TERRY GROSS, host:
In the era of South African apartheid, poet Dennis Brutus was a leader of the movement that succeeded in getting South Africa expelled from the Olympics. He served 18 months in South Africa's notorious prison on Robben Island. Nelson Mandela was one of his fellow prisoners.
Brutus died Saturday at the age of 85. We're going to listen back to a 1986 interview with him. Here's a poem he read then called �Sirens, Knuckles, Boots.�
Mr. DENNIS BRUTUS (Activist; Poet): (Reading) The sounds begin again; the siren in the night, the thunder at the door, the shriek of nerves in pain. Then the keening crescendo of faces split by pain, the wordless, endless wail only the unfree know. Importunate as rain, the wraiths exhale their woe over the sirens, knuckles, boots, my sounds begin again.
GROSS: Dennis Brutus barely survived the consequences of his anti-apartheid activism. The government fired him from his job teaching high school English and banned him from participating in any political or social activities.
In 1963, he was arrested for breaking the ban. When he was released on bail, he fled to Mozambique. That country's government returned him to South African custody. Since no one knew that he had been forcibly returned, he felt the only way to let people know was to stage an escape in a public place, which is what he did. During that escape attempt, he was shot in the back by the police. After he was patched up, he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 months, then served a year under house arrest.
He signed an exit visa allowing him to leave the country. He moved to the U.S. in 1970. When I spoke with him, he told me about the aftermath of being shot during his attempted escape. The bullet went straight through his body.
Mr. BRUTUS: It entered my back and came out of my chest, and had penetrated the intestines and just missed the heart, which was very serious. I wasn't sure I was going to survive. I remember the man who shot me Sergeant Helberg(ph) saying to me as I lay on the sidewalk on the Main Street in Johannesburg, just outside the Anglo-American Corporation, which is the great mining conglomerate. And I lay on the sidewalk and Sergeant Helberg said to me, anyway, Brutus, I hope you survive. And I say, well, I hope so too. And, in fact, I was taken to a hospital and then operated on after that.
GROSS: It's almost surprising that you were given good enough medical treatment to survive after that.
Mr. BRUTUS: Yes. In fact, it's just possible that they lost control of the situation at that time. And so settled into the normal routine, yeah, here's a man who was shot, you take him to a hospital, you operate on him and that's it. You know, you try and save his life.
There are some complications. The ambulance that came for me, for instance, this was so macabre that men got out in uniform and they took out a stretcher and they looked at me and they put their stretcher back and they got back in the ambulance and they drove off. And I said to Helberg who was beside me, why are they leaving? I was very alarmed. And he said, well, Brutus, you wouldn't want them to lose their job, would you? This is an ambulance for whites, and so you'll have to wait for the black ambulance to come along.
And then when it did come, six members of the police got into the ambulance with me and sat there with notebooks poised and started questioning me about people that they should contact on my behalf. But clearly, this was in an effort to get leads. And then perhaps the most Kafkaesque part of it was when the doctors started operating, the police insisted on being in the operating theater.
And the doctors protested and said, well, look, you're covered with germs, you got to be sterile. We can't have you here. So they said, well, hold it and they went off and came back all masked and in gloves and covered boots and whatnot, and they stood there at the table. And the doctors then said, well, we can't work with you standing around us. It's impossible. And they refuse to leave. And so, I sat up and said that I think these men are hoping to get a statement out of me perhaps under anesthetic.
So perhaps I should make a statement now and then they would leave you to get on with the work. So they agreed. And they took out their notebooks. And I said, well, I regret nothing. I would do this again if necessary because I think this is an unjust system and that's all I intend to say. And then they withdrew to the doorway of the theater and stood there. But I think they gave up at that point.
GROSS: You were later taken to Robben Island, which is considered the most hellish of all the prisons in South Africa and it's supposedly unescapable. It's supposed to be escape-proof.
Mr. BRUTUS: Yes. Well, no one has ever escaped. That's true. Those who manage to get off the island were usually found dead. Their corpses will be washed up on the beach of Cape Town subsequently. No one, as far as I know, has succeeded in escaping and living. And, of course, I spent time there with people like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, GovanMbeki, Ahmed Kathrada. We broke stones together. We were given rocks every day and a hammer and we broke rocks.
GROSS: Could you describe the prison a little bit and why it is so unescapable.
Mr. BRUTUS: Well, it's heavily guarded, heavily fortified. The wardens were all white, the prisoners are all black. Automatic rifles, barbed wire, sentry posts, and helicopters would circle the island. And in fact when I got there, I was part of a span(ph), this colored team that had to carry rocks out of the sea and up the beach to build a wall around the island.
And, in fact, one of my poems deals with that because I was so covered with bruises and I was beaten while I was working that I became a kind of spectacle. And every evening when we strip, we were required to stand naked outside the cells and be searched. The wardens would come along and inspect my bruises and I felt a little like a freak in the circus, a two-headed calf or a bearded lady or a tattooed lady, as I call it. So perhaps I should just read it at this point.
(Reading) For a while I was the tattooed lady of the prison, and wardens would come to our section and get me to strip and stare and whistle in mingled pleasure and horror at the great purple bruise that ran from my neck down my back, from my neck to my thighs in a purple mass. What was I then? Mute, enduring reproach, heroic endurer, Christianly hero or submissive fool? What was I then that I cannot now imagine, cannot now judge.
GROSS: While you were in Robben Island, you are prohibited from writing anything that anyone would be interested in publishing.
Mr. BRUTUS: Oh, yes. Although, in fact, much of that took place after I was released in 1965. But in prison, I was allowed one letter every six months, one letter in, one letter out. And, of course, in between I was not permitted any paper or pencils. So you simply didn't write. We would sometimes steal the lead or the graphite out of a pen or pencil and break it up and conceal it in the mats that we slept on on the concrete floor. So I did some writing on toilet paper, but this was discovered by guards and destroyed.
GROSS: Robben Island had a mix of political prisoners like yourself and people who were there on criminal offenses. Did you mix it all and was there any attempt to politicize the criminals?
Mr. BRUTUS: There were - when I arrived there, there were - I became one of 1,100 political prisoners. And in addition, we have 200 who were there for multiple murders, multiple rapes. The government described them as the scum of the prison system or the dregs of the prison system. They were the worst in the country. And these 200 were then put in charge of the political prisoners. They took us to work. They gave us our food. They beat us up. So, mix is probably not the right word. Often, they eat our food as well. They were due to deliver it to us in our cells each evening, but if they chose to, of course, we went without it.
GROSS: There is another poem I'd like to ask you to read about how certain positive emotions can persist and endure in spite of the oppression of apartheid.
Mr. BRUTUS: This is an early one, written in a ghetto in South Africa and, in a sense, talking about survival in the ghetto. And also at the time when my language was a lot more complex, I think in prison, when I was able to review my own work in solitary - because one needs to keep your mind busy there - I settled for a much simpler and more direct vocabulary and form of communication. But here, I'm also dealing with a challenge of diction because I'm trying to use highly political language. In a poetic manner, I'm trying to turn slogans into lyrics, if you like. And so, there's a kind of intriguing challenge to the craft of poetry as well as a statement, a political statement.
(Reading) Somehow we survive and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither. Investigating searchlights rake our naked unprotected contours. Over our heads, the monolithic Decalogue of fascist prohibition glowers and teeters for a catastrophic fall. Boots club the peeling door. But somehow we survive severance, deprivation, loss. Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark, hissing their menace to our lives. Most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror, rendered unlovely and unlovable. Sundered are we and all our passionate surrender, but somehow tenderness survives.
GROSS: South African poet and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus recorded in 1986. He died Saturday at the age of 85.