Monday, December 28, 2009

Dennis Brutus 1924-2009

By Biko Agozino

When I first met Dennis Brutus on the campus of the University of Calabar in the 1980s during the African Literature Conference Series that Earnest Emenyonu organized, he looked so tall and so larger than life that when I met him again in Pittsburg in 2002, I could not believe that it was the same person. We shared an Azania Heritage Foundation platform discussing reparations for slavery and for apartheid crimes. He briefed us on the litigation against companies that benefited from apartheid gold and I expressed the view that litigation might benefit lawyers who corner 40% of the payout more than the litigants and recommended that pressure for legislation, negotiation and arbitration might produce more substantial 'reparative justice' in the long run for the victimized.

Later, Dennis agreed to grant me a videotaped interview in his office at the University of Pittsburgh during which he taught me a few lessons. I had read the dolphin poem in the Stubborn Hope collection during high school and believed that the reference to a father was metaphorical, not knowing that it was a poem to his own children about freedom in the open seas with all the risks being preferable to the security of the swimming pool from the point of view of the dolphin; his children had asked him for a dolphin poem, he explained. But when I interviewed him in Pittsburgh,
feeling like one of the children for whom he wrote it, he did not pretend, just an honest reality check.

I interviewed him about his anti-apartheid activities and he explained something that had been bothering me for a long time, given my own name: why did Steve Biko not join the ANC? The explanation of Brutus was that the ANC would not admit white people and colored people back then, Brutus himself had to join the colored people's congress, for instance, and progressive whites had no choice but to join the CP. Biko was of the view that anyone who was for the struggle should be allowed full membership. This explanation reminded me of that scene from Cry Freedom where Denzel Washington as Biko responded to those who queried what a white man, Donald Woods, was doing in the Township and Biko asked them to witness the education of a white liberal, an education that probably helped to save the life of Woods when the regime went after him. It took a long time before the ANC came round to the correct position of Biko in terms of inclusiveness but it may have been a sign of the times with apartheid decreeing separateness in organizations. I checked this fact on the ANC website after several senior scholars expressed surprise at the information. Brutus was right because the official history of ANC states that membership of the party was thrown open to 'non-Africans', meaning non-Blacks, only after the 1969 Consultative Conference in Morogoro, Tanzania, as a measure to consolidate the mulit-racial ideals of the party as expressed in the Freedom Charter declaration of 1959.

Brutus will never die! I told him as much at the end of my interview with him. What was he still doing in Pittsburgh when he could be exercising greater moral and intellectual leadership in South Africa? He expressed concern about the violence in the country but I reassured him that no one would dare touch him if they knew what he represented. He must have been planning the relocation and surely enough, he achieved a lot more in those final years than he could have achieved in exile, at least judging by all those honourary doctorates that our Baba Dolphin gathered in the wild compared to the sterile chlorinated pool that he resisted being deported from when the wild sea was still ruled by apartheid sharks!

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