Like you, BRUTUS
In his life Dennis Brutus was many things to many people, from a targeted enemy of an Apartheid regime, to being listed amongst the stalwarts of the South African struggle for political and social emancipation. I have no doubt that there are those who would call him a hero, and my limited memory of this man, garnered from a few rare occasions in his company, would have me believe that he would take the praise for what it was and continue his path of speaking truth to power while waging his steadfast war on social injustice and inequality. The one thing that links every individual impression of him that I have witnessed is the spirit that inspired the realization of a better world. He was a poet, from the written to the spoken word, with the gift of communication that translated selfless introspection into wisdom and knowledge for any and all who he was able to reach with his poetry and presence.
Professor Patrick Bond of the UKZN Centre for Civil Society loves to remind me of how Dennis was marching and protesting right up until the year of his passing in 2009. It strikes me that this man was aware of a purpose beyond himself that he lived to fulfill daily, and he always makes me think of how words mean little without accompanying action. His poetry spoke of a personal struggle from within and against a system of inequality where entrenched positions of political and capital power continued to dictate the daily existence of those who make up the machinery of this madness. His poetic voice was matched by his physical presence, whether behind a placard or a podium, and the memory of this man and his commitment to a better world for us all has driven the creation of the CCS Dennis Brutus Scholarship, of which I am currently a 6 month beneficiary.
I plan to use my time under the guidance of Professor Bond and the senior DB scholars to consolidate my own civil society involvement through a series of blog posts that detail the work of current active Durban social movements, both from an artistic perspective and from the perspective of my limited academic abilities as a somewhat reactionary writer. Simply, I am inspired by the work of so many community activists that I have come into contact with and the DB Scholarship program is a unique opportunity for any artist who would connect with the realities of the society that sustains them. I want to put the right into righteous so that when I’m labeled as such I can flex a sturdy middle finger and keep on keeping on.
I think Dennis Brutus was an artist, whose chosen medium was social consciousness.
My lasting memory of him is this, one of the few personal encounters I had with the man:
In 2006 I was on tour with Poetry Africa. I found myself in Johannesburg, in Soweto at the sight of the home and workspace of Credo Mutwa, a controversial Zulu shamanistic character who operated from that space. This was part of the Poetry Africa experience where all participants from around the world, including a young crew of Swedish artists who I was rolling with, were given a taste of South African Apartheid history before heading down to Durban for the official festival. I was very caught up in my own importance at the time, having been selected to appear on this prestigious platform as a young Durban rapper, and I was conducting myself with all of the arrogance and swagger associated with such assumed importance. I was also acting as a kind of guide for my Swedish counterparts and was employing that age old tactic of if-you-don’t-know-ACT-like-you-know. I knew nothing about Credo Mutwa, and was really taken in by the mysticism and strangeness of his story, as well as being overawed to be in Soweto, scene of so much of the significant struggle moments that put South Africa on the map.
Being surrounded by foreigners while being guided through South Africa, as a young South African with some kind of claim to stake, also assisted in throwing some shine on that ego of mine. It was in this arena, while bearing my aura of importance in full glow, that an old man (who looked strikingly a lot like Karl Marx) who had been accompanying us on tour but who wasn’t known to me, stood up and interrupted the tour guide in mid story to point out that “It is important to note that the land on which Credo Mutwas legacy currently stands was granted to him by the sponsors of Apartheid, the Oppenheimer family…”. I was immediately irritated. I imagine that this guy was one of the South African contingent of poets who would be appearing at the festival and I wrote him off as just another old guy with a few bones to pick. I was incensed that someone would choose such a moment to be so annoyingly REAL. At the time, in the moment of trying to impress my companions with how cool South Africa was now that ‘we’ had “beaten the beast”, I was strongly of the opinion that we shouldn’t “dwell on the past at the expense of the present”.
It was one of the Swedish heads, a DJ from Gothenburg, who made me stop and consider this character. He had obviously made a serious impression on the young artist and I had to ask why. It was simply his presence, that couldn’t be ignored, and his purpose was to project that presence as precisely as possible at his chosen target, whether politically or poetically or inevitably both.
Thank you Dennis Brutus for putting me on the path out of ignorance towards awareness. Without the commitment and consistency to a continued cause of freedom for us all that this man embodied, I might have thought it enough to just let my words do my walking for me. 6 years later I find myself acting under the auspices of this mans legacy to try and play a part beyond my parts, as a Dennis Brutus Scholar at the Centre for Civil Society, UKZN.