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Tales from Dystopia IV: Dennis Brutus and political interference in sporting affairs

28 December 2009

Dennis Brutus, a well-known poet and anti-apartheid activist, died recently at the age of 85. Patrick Bond writes:

Brutus was born in Harare in 1924, but his South African parents soon moved to Port Elizabeth where he attended Paterson and Schauderville High Schools. He entered Fort Hare University on a full scholarship in 1940, graduating with a distinction in English and a second major in Psychology. Further studies in law at the University of the Witwatersrand were cut short by imprisonment for anti-apartheid activism.

This and other obituaries tell something of his life and death.

I never met Dennis Brutus, and I’m pretty sure he never heard of me, so perhaps it is not fitting for me to write a memorial for him. But our files crossed in the records of the Department of Justice in Pretoria, and so perhaps this would be more acurately described as In memoriam of the late Balthazar Johannes Vorster, who was Minister of Justice in 1964-65.

I had certainly heard of Dennis Brutus in the 1960s; in that period he was the founder and president of SANROC, the South African Non-Racial Olympics Committee. The policy of the National Party government was that only white athletes could represent South Africa at international sporting events such as the Olympic Games, and SANROC, and especially Dennis Brutus, campaigned actively against this policy. The government accused him of political interference in sporting affairs and banned him. They did not see their own policy as political interference in sporting affairs. They regarded the “whites only” Olympics policy as non-political, non-interference in sporting affairs. And so indoctrinated were the white electorate that most of them actually believed this blatant lie, and believed that Dennis Brutus was nothing more than a dangerous political agitator, trying to “interfere” with sport.

Another thing that the NP government liked to claim at that time was that its policies were defending “Christian civilization”, which was, of course, another lie. I wrote a brief article in the October 1965 issue of Khanya, the magazine of the Anglican Students Federation (I was then a student in Pietermaritzburg).

Vorster does it again!

In a previous issue of Khanya we referred to the case of Elliot Mngadi, who was banned, and when he asked permission to attend church services, was told that he could attend church services in his own house, provided that only members of his own family were present. Now Dennis Brutus, who is confined to his house at weekends, has been denied permission to attend Mass.

The Incarnation was the means by which God breaks down the barriers between himself and man and between man and man. Our present Government, apparently convinced that God is wrong about this, has methodically set about raising barriers between man and man, dividing men up into little groups with little or no communication between them. This is apartheid, or separate development. Now, however, they want to go even further, and build barriers between man and God. The cases of Elliot Mngadi and Dennis Brutus add weight to the thesis proposed by Mike Stevenson [1] in his presidential report — that these people are being banned, not so much for political reasons as for theological ones.

The basic doctrine of Apartheid is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and those Christians who actively oppose this heresy do so for sound theological reasons. It is therefore the duty of every Chjristian to pray for our country and for our rulers, that they may be guided by the Holy Spirit, and not by the Satanic forces which give rise to banning orders, house arrests, and arbitrary detention.

I sent a copy of this issue of Khanya directly to Mr Vorster. The security police would undoubtedly have seen that he eventually got one, but I didn’t want it to appear that I was saying things about him behind his back that I wasn’t prepared to say to his face. And when he got it, he did his nut.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but it all came out when the Department of Justice files were made open to researchers. Vorster was so annoyed by this article that he insisted on signing a banning order for me that was considerably stricter than the one recommended by the security police, and was to take immediate effect. I never received it because I skipped the country and went to the UK before Detective Sergeant van den Heever could deliver it. Dennis Brutus also skipped the country at about the same time. And so, though I never met Dennis Brutus, our files crossed in Pretoria, and sat together on the desk at Kompol [2] while they tried to compile a report for the Boss.

In the UK I went to Durham University to study for a postgraduate Diploma in Theology, and while I was there, the South African sports apartheid policy caught up with me again. An all-white rugby team, SHIMLAS, from the University of the Orange Free State, was touring British universities, and one of their fixtures was at Durham. Some South African members of the university, both students and lecturers, got together and asked the Durham University Rugby Club (DURC) to cancel the fixture. They refused, saying that the fixture was a “prestigious” one (that was the first time I ever heard the word “prestigious”) and the composition of the team was none of their business.

We (the South African members of the university) then decided to take it to the Students Representative Council (SRC). As Durham was a collegiate university, the SRC passed the buck, and referred it to the Junior Common Rooms of the colleges, so I proposed it at my college, St Chad’s College, which was one of the smaller ones. As I wrote in my diary on that day, 20 November 1967:

At tea time came across John Roff, Nick Jones and James Bell arguing about the proposed rugby match — Durham University against the University of the Orange Free State. The SRC passed a resolution opposing the match, and James Bell and
Nick Jones were against that — they “couldn’t see what good it would do”. I tried to point out that while the refusal to play in
itself would do no good, the fact of the game being played might do positive harm, and encourage the Nats to bring in legislation to ban non-racial sport at home. Nick Jones may have had some genuine qualms about it, but I suspect that James Bell was being disingenuous in typically British ruling-class fashion. John Roff said there would be an SRC meeting about it, so I went along with him. At that meeting a letter from Gavin Williams [3] was read out, and a motion was passed referring the matter to the Junior Common Rooms of the various colleges. I went back to Chad’s, and compiled a motion,

That the St Chad’s College Junior Common Room is opposed to the intrusion of politics and ideological considerations into sport, and therefore requests the Durham University Athletics Union not to play matches in any sport against a team representing the University of the Orange Free State, in view of the fact that that University has consistently advocated political interference in sporting matters.

The motion in our college was passed, partly because the college rugby captain supported it. But what was interesting was that some of the more conservative members of the college objected to the wording, because it took the wind out of their sails, and they felt that their own argument had been stolen from them. They thought that cancelling the fixture would be political interference in sport, but could not see that the South African universities that supported the apartheid policy were thereby also promoting political interference in sport.

The National Party government refused to change that policy for another 20 years, and as a result Dennis Brutus’s SANROC successfully campaigned for South Africa to be excluded from the Olympic Games, because talented athletes were excluded on the grounds of their race.

Perhaps there is one more tale to tell about “political interference in sport”.

This goes back a few years to 1964, at the university in Pietermaritzburg. The university had arranged for speakers from various political parties to explain their policies to students. The debate between the United Party and the Progressive party had to be cancelled, because the representatives of the former had refused to appear on the same platform as the latter. But the debated between the National Party and the Liberal Party did take place. The Liberal was a lecturer in the Education Faculty, and concentrated on the government’s record in education, and showing hoe disastrous it was. The National Party speaker was a Mr Klopper, a member of the Provincial Council. After he had finished speaking, he came under immediate attack from members of the rugby club, as the government had just banned a tour by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, because three members of the team were Maoris. The New Zealand rubgy union, naturally enough, did not think that the South African government should pick their team for them, and refused to change its composition.

The rugby fans among the students were furious, and attacked Klopper mercilessly. And in repponse he said “It’s all New Zealand’s fault. They decided to call them Maoris. It they called them white men we would play them tomorrow.”

He went on to explain that if the white genes rose above 75%, there was a corresponding rise in intelligence, so that Martin Luther King was a white man; he was too clever to be black. Most of the students concluded that Klopper’s white genes had given him no advantage in intelligence at all.

Dennis Brutus’s interests and activities extended far beyond his promotion of non-racial sport, and I’m sorry that I never met him in person.



1. Mike Stevenson was the president of the Anglican Students Federation (ASF) 1964-1965.

2. “Kompol” was the Commissioner of Police. Such Soviet-style abbreviations were common in the apartheid era.

3. Gavin Williams was a South African, a lecturer in the Department of Social Theory and Institutions.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 January 2010 1:19 pm

    The sensitive simplicity of his work, especially in “Letters to Martha”, confirmed that I enjoyed poetry, and got me trying to write it.

  2. 18 January 2010 7:51 am

    thought you & your readers might be interested in a new documentary, Fair Play, which tells the story of the anti-apartheid movement sports boycotts Brutus played such a key role in. Here’s a trailer:


  1. Global Voices Online » South Africa: A glowing tribute to Dennis Brutus
  2. South Africa: A glowing tribute to Dennis Brutus :: Elites TV

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