A Poet Against Apartheid

Dennis Brutus, Facing Deportation, Continues Activism

The prisoner is out breaking rocks with 1000 others in the brutal sun of South Africa's infamous Robben Island. If I wanted to. I could blow you away, says the guard. Why do you fight against apartheid? You will never win, he tells the man. What makes you so sure you'll never lose? shoots back the combative prisoner. America will never allow it, the guard gloats.

The exchange took place 15 years ago, but it still remains fresh in the mind of Dennis Brutus; he relates it to make a point to the small crowd gathered in the Science Center As a poet, teacher, and political activist. Brutus has stressed the same message ever since the Afrikaners took power in South Africa in 1948 and even more vigorously during his last 10 years in this country: America--through its business and government policies--is proving itself the best friend apartheid ever had.

Brutus may pay for his outspokenness. A professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, III, since 1970 and a visiting professor at Amherst this year, he now faces deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). After years of tireless activism, the man whom a defector from the South African secret police labelled as one of the 20 most effective opponents of the apartheid government may be cast back into the arms of his former oppressors. But this is not the first time he has come into conflict with government authorities.

Born in 1924 in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Brutus was raised in South Africa by his white father and Black mother, both of whom were schoolteachers. After graduating from college, he worked as a teacher, journalist, and anti-apartheid activist until his arrest in 1963 for violating a government "banning order" that prohibited him, among other things, from attending any meetings. He had gone to a gathering of the South African Olympic Committee as part of his long effort to isolate the country in the sports world.

Prison terms, including an 18-month stay at the notorious Robben Island, dotted the next few years of Brutus's life. He tried-to escape from jail twice. Once he got as far as Mozambique, where he was returned to the South Africans by the Portuguese secret police. On the second attempt, a policeman shot him in the back in Johannesberg.


During this period of intermittent prison terms. Brutus began publishing poetry, in which he laments the powerlessness and frustration of the Blacks and the misery of prison life, among other topics. Brutus recalls that he started publishing his poems more to spite the South African government than to fulfill any intellectual dream. "I only began to publish poetry once I was told it was illegal to publish," he says.

Eventually, it appears, the government tired of slapping banning orders on Brutus and, exasperated by his activities, forced him to leave the country, warning that his return would mean prison.

Brutus went first to London and eventually to the United States, where in 1973 he received tenure at Northwestern as a professor of English. Despite its having "the worst football team in the country." Brutus says he admired Northwestern because of its extensive African Studies program. His most important intellectual achievement during the the past 10 years, he says, was the establishment in 1974 of the African Literature Association, a scholarly society that now includes more than 900 members.

But, as Brutus is quick to point out, his scholarly accomplishments have often been over-shadowed by his exhaustive political activism. In fact, his political outspokenness against-apartheid may have been partly responsible for his current conflict with the immigration service.

Brutus's troubles with INS began in the spring 1980. As a citizen of what was then Rhodesia, he held a British passport. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in April of that year, the British government revoked his passport and advised him to apply for a Zimbabwean one. The length of time involved in corresponding with Salisbury caused Brutus to apply late for an extension of his visa to stay in the United States. Although he notified INS that he was applying late and was assured that he would be excused, immigration officials later cited Brutus's tardiness as one reason for refusing to extend his visa.

Claiming that changes in personnel and the loss of Brutus's file had caused the long delay, the INS denied Brutus's visa request in January 1981 and set a deadline of March 5 for his voluntary departure from the United States. Besides the lateness of his application, the major reason the INS gave for its decision was that Brutus had accepted permanent employment as a tenured professor while his visa only granted him temprorary residence.

After protesting the immigration service's decision and twice receiving extensions of the deportation deadline, Brutus was given a hearing to show cause why he should not be forced to leave. Although an immigration judge ruled last November that Brutus was deportable, INS said it would allow him to request a new visa if he would leave the country and apply through a U.S. consulate. Brutus was willing to go along with INS's plan as long as the agency would guarantee him that he could reenter the United States. When INS refused to provide that assurance, he applied to the State Department for political asylum.

Brutus is now waiting for the State Department's recommendation. Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for human rights, who is handling the case personally, says that the decision will be made by the end of March. The general criterion used by the State Department, according to Abrams, is that the applicant demonstrate "a well-founded fear of persecution" if he were to be deported Brutus says that he satisfies this criterion. If he were forced to return to South Africa, he believes that, at the very least, he would be thrown into prison. And if he were deported to Zimbabwe, as is more likely, he fears that his life would be in danger. He cites the example of his friend and former cellmate from Robben Island. Joe Gqabi, who was recently gunned down in front of his home in Salisbury. Brutus and supporters believe that the murder was carried out by the South African secret police, who, they fear, would not besitate to kill him if he returned to Zimbabwe.

Despite these concerns and despite letters of support from Rep. Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.), and several other members of Congress. Brutus is by no means confident that the State Department will rule in his favor. The increasing friendliness between the Reagan Administration and the regime in Pretoria makes Brutus and his supporters uneasy. As a staff member at TransAfrica, a Black-American lobbying group, says, many view the attempt to deport Brutus "as another symbol of the Administration's growing closeness with South Africa."

Brutus himself continually emphasizes signs of growing closeness between Pretoria and Washington. He considers it ironic that INS is attempting to deport him at the same time the State Department has relaxed rules that prohibited South African military personnel from visiting the United States. And he believes that the Reagan Administration's desire to befriend South Africa has led to loosened restrictions on sales of American products and technology to the South African police and military.