Denis Brutus, born in 1924 in what was then British Rhodesia to South African parents, shot to prominence (and jail) in the 1960s campaigning for a boycott of South Africa in the sporting world. A veteran activist, poet and Professor of African Studies and African Literature, Brutus continues to campaign vigorously against economic injustice. His targets today are the corporations, banks and institutions that profit from what he terms a “global system of economic apartheid”. Robert Looby recently had the pleasure of discussing the past, present and future with Prof. Brutus
How did you get involved in the struggle for justice?
I grew up in a segregated area of course. I'm classified as a non-white or a coloured, so one is exposed to racial segregation very early, and remember this is the twenties and the thirties when I grew up. But I always make the point that within a community one is protected from the kind of harsh racism that one would experience outside that community. We were one of the early creations of what was called the segregation policy, which later became the apartheid policy of course, from 1948 onwards, when the apartheid government was elected. In the ’20s and the ’30s you had a kind of colonial racism not unlike what was happening in the south of the United States, where schools and churches were separated for black and white. In South Africa eventually they would have post offices with separate entrances for black and white or, as it was called, white and non-white. (Blacks were divided into fairly broad categories under the term ‘non-white’.) There were buses for whites only and buses for non-whites.
Above all that you need to internationalise the pressures… if they're globalising oppression, we are globalising resistance.
So I grow up in that context, but I'm not particularly aware of it because, as I say, one is sheltered. When I start going to school and later to high school and I have to travel through the city – then of course one becomes more aware of the signs that say ,whites only, or ,non-whites only’, although the language they used was ‘Europeans’ and ‘non-Europeans’ so that amusingly people coming from America for instance thought that they ought to get into a non-white bus. They were not Europeans; they were Americans. It's one of those minor confusions.
Once I went to high school, one became more aware of the racial discrimination between white and non-white in the bus service and of course always the bad service was for the non-whites. I think it was actually at university that it really came home to me, although I'd been aware of it at high school. And it came to me in a peculiar way. I went to a black college called Fort Hare, which had been an old military outpost commanded by a colonel called Hare in the days of the colonial wars against the Africans. Then this fort was taken over by the churches as a kind of ecumenical enterprise and jointly they put up a college for non-whites – blacks actually – and it was named after Fort Hare. One of the things that struck me was that some of the best athletes in the country were at Fort Hare and they were performing better than any white athletes in that particular sport, but they were not allowed to be on the Olympic team because the government proudly announced that there would never be a black on the Olympic team.
It gets a little more complicated because according to the Olympics you ought to select on merit and not penalise people because of their race, so I became involved in opposing the policy of racism and apartheid essentially from a sports angle initially. Now amusingly, people have paid me the compliment of saying I was very smart to select sport as the area in which the apartheid system was vulnerable, but in fact I didn't tackle the system because I thought it was vulnerable at that point. I just thought it was plain unfair to keep athletes off the team because of their colour; so you can see how I eventually collide with the system and I'm banned and I'm arrested and put under house arrest and jailed and I escape and I get shot in the back in Johannesburg and I end up on Robben island with Nelson Mandela in the same section of the prison, breaking stones. But it really began with sport, and I feel I ought to say this. I don't want to get credit for something I don't deserve: being some very smart guy who took on apartheid via sport. That was not my approach. My approach was: I took on sport as racism and in the process found myself in conflict with the apartheid system …
What lessons are there to be learned from the defeat of apartheid?
Above all that you need to internationalise the pressures – and it helps to have specific targets. The springbok rugby team created one for us; Barclays Bank may offer us the same opportunity – they operate in more than 80 countries. When I was in Britain, together with Peter Hain, now a member of the Tony Blair government, I organised a very effective campaign all across Barclays banks and eventually, as you may know, we forced them to leave South Africa. They're now returning in spite of having been one of the big allies of apartheid so we are mobilising opposition to them. What is important about it is that Barclays operates in more than 80 countries all over the world. We're planning to organise protests in all 80 of those countries so if they're globalising oppression, we are globalising resistance.
Tags: politics of protest