Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)
Shining a light on poet Dennis Brutus
FORTUNATELY for the rest of us South Africans, the apartheid police state often shot itself in the foot.
On the one hand, after a horrifying exposé of jail conditions in Drum magazine at the end of the 1950s, it passed a total censorship statute on anything that went on inside prisons. On the other hand, it incarcerated three of South Africa’s best poets – Dennis Brutus on Robben Island, Breyten Breytenbach and Jeremy Cronin in Pretoria Central – convicted for anti-apartheid activities. Surprise: after their eventual release, all the jails’ brutality and cruelties came out in graphic print for the world to read. Tyrone August’s welcome, and overdue, biography –
Dennis Brutus, The South African Years
– is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation at UWC. This book gives us readers the most thorough biography to date on Brutus, though there is nothing about where and how his seven children completed school and made their lives.
The book focuses on how Brutus’s poems were influenced by the poets he read at school and university. Hopefully it will aid his poems becoming more prominent in anthologies of South African poems and in school books.
Brutus is one of the most underrated poets of South Africa. Among this reviewer’s treasured books are two collections, inscribed and autographed in his incredibly neat calligraphy. All told, Brutus published 12 collections, starting in 1963 with Sirens, Knuckles, Boots and culminating in 2005 with
Leafdrift. In addition, Worcester State University (US) brought out a selected poetry collection in 2004 to honour his 80th birthday. That none of his collections were published in South Africa testifies to apartheid police state censorship: leftists passed from hand to hand copies of his poems. This samizdat circulated in handwritten, typewritten, and later photocopied sheets of paper.
Brutus was born in 1924 in Zimbabwe; his parents returned to South Africa two years later. He started teaching in 1950 and married in the same year. The government banned him from teaching in 1961 because of his anti-apartheid activities, depriving him of earning a living. Brutus fled to eSwatini (Swaziland), then a British colony, in 1963. The colonial authorities refused to grant him a residence permit. He crossed the border to Mozambique. The PIDE secret police in Portuguese colonial Mozambique handed him over to the South African police’s Special Branch that targeted activists. He was shot trying to escape, and sentenced to 18 months on Robben Island. Repeated beatings, and harrowing assaults, culminated in months of solitary confinement, causing hallucinations and nervous breakdown.
He left South Africa on a no-return exit permit in 1966 after his release.