South African poet and former political prisoner Dennis Brutus, who fought apartheid in words and deeds and remained an activist well after the fall of his country's racist system, has died. He was 85.

Brutus's publisher, Chicago-based Haymarket Books, said the writer died in his sleep at his home in Cape Town on Saturday.


Dennis Brutus, who had been battling prostate cancer, died in his sleep at his home in Cape Town on Saturday. ((Courtesy Haymarket Books) )

He had been battling prostate cancer, according to Patrick Bond, who directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, where Brutus was an honorary professor.

Brutus was an anti-apartheid activist jailed at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela in the mid-1960s. He helped persuade Olympic officials to ban South Africa from competition from 1964 until apartheid ended nearly 30 years later.

Born in 1924 in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Brutus was the son of South African teachers who moved back to their native country when he was still a boy. He majored in English at the University of Fort Hare, which he attended on full scholarship, and taught at several South African high schools.

Sentenced to Robben Island

By his early 20s, he was politically involved and helped create the South African Sports Association, formed in protest against the official white sports association.

Arrested in 1963, Brutus fled the country when released on bail, but was captured and nearly killed when shot as he tried to escape police custody in Johannesburg and forced to wait for an ambulance that would accept blacks. Brutus was sentenced to 18 months at Robben Island.

'All our land is scarred with terror/ rendered unlovely and unlovable.' —From the poem Somehow We Survive

His books Sirens, Knuckles, Boots and Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison were published while he was in jail.

He was confined, but undefeated, writing in the poem Somehow We Survive that "All our land is scarred with terror/ rendered unlovely and unlovable/ sundered are we and all our passionate surrender/ but somehow tenderness survives."

Sometimes terse, other times dense and lyrical, his poems were political, but also emotional and highly personal.

Forced to leave the country in 1966, he longed for home in the 1975 poem Sequence for South Africa, writing that the "secret is clamping down/ holding the lid of awareness tight shut," until "some thoughtless questioner/ pries the sealed lid loose."

Brutus emigrated to the United States in 1971, but his legal troubles did not end. The Reagan administration, which began in 1981, changed the policy on political refugees, making it more difficult for them to remain in the U.S.

Brutus fought deportation for two years before an immigration judge granted asylum.

He taught literature and African studies at Northwestern University and the University of Pittsburgh, a distinctive figure in old age with his flowing white hair and beard. He also engaged in protests against world financial organizations and in calls for stronger action against global warming.

Over the years, Brutus completed more than a dozen collections of poetry. In 2006, Haymarket published a compilation of his work, Poetry and Protest.

His work was banned for years in South Africa, but one book, Thoughts Abroad, slipped through. It was published in 1970 under the pseudonym John Bruin.

Rejected induction into Sports Hall of Fame

He received numerous honorary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture. But in 2007 he rejected induction into the South Africa Sports Hall of Fame, stating, "It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It's time — indeed long past time — for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation."

Brutus remained engaged and became passionate about climate change in recent years.

In an open letter dated Dec. 10 about this month's UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, he warned against "brokering a deal that allows the corporations and the oil giants to continue to abuse the earth."

Brutus was honoured with the Peace Award of the War Resisters League in New York City in September.

He is survived by a wife and eight children.