Remembering Dennis Brutus, Passionate Activist

The 50 Years Is Enough Campaign (later Network) was founded in advance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank’s fiftieth anniversary in 1994. Both of us became involved with the cam- paign in its early days, before we met at one of its steering group meetings in early 1996. We stayed involved until 2005, when we relocated to Kenya (Njoki’s home).

The membership roster of the campaign, basically a list of endorsers, had a number of intriguing groups, but none more so than Africa Network in Evanston, IL, just outside Chicago. The contact person was Dennis Brutus.

Dennis Brutus! Njoki had met him once at a conference of the African Literature Association and, like her, Soren knew well his reputation as a poet and the anti-apartheid campaigner who had succeeded in getting South Africa ejected from the Olympics. Now there seemed to be the possibility of working directly with him.

In 1997 or so, we traveled from Washington, D.C. for a conference at the University of Chicago, where Njoki was presenting (and Soren was an alumnus). We learned that Dennis was on another panel and arranged to meet him. We had dinner at the Medici and talked for hours. Dennis, by that time at the University of Pittsburgh, made clear that he was available for speaking roles, lobbying, and whatever else we might need him for.

Soon Dennis was making regular trips to Washington for meetings with the IMF and World Bank and with members of Congress. He routinely stayed in our apartment, sleeping on a foldout sofa. One time he neglected to tell us he was coming; we found him huddled, asleep, on the floor outside our apartment door when we got home close to midnight. He had no complaints, but Sam, the overnight front desk security guard from Sierra Leone, was furious that the “old Professor” was locked out.

We soon discovered that Dennis relished speaking his mind, not with- out a twinkle of mischief, when engaging those with power. Once in an elevator at the World Bank, he turned to World Bank employees, who were obviously from the Global South, and asked, “How can you look at yourselves in the mirror every day knowing you are selling out your own countries and people?” At an event at MIT, he refused to speak at the podium after a World Bank official spoke, announcing that he wanted to distance himself from both the person and from neoliberalism. At the IMF/WB 2000 annual meetings in Prague, he confronted an old ally, Mamphele Ramphele, erstwhile partner of Steve Biko but by then a man- aging director at the World Bank. “Steve Biko is turning in his grave,” he shouted; “Let the man rest,” she shot back.

Dennis was an activist, mentor, teacher, and poet. When he stayed with us we would find fragments of draft poems in various places. He always carried an old-fashioned fountain pen with him; he only wrote poetry with that. After he came to Nairobi in 2007 for the World Social Forum (WSF), he left us a Kenya travel book with a draft poem scribbled in the margins.

He was also a genuine absent-minded professor, but one with a lot of luck. On one trip to Washington we had managed to get a meeting with David Bonior, then the Minority (Democratic) leader in the House of Representatives, on the strength of his promised presence. A few hours beforehand he went on a bookstore expedition, and he was late getting back to our office. While Njoki waited at Bonior’s office, Soren rushed him down to the Capitol. He made it in time; the Congressman really wanted to meet the anti-apartheid hero.

But it turned out he had left his jacket, with some papers in it, in the taxi he took to the office. There were dozens of taxi companies, so it was impossible to figure out who to call and Dennis didn’t even remember the color of the vehicle. The next day, Dennis hailed a cab and it turned out to be the same one, still carrying his jacket.

In Kenya at the time of the WSF, he lost his wallet and passport, per- haps to a pickpocket. They were turned in to the South African embassy. Something similar happened to Dennis in Porto Alegre, Brazil at one of the early World Social Forum meetings.

Too many times to count, Dennis offered to take us out for dinner when he stayed with us. Virtually every time he would find in the end that he had left his wallet at our apartment. Could we pay, and he would reimburse? He always did. And he saved us in Addis Ababa when we fool- ishly assumed we’d be able to use ATMs and the internet, back at the time of the African Social Forum there in 2003. He was able to cash a check at the state bank and give us the cash we needed to cover accommodations for those we had brought to the event. We paid him back too.

Dennis was the highlight of every rally we held, not because of his reputation, but because of the fire and energy this visibly old man brought to everything he did and said. He was an inspiration and an activist father- figure for many of us.

He was not sentimental. He could tell stories of hiding Nelson Mandela, or breaking rocks with him on Robben Island, but he had no illusions about the ANC or Mandela’s presidency. He saw him, along with other top ANC officials, selling out the Freedom Charter for the false promises of neoliberal economics peddled by the World Bank.

Neither of us had been to South Africa when we first worked with Dennis. We finally went in late 1999 for the founding conference of Jubilee South, the Global South/borrowing countries’ own debt cam- paign. Soon after we got back, we flew to Seattle for the demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meeting there. We spent an evening with Dennis at a restaurant celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday and our third wedding anniversary. We shared our impressions of South Africa and got his insights.

By that time, Dennis was starting to spend more time in South Africa. On occasion he would fly there for a single event and be back in the U.S. two days later. As his health declined in 2008, he moved there to live with his son, with whom he had a continuing debate about the younger Brutus’s work in the ANC government. We last spoke with him on the phone in 2009, when he complained that the doctors were telling him he had gout—“a rich man’s disease!” Just a few weeks later, he was gone.

We miss Dennis every day. The struggles we’re involved with now—on inequality, tax justice, and the same old IMF/World Bank conditions— would benefit greatly from his perspective and his energy. But his sly grin, his Afrikaans-inflected accent, his cackle when he told people his “underground name” in South Africa—Daffodil—still seem entirely pres- ent to us. Dennis Brutus, ¡Presente!