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Hope's Poet: Interview with Dennis Brutus

The late Dennis Brutus, an elder in South Africa's long struggle against apartheid, shares his story, his poetry, and why he's optimistic about the global justice movement's future.
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I spoke with Dennis Brutus about his experiences as a poet and lifelong activist six months before his death in December 2009.

Dennis Brutus

Dennis Brutus was a South African poet, educator, and activist. He passed away in December, 2009.

A graduate from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, Brutus taught in nonwhite schools, joined the underground campaign against apartheid, and led social movements against segregation, climate change, and corporate capitalism. His poetry about his experiences in Robben Island, his exile, and service for the causes of justice, peace and freedom is still taught across the world.

Shirin Shirin: Perhaps you could start by telling us about your experiences growing up and becoming an activist in apartheid South Africa?

Dennis Brutus: I grew up in a segregated ghetto in Port Elizabeth on the east coast near Cape Town and went to a segregated school, of course. I ended up at Fort Hare, a college where many black students went. In 1948, I started teaching at Fort Hare and also started working in the community. The apartheid government came to power just as I started teaching. What was called segregation was now being replaced by a much more vicious system. The big difference was that it was enforced very strictly by law. Before that, in the old days, it was rather like the American South, I think. It was racism and segregation by convention and by general acceptance. It wasn't legal. But when segregation becomes legal, you have a much more severe system to combat.

As a teacher, I was doubly influenced, for it meant separate education for blacks and whites and browns. Housing was segregated and shops were segregated. I found myself in conflict with the system. I ended up being served with an order making it a crime for me to teach. I was banned from teaching. But, there are always different ways to challenge injustice. I began challenging the apartheid through sports. At the time, all the teams were exclusively white, although they were supposed to represent South Africa. When I challenged that, I got into real trouble, which led to my arrest. I tried to escape and was shot in the back at point-blank range. Before I could recover fully, I was sent to Robben Island. There I spent time in the section with [Nelson] Mandela. My time on Robben Island was quite short. It was part of a 16-month sentence out of which five months were in solitary confinement. When I came out of prison in 1965, I was put under house arrest for five years, but after one year I was allowed to leave the country on the condition that I never return.

I based myself in London in St. Paul's Cathedral and started working for political prisoners. I made presentations on behalf of political prisoners. I exposed, for instance, the conditions of Robben Island by appearing before the United Nations. I also exposed the U.S. corporate support for the apartheid regime, testifying before the U.S. Congress and other bodies.

Shirin: Skipping ahead a few years, what appealed to you about the movement for global economic justice, coming from the long campaign against apartheid?

What had been happening in South Africa—where you had a kind of privileged elite while the masses were oppressed— was really happening on a global scale.

Brutus: One of the things that struck me profoundly was that as we emerged from the terrible oppression of the apartheid, we were suddenly confronted with a new oppression on a global scale. The apartheid was essentially racial, but it also had an economic component to it in the form of labor exploitation. The global oppression came from organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, the Bretton-Woods organizations, and of course, subsequently, the WTO.

What had been happening in South Africa—where you had a kind of privileged elite while the masses were oppressed—was really happening on a global scale, specifically through mechanisms like the repayment of debt. The poor countries were being bled dry. The little wealth they had was being transferred to the wealthy countries by various mechanisms—like aid, where you could put a billion dollars into Africa and take out several billion. In other words, these so-called "developmental projects" that were supposed to help the poor countries were only making sure that the investors were making huge profits. They were taking out far more than they were putting in. When I understood that this was in fact what was happening in South Africa, and also globally, it was very easy for me to make the transition. It was really a replication of the problems I had seen before, but now I was seeing them on a much bigger scale.

Shirin: And how do the social forums fit into this movement for global justice?

Brutus: They are at the heart of it, both in the case of Africa and in the United States. And of course a lot of the energy came out of Brazil. I think we must give them credit for that, especially to people like Chico Whitaker, one of the principle thinkers who helped set up the World Social Forum.
But beyond that, there are two other elements that I see as very important. One was November 1999, in Seattle, when for the first time people took the streets, and confronted corporate and political power. With Bill Gates there and Microsoft, George Soros, Bill Clinton, Jaques Chirac, and the other heads of state that were all there, the WTO was set to meet, and talk of writing a trade agenda for the whole world. It was billed as a new round based on the decisions they had taken in Uruguay. We were out in the streets with the 50 Years is Enough network, and other groups marching to our chant: "No New Round, Turn-A-Round." We rejected the notion of the corporate powers writing the agenda for the whole world. We took them on. We paralyzed them. There was no meeting of the WTO; there was no new round. I think a lot of the energy that we saw in the World Social Forums, whether it was in Porto Alegre or in Mumbai, came from Seattle.

It seems to me that at the heart of the present system of exploitation and oppression are the concepts of private property and profit.

I should add one other credit. I think that the action of the Zapatistas in Mexico, when they announced their opposition to the attempt to create the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) was important as well. This was the meeting with George W. Bush, Vincente Fox, and others in Quebec City where many of us were tear-gassed in a protest. So energy for these movements comes out of Brazil, but it also comes out of Seattle, Mexico, and, in fact, it comes out of grassroots people everywhere. Whether they're fighting for jobs or housing or water or electricity, or better roads or better schools, there is a global movement with many components. The difficulty is pulling all those energies together and mobilizing them to demand change, and then defining clearly what changes we want.

Let me just add one footnote on that issue. It seems to me that at the heart of the present system of exploitation and oppression are the concepts of private property and profit. Sooner or later we're going to have to grapple with that issue. If we don't, I think that we cannot say that we are serious about changing the world.

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