Professor Dennis Brutus is a beloved figure among South African grassroots activists and an imposing force against racist government actions around the world. Having lived much of his life in prison or exile for political activism against apartheid, his perspective now captivates audiences. Brutus visited USM last week to recite his poetry and talk about the current situation in South Africa in a lecture titled “Literature and Politics in the New South Africa.”
Currently a professor emeritus of Africans Studies at the University of Pittsburg, Brutus came to USM to lecture and to act as a consultant for a workshop discussion on a new Honors Program course that will study African Diaspora and human rights. During his lecture, he focused on a few major aspects of the changing South African government and the world powers that still pressure that country’s peoples.
Explaining the post-Cold War change from a “bipolar global power arrangement” with two dominating countries to a unipolar situation, “we go from apartheid to global apartheid,” Brutus said.
“When you know why South Africa is doing so badly,” he said, “you have to understand that there was no room to make a major transition from an undemocratic society to a new broadly democratic society in which all the resources will be shared and political power will be shared.”
His poetry ranged from poignant and triumphant to bleakly despairing, mostly focusing on his imprisonment, his exile, and his passion for South Africa and its struggles against racism.
“A simple lust is all my woe,” Brutus lamented in a short lyric he read that night.
Mourning the violence he witnessed during chaotic times in South Africa, a poem from his collection Sirens Knuckles Boots is sensuous in its dark imagery:
Importunate as rain
the wraiths exhale their woe
over the sirens, knuckles, boots;
my sounds begin again.
Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Stephen Spender, and W.H. Auden are just a few of the prominent contemporary poets that Brutus has read with in the past.
The lecture, sponsored by the University Honors Program and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, brought to campus a very important figure in the worlds of politics and poetry. Although Professor Brutus spoke for only an hour, his involvement with the new Honors Program and succinct lecture could leave a lasting impression on the University.
Thinking of South Africa, we should hope his words resonate strongly for a long time.