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Biography of Denis Vincent BRUTUS

South Africa > Literature : Denis Vincent BRUTUS

Denis Vincent BRUTUS
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Born on 28/11/1924 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Dennis  Vincent Brutus (b. Nov 28,1924), is a South African poet and one of the leading opponent of apartheid.

Dennis Brutus, poet and anti-apartheid sports activist, has been a champion of human rights his entire life. His poetry is political, but ranges from the lyrical intensity of A Simple Lust and the narrative complexity of Letters to Martha to the, at times, slack, occasional and sloganeering. This degeneration has less to do with a loss of his poetic skills than with an increasingly political and impatient “literary” environment among the oppressed in South Africa.

Dennis Brutus was born on November 28th 1924, in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) to South African parents. Francis Henry Brutus and Margaret Winifred Bloemetjie were teachers, who moved to the coastal town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where Brutus grew up in the district of Dowerville with siblings Wilfred, Helena and Dolly. Brutus attended school irregularly; his childhood was one of comparative solitude, exacerbated by the break-up of his parents. While at high school, he began writing poetry and initiated and edited a student newspaper, The Patersonian Spectator. At age 15, Brutus attended school regularly and won a bursary to Fort Hare College, Cape. Brutus graduated with a BA (1947). In 1948 Brutus became a high school teacher of English and Afrikaans at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Port Elizabeth. Later, Brutus worked at his old school, Paterson High, as Senior English Master.

In 1950 Brutus married May Jaggers with whom he has eight children. From 1950 Brutus found himself confronting increasingly more horrific apartheid laws. His most significant early piece of writing is “Sports Test for South Africa” (1959), an opening salvo in his campaign to eject South Africa from international sporting competition. In 1955 Brutus helped establish the Co-ordinating Committee for International Relations in Sport to convince international sports bodies to associate only with interracial South African organizations. Brutus chose this indirect method of responding to and assaulting the system, and with Alan Paton as patron, Brutus, as secretary, founded, in October 1958, the South African Sports Association (SASA). The organization's goal was to advocate non-racial sports. SASA soon fell under the scrutiny of Special Branch: a consequence of Brutus' lead in SASA's first victory: persuading the West Indies cricket team to cancel a trip to South Africa in 1959.

The Sharpeville massacre (1960) and the ensuing state of emergency contributed to Brutus' active participation in the resistance. Brutus briefly worked with  Nelson Mandela on the National Convention, and then housed him at his Shell Street home in Port Elizabeth. Forbidden to teach, write and publish and fired from his teaching position in 1961, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. Brutus moved to Johannesburg to work as a secretary in a private school, Central High School, Johannesburg, for one year.

 He was arrested in 1963 and jailed for 18 months on Robben Island.

Brutus was forbidden to teach, write and publish in South Africa. Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, his first collection of poetry, was published in Nigeria while he was in prison. The book was awarded the Mbari Poetry Prize, awarded to a black poet of distinction, but Brutus turned it down on the grounds of its racial exclusivity.

After he was released, Brutus fled South Africa. In 1983, Brutus won the right to stay in the United States as a political refugee, after a protracted legal struggle. He was "unbanned" in 1990. He is the Professor Emeritus of University of Pittsburgh. He has now returned to South Africa and is based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where he often contributes to the annual Poetry Festival hosted by the University. He continues to support activism against neo-liberal policies in contemporary South Africa including struggles against the management of that University.

Last update : 07/02/2008

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