Chapter 1: Professor Brutus 1. PROFESSOR BRUTUS
It was a warm, sunny day on the campus at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Professor Dennis Brutus was walking to his afternoon African Literature class in University Hall, on the south side of campus. The significance of the nice weather was not lost on Professor Brutus. He knew that the lecture he had prepared for his students was not going to be given—at least not this day.
Brutus wanted to talk to his students about award-winning South African author Nadine Gordimer, but his students had other plans. It wasn’t that they weren’t interested in Gordimer or what Professor Brutus had to say about her work. They had other things on their minds. Five minutes from University Hall, in the area where Northwestern’s administrative buildings were located, the school’s Anti-Apartheid Alliance had been conducting a sit-in for several days.
The year was 1985, and school protests
like these were commonplace around the United States. College students in the United States of America were vocal in their objection to apartheid
—the system of segregation
that oppressed the black population in the country of South Africa. Even though the majority of the population of South Africa was made up of blacks and people of mixed race, it was the white minority that controlled the government. Apartheid had been put in place so that things would remain that way.
Racial segregation had been taking place in South Africa for decades, but it became worse in 1948. That was when the National Party came into power. They made racial segregation an official government policy. And they gave it an official name: apartheid. Over the years, different groups had tried to put pressure on the white leaders in South Africa to end apartheid, but up until 1985, nothing had changed the policy.
The anti-apartheid movement on college campuses in the United States in the late eighties grew fast and gained much attention. Young people in the United States came to learn about the symbol of the movement, Nelson Mandela, a black man who had been imprisoned in South Africa since 1963.
Professor Brutus knew all about Mandela. For a year and a half, Dennis Brutus had occupied the jail cell next to Mandela.
Professor Brutus entered his classroom, and the requests were immediate:
“Professor Brutus, it’s such a nice day. Can we have class outside?”
They all knew what that meant. “Outside” meant walking over to the area where the Anti-Apartheid Alliance was holding its sit-in. And as soon as they got there, the Alliance would ask Professor Brutus to speak. But they didn’t want him to speak about African Literature.
The professor suggested maybe they should just have the class in the classroom, but he knew his students were determined to go outside and take part in what the Anti-Apartheid Alliance was doing. Professor Brutus knew his lecture would be out the window. But that was okay.
Literature was important to Brutus, who had written several books of poetry that were considered to be very good. But he also appreciated that his young students recognized the importance of protest. Protest, after all, was what had gotten Brutus thrown into jail in the first place.
Protest was what had gotten him tortured and shot.
Protest was why he’d been forced to leave the country he’d grown up in, and had not been allowed to return for many years.
I know all about this scene because I was there. It was my junior year at Northwestern, and I was a student in Professor Brutus’s African Literature class. I had also been involved with the Anti-Apartheid Alliance, so when Brutus did agree to move our class outside and speak to the gathered students, it was very special.
It was also awe-inspiring. Dennis Brutus was more than just one of the most acclaimed poets in the history of South Africa. Here, in front of us, was a man who had taken a stand against what he knew was wrong. He had known that he was risking his life in the process, but he never backed away from the cause. And his actions made a difference.
After that spring semester, I went back home to New York. An aspiring journalist, I had a summer job with a popular sports magazine. I also kept in touch with Professor Brutus and spoke with him that summer. The professor took a surprising interest in my job.
At first it seemed odd that a poet and teacher from South Africa would take an interest in an American sports magazine. When you dig into Brutus’s past, however, it makes sense.
Sports, after all, was the vehicle for Dennis Brutus’s protest of apartheid in the 1960s. Brutus had helped lead a group that had pressured the International Olympic Committee to ban
South Africa from participating in the Olympics until the country abolished apartheid. South Africa was
eventually banned from the Olympics. What Brutus did in the 1960s might be one of the earliest examples of how sports can have an important influence on human culture. The Olympics ban didn’t end apartheid, but it raised awareness around the world.
Through the years there have been many occasions when sporting events have provided an opportunity for protesting social or political issues of the day. Ironically, Brutus had originally intended his protest to be just about sports, specifically the apartheid policies that were unfair to South African athletes. But the more involved he got—and the more he was viewed as a thorn in the side of South Africa’s apartheid government—the more Brutus became a symbol of the overall movement to abolish apartheid.
“Mr. Brutus has a distinction that makes him a hated symbol to the white rulers of South Africa, and a heroic one to the critics of their regime,” Anthony Lewis wrote in the New York Times
in 1983. “He has actually succeeded in bringing about some change in one aspect of apartheid.”1
The anti-apartheid protests that were taking place at Northwestern and other college campuses across the United States did more than just build awareness of the problem. The protests were designed to convince colleges and universities to divest
from South Africa. Students wanted their schools to stop investing money in companies that operated in South Africa. In other words, students wanted to fight apartheid financially. If South African businesses started losing money because of apartheid, that would be another way the government would feel pressure to change its policies. Slowly but surely, the government did change.
By the 1990s, South Africa finally abandoned its apartheid policies. The country changed dramatically.
Dennis Brutus—poet, teacher, activist, and one of the key voices that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
This is his story.