. The cause celebre in this regard was the case of the coloured cricketer, Basil D'Oliveira. Here was a man who was not only one of the best cricketers in South Africa but denied the opportunity to play at the highest level, but he was also pursued by apartheid all the way to Britain. D'Oliveira, having moved to England, proved so good that the England selectors–who were wishy-washy about apartheid–had no choice but to include him in the English team that was going on tour in South Africa! So angry was the apartheid regime that it cancelled the tour altogether.

Makhaya Ntini

Another illustration of how apartheid killed talent is provided by the blossoming in cricket of the black fast bowler, Makhaya Ntini. When he was first selected to play for South Africa, the white racists sniggered–mocking him as a "token" to "multi-racial sport" who was only selected in order to show that the new South Africa could field mixed teams. Yet Ntini has so far gone on to play 100 test matches for South Africa, taking 390 Test wickets, in addition to 266 wickets in the one-day game.

Brutus decided to do something about the situation. He had read enough left-wing literature to understand that "organisation decides everything", and so in 1959, he and a few like-minded teachers in the Teachers' League formed the "South African Sports Association" (SAPA). Brutus became its founding secretary.

At first, SAPA thought that by lobbying the all-white sports clubs and organisations, they would change their practices voluntarily and accept SAPA for membership. But try as they would, the clubs would not budge. "It's against our country's laws," they told Brutus and his fellow sportsmen. "Then get the laws changed," Brutus and his colleagues retorted. But it was like hitting a brick wall. No-one was interested.

The activities of the SAPA were, of course, reported to the apartheid regime and in 1960–the year in which 69 Africans were shot dead in Sharpeville while fleeing from the police–a "banning order" was clamped on Brutus.

This meant he could not "assemble" with more than two other people at any one time, which meant that his organisational efforts were effectively crippled. But the fighter in Brutus made him determined to defeat the objectives of the ban, and he began to seek ingenious ways of defeating it. In 1962, he cleverly manoeuvred to escape the limitations imposed on him by the banning order and helped form a new group, the "South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee" (San-Roc), to challenge South Africa's official Olympic Committee.

Sam Ramsamy

His fellow leader of the organisation was Sam Ramsamy. Dennis became its president. Despite the danger of being arrested, they used San-Roc to mount an extremely effective campaign to persuade Olympic committees from other countries to vote to suspend South Africa.

They were successful and South Africa was suspended from the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. By 1970, San-Roc had gathered enough votes from national Olympic committees, particularly those in Africa and Asia, to expel South Africa from the Olympic movement. But Brutus did not see all this success first-hand. In the course of his campaign work, he met with foreign journalists from Switzerland in 1963. The group had been followed and Dennis was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison for breaking his banning order. He decided, however, that his work required that he should go outside the country, and he jumped bail and fled to Swaziland.

But he could not travel to the outside world from Swaziland without first landing at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. So he tried to make his way to Mozambique to board a plane to Europe. But the Portuguese secret police picked him up at the border. And they returned him to South Africa. As he was being taken to a cell in a Johannesburg police station, he tried to escape and was shot in the back by a white policeman, at point-blank range. "It was in broad daylight in the centre of Johannesburg," Brutus told me in an interview in London. "I suspect that the policeman deliberately tempted me to escape, by appearing to be negligent while guarding me, so that he would have an opportunity to shoot me. I fell for the trick. And he shot me."

Brutus continued: "I didn't realise at first that I had been shot. But soon I felt warm blood trickling down my leg and simultaneously, I began to feel weak. Next, I couldn't run any longer and fell down. I lay on the kerb, just outside the Anglo-American headquarters building in central Johannesburg.

"As my life ebbed away, I reflected on the irony of seeing that building as perhaps the very last object I would ever see before I died. My bitterness increased when I realised that although the people up there amassing wealth by taking gold out of the bowels of my country's soil, could see me, no-one was going to lift a finger to help me. It was business as usual for them. Another 'Kaffir' lay outside, dying. So what?"

Brutus was left lying on the ground, as he bled–unattended–for about an hour, as the police waited for an ambulance that carried black people, to come and take him to hospital. They laconically informed him, as he lay, that the only ambulances available were for "whites only".

After only partly recovering from the wound, Brutus was sent to Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 16 months, five in solitary confinement. His cell there was next to Nelson Mandela's. He and Mandela broke rocks together–the main punishment on Robben Island.

On his release, Brutus was ordered not to leave his home for five years. But after a year, he was offered a deal to emigrate to Britain, on the condition that he would never return to South Africa.

The unmentioned part of the deal was that if he did not take the opportunity offered, he would be harried and probably sent back to prison. That was how the apartheid machine got rid of its enemies: the cruel cleverness of the monsters does not bear thinking about.

Brutus left for Britain in 1966. In London, he worked for the Defence and Aid Fund. He also linked up with African sports authorities, including Abraham Ordia of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa, and campaigned with them until South Africa was kicked out of the Olympic Games and subsequently, the Olympic movement.

US deportation

In 1971, Brutus moved to the United States, where he taught at the University of Denver, Northwestern University and finally, the University of Pittsburgh. He became chair of the Africana Department at the University of Pittsburgh. While engaged in academic work, Brutus continued to campaign to exclude South Africa from all other sports.

In March 1977, he wrote, as president of the San-Roc, to the American president, Jimmy Carter, regarding an impending Davis Cup tennis match between the US and South Africa. The letter called for the cancellation of the event and "of all sporting exchanges with South Africa until the sports bodies there [are] open to all South Africans, and all representative teams [are] selected on merit, regardless of race. The letter further urged President Carter "to express his opposition to the event and to call on the United States Tennis Association to heed the resolutions of the United Nations, and cease supporting the racist body in South Africa."

Such activities were, of course, noted by the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS), and as soon as a new government came into power in America under President Ronald Reagan, which was sympathetic to the apartheid regime, South Africa lobbied it to deport Brutus. And in a highly publicised case, US immigration authorities duly served Brutus with deportation papers in the early 1980s.

Says Susan Gzesh, the lawyer from Chicago who represented Brutus: "The Reagan administration was, in fact, actively involved in politics behind the scenes, trying to get Brutus out of the US … Brutus won his case for asylum because the anti-apartheid movement was able to create a political climate in which it would have been impossible for the US government to deny that Brutus would have been persecuted had he been returned to South Africa."

Indeed, the case against Brutus was being heard when news reached the US of the assassination of Ruth First, an intellectual and member of the ANC. She was killed by a parcel bomb in Mozambique, where she was living in exile.

A "Dennis Brutus Defence Committee" was formed, headed by the writer and academic Jan Carew. It issued a press release pointing out that Ruth First's murder highlighted the fact that "Brutus also [would] be vulnerable to murder by the South African government if he [was] deported from the United States".

The Authors Guild of the United States–the national society of 6,000 professional authors–also wrote a letter to the New York Times in support of Brutus. "It is unthinkable," they said, "that our government, which justly condemns the silencing and deportation of educators and poets by Poland and other authoritarian regimes, would expel this distinguished scholar and literary artist."

On 7 September 1983, a judge, Mr Schwartz, sitting in an Immigration Court, granted Brutus political asylum. A celebration event was held in Chicago in honour of Brutus. After the political transition in South Africa, Brutus returned home and resumed his activities with grassroots social movements. In the late 1990s, he became a pivotal figure in the global justice movement and a featured speaker each year at the World Social Forum, as well as at protests against the World Trade Organisation, G8, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad).

Other pursuits

Brutus continued to serve in the anti-racism, reparations and economic justice movements as a leading strategist. Two months before his death, he urged activists to give the "Seattle treatment" to the then upcoming UN environmental summit held in Copenhagen in December 2009. He predicted that sufficient cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and North-South "climate debt" payments would not be on the agenda. And as everyone knows, Copenhagen failed miserably.

The final academic appointment enjoyed by Brutus was as honorary professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, working at the Centre for Civil Society. Amongst numerous other accolades that he received were the US War Resisters League peace award in September 2009, two Doctor of Literature degrees conferred at Rhodes and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Universities in April 2009 (following his six other honorary doctorates) and a Lifetime Achievement Award given by South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture in 2008.

In 2007, one of the funniest things–typical though, of Brutus with his wicked sense of humour–happened when he was invited to be inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. This is a body that honours achievement in South African sports. Brutus attended the ceremony, but to the surprise of his hosts, refused to accept the honour. His reason was that the Hall was full of "heroes" who had achieved sporting fame only because blacks were not allowed to compete against them.

"To be inducted to a sports hall of fame is an honour under most circumstances … [But] I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honoured … It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims," Brutus told the sporting authorities to their faces.

Brutus authored many books, and is survived by his wife, the former May Jaggers; eight children; nine grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and two sisters. He was mourned by all who value inter-racial sport in the world, as well as good poetry.

Tags: