Dennis Brutus was a South African poet, organizer and activist perhaps
most notable for his use of sports as a weapon against apartheid. Dennis
Vincent Brutus was born to South African parents of French, Italian and
African descent in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1924.
When he was four, his family returned to Port Elizabeth, South Africa
where, under the country’s racial code, Brutus was classified as
“colored.” After graduating from the University of Fort Hare, Brutus
became a teacher of English and Afrikaans in nonwhite schools.
While teaching, Brutus grew increasingly involved in the underground
anti-apartheid movement. He was particularly drawn to the politics of
sports due to the South African government’s practice of passing over
talented black athletes in favor of less skilled white ones for
internationally competing teams. To combat the practice, Brutus became
involved in the creation of the South African Sports Association (SASA)
in 1958. The goal of SASA was to encourage the integration of sporting
bodies. In 1962, Brutus became the president of the newly launched South
African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAONGA), intended to gain
recognition from the International Olympic Committee over the
discriminatory South African Olympic and National Games Association. The
South African government subsequently banned SAONGA, and in 1963 Brutus
was jailed for his involvement. However, while imprisoned on Robben
Island, Brutus received word that, due in large part to his efforts,
South Africa had been suspended from the 1964 Olympic Games, a ban which
would soon be extended to include almost all international sporting
events until 1991.
In 1966, Brutus left South Africa for the United Kingdom, where he
worked as a teacher and journalist, and then moved to the United States,
joining the faculty at the University of Denver. In 1971 Brutus became
professor of African Literature at Northwestern University in Illinois.
Twelve years later in 1983, Brutus found himself the subject of a highly
publicized deportation case due to his lack of proper immigration
paperwork. He was prominently supported in his fight to remain in the
United States by U.S. anti-apartheid activists who contended that Brutus
was being persecuted by the Reagan Administration for his race and
political leanings. Ultimately, Brutus was granted political asylum when
a judge ruled that his life would be endangered by a return to South
Dennis Brutus also wrote poetry that reflected the struggle against apartheid. His first collection, Sirens, Knuckles, and Boots
was published in 1963 while Brutus was imprisoned. Brutus's literature
was noted for its surprising restraint and the absence of anger and
frustration at the apartheid system.
Dennis Brutus eventually returned to South Africa and died in Cape Town on December 26, 2009.