Skip to content

Remembering Dennis Brutus

December 2009

South African poet, anti-apartheid and human rights activist, climate change warrior, and Grassroots International founder, Dennis Brutus passed away in Cape Town, South Africa on Saturday, December 26, 2009. He was 85. According to the Associated Press, reported on Common Dreams, Brutus was battling prostate cancer. Forced into exile in 1966, Brutus was a long time resident of the United States, where he lived from 1971 and personally confronted the Reagan Administration’s conservative foreign policies (Reagan sought to deny him political refugee status and tried to deport him). Amy Goodman interviewed Brutus on Democracy Now in 2005 in which he shared some of his reflections on South Africa, and former president Nelson Mandela (with whom he was incarcerated on Robben Island for some time). Brutus, who taught at the University of Kwazulu Natal, the University of Pittsburgh and Northwestern University was an activist until the very end — just this month he wrote “An Open Letter to the UN Climate Change Gathering in Copenhagen” strongly calling for climate justice. “Better that there is no deal, so that ordinary citizens can make their choices and voices heard, against the marketing excesses for the rich allowing some to gorge themselves while others starve” he wrote.

Below, Dan Connell, Grassroots’ founder and first director shares his reflections of Dennis:

I first met Dennis in the early 1980s while he was fighting deportation proceedings the Reagan Administration had begun against him on some bizarre technicality that served only to underline the moral bankruptcy of the regime. I believe it was at an anti-apartheid event at which Dennis did a reading from his book “Stubborn Hope,” though the venue—like much else from those distant years—escapes me. However, I never got over hearing him speak “Sharpeville” with spell-binding intensity. It closes with:   Remember Sharpeville Remember bullet-in-the-back day   And remember the unquenchable will for freedom. Remember the dead And be glad   I am certainly glad to have traveled with him intermittently as we launched the hybrid humanitarian agency/solidarity committee project we named Grassroots International in 1983—beginning with programs in Eritrea and Lebanon, which I knew from my work, and committing to expand into South Africa as soon as we were able, which as it turned out was at the start of 1986, at the front end of the prolonged “State of Emergency” that for all its horrors signaled the death knell of apartheid.   Dennis’s contribution to us then and later was the depth and breadth of his political vision and personal commitment, never separable, always inspiring. It was just so last year when he visited my class in African politics at Simmons College, where I now teach.   I remember Dennis and am glad.


Dan Connell is the founder and former director of Grassroots International (1983-2000). Dan is currently a lecturer in journalism and African politics at Simmons College, Boston; and leads the RootsNet, a circle of Grassroots International’s former Board members, staff, and volunteers. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Dennis Brutus speaking in Franklin Square in Washington in the summer of 2003. (Photo by flickr user matthewbradley)

Latest from the Learning Hub
Back To Top