Poet Dennis Brutus makes his way slowly and painfully around the Northwestern University campus. The students pause to wish him well. "Will you be back teaching this fall?" asks one when Brutus stops by the university bookstore to see if any of his volumes of poetry are carried on the shelves of works by faculty members. "God and immigration permitting," he replies with a smile.
Sometime next month, Brutus will learn from a U.S. immigration judge whether he can continue living here and teaching African literature at Northwestern, as he has done for the past 13 years.
Few recent immigration cases have raised so many questions in such stark terms about the aims of the United States' immigration policies--and the sympathies of the Reagan administration--as that of this 58-year-old soft-spoken man of acerbic views. He is one of English-speaking Africa's best-known poets, and also happens to be one of the most successful foes of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Largely because of Brutus' efforts at organizing and publicizing the cause of blacks in South Africa, Pretoria's segregated sports teams have been barred from most international competitions, including the Olympics since 1964. He has traveled widely and written and testified extensively against the Afrikaner-run government's policies. In the world of activism, where tall talk can easily outweigh results, his is a record of achievement.
Now, Brutus believes, if he is deported, he eventually may wind up back in South Africa, where he was persecuted, arrested, shot, imprisoned, tortured, and finally expelled for his anti-apartheid activities. At the least, he says, he may be welcome only in Zimbabwe, bordering South Africa to the north, making it relatively easy for the South African secret police to reach him.
Ironically, Brutus says, few efforts in his life have drawn so much adverse attention to South Africa as the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) attempt to prove that Brutus' status as an "H-1 non-immigrant" (generally granted to distinguished foreign scholars here for a relatively short time) means he is no longer welcome here. "I think my whole case has helped to educate the American people to South African apartheid," he said during a recent interview at Northwestern. "Thousands of petitions and letters of support" have flooded the office of Immigration Judge Irving Schwartz in Chicago, who will decide the case, Brutus said. "He has complained that there are too many. He doesn't want any more."
As in so many immigration confrontations, this one hinges on technical compliance with laws which most American citizens have little reason to know much about. But in the world of the immigrant, time and deadlines can mean the difference between residency and expulsion.
Even during this steamy summer, when Lake Michigan's nearby beaches beckon undergraduates as in no other season, Brutus has become a Northwestern celebrity.
But the price of his struggle to remain here has been high: for the past two years, he has written almost no poetry, which once sustained him through the years of repression and exile. His poetry draws its haunting strength from his own suffering and from the unequal struggle of 25 million blacks, "coloreds," Indians and Orientals to throw off the repressive rule by the 4.5 million South African whites.
on another island
within the sound of the sea
I watch the moon turn yellow
or a blurred Orion heel
the men on the island
on strips of matting
on the cold floor
between cold walls
and the long endless night. --Nelson, New Zealand
Brutus was able to write about prisoners on an island because he had been there himself--on Robben Island, an escape-proof prison colony several miles off the coast near Capetown. He spent 18 months there in the early 1960s, one of scores of political prisoners.
He arrived there after having been arrested as a subversive, escaping to Mozambique and being seized by Portuguese secret police who turned him over to the South African secret police, who took him to Johannesburg for processing. Fearing he would be killed there, he decided to try a second escape--this time in broad daylight.
He made his break in the middle of the evening rush hour. "I thought in that crowd they could not shoot because there were too many people. All the commuters and workers were going home." He was suddenly certain he would escape. Then he ran into another plainclothesman. Hunter and hunted both knew he would be captured. The agent shot Brutus anyway, in the back. "He shot me at such close range the bullet went straight through my body." Six wounds in his gut. Brutus today thinks that this 20-year-old wound may be the cause of his back pains. "In and out, three times each."
He was hastily sewn up and thrown in jail. The time on Robben Island included five months in solitary confinement, which brought him to attempt suicide, slashing at his wrists with sharp stones. After his release, Brutus was sentenced to five years' house arrest which barred him from leaving home or having any visitors. After a year of this, Brutus signaled he was ready to leave South Africa. He signed an exit form recognizing he would be imprisoned if he ever returned.
There is no doubt in Brutus' mind of the power and relevance of his poetry to the struggle. For proof, he offers an Orwellian tale concerning the volume in which the poem above appeared.
Brutus, while living as an exile in London in the late '60s, was drinking at a pub one night and having a conversation with a fellow professor, a Texan named Bernth Lindfors.
"Is it a crime for anyone living in South Africa to read your poetry?" asked Lindfors.
"Yes," replied Brutus.
"Well, suppose your name isn't on the poem. Would it be a crime to read it then? Or suppose the person who read the poem didn't know you'd written it? Would that still be a crime?"
"This raises some interesting questions in my mind," Brutus said. "As far as I know, it wouldn't be a crime."
"Well, suppose a book was published under a pseudonym?"
"Good idea!" replied Brutus. "Let's do it!"
"What do we call our publishing house?"
"What's wrong with Troubadour?" Brutus asked.
He liked the troubadour image--a person who roams the land, defending chivalrous ideas. The troubadour appears frequently in his poems. "So the clue was there for those who wanted it, or were shrewd enough to pick it up," he says.
The two set up Troubadour Press, and produced "Thoughts Abroad," a 28-page collection of the poetry of "John Bruin," who was described on the back cover as "a South African currently teaching and writing outside his country. He is, as his work shows, both widely traveled and homesick."
They chose this pseudonym, Brutus said, "Because if you're a brown man in South Africa, 'John Bruin' is the equivalent of 'John Doe' . . . So I called myself 'John Bruin,' a clear giveaway. We shipped the volume to South Africa and it sold rather well. Pleasantly, it was reviewed rather well and stocked in university libraries.
"A year later, a London publisher republished the book under my own name, so it became known that 'John Bruin' was Dennis Brutus. They had to go to the shelves, take down the copies and burn them, because to be found in possession of these books--now that the author was known--was a crime. It just shows the absurdity of the kind of bureaucrats who are in the business of repression. So I enjoyed it."
Born in Southern Rhodesia in 1924, Brutus moved with his family to South Africa as a child and spent most of his life there, where he was classified as "colored." When South African authorities eventually expelled him for his activities in the late 1960s, he lived in England for several years, holding a British passport by virtue of having been born in a British colony. He came to the United States in 1970. At the time, there was no thought of seeking political asylum. Much simpler, explains this man with long hair combed straight back from his forehead and a lank, gray-flecked beard framing his tawny face: "Northwestern made me the best offer."
Every year since then, he applied for and received a new one-year visa from INS. The teaching was going well, he was writing more poetry, and his activities on behalf of his countrymen continued. He even was granted tenure, the most coveted of academic plums, despite the fact that he did not have a doctorate. But then, in 1980, this comfortable existence suddenly changed for the worse. In order to apply for a new American visa, he needed a valid British passport, but it was about to expire. When he sought a new one, the British told him that since Southern Rhodesia had ceased to exist, and had become Zimbabwe, so had his rights to a British passport.
But Zimbabwe was so new it had no consulates in the U.S.; he sent away to his new homeland for a passport. Months passed. By the time the Zimbabwe document arrived, it was already too late. He had missed the visa application deadline. Within months, deportation proceedings were instituted against him. A defense committee was put together to try to hold off his expulsion. By now, dozens of congressmen and senators, state legislators, academics and writers have joined the cause.
Brutus' views of the leaders of his country are utterly uncompromising. "They want white supremacy for a thousand years, a very clear takeoff of the Nazi position. It's always important to remember that of the men who rule South Africa, many started in Heidelberg, were jailed during the war for their sabotage of the Allied effort. They came up with what they called the Blueprint of the New Order in South Africa, a document for the incorporation of South Africa into the Greater German Reich after German victory. They never abandoned their position.
"At the heart of apartheid is a concept of white domination, white supremacy, a super race. And what is terrifying, I suppose, is that from 1948 to 1983, they have consistently implemented it, step by step, and now are accelerating the pace. That is the heart of the system."
Brutus probably could have avoided his problems in America if he had applied for immigrant status years ago. He has said he always intended to return to South Africa. His supporters argue that he deserves political asylum.
In January, the State Department sent an advisory opinion to Judge Schwartz containing classified material. Brutus' attorney, Susan Gzesh, assumes the submission makes political allegations against Brutus. Schwartz has informed Brutus and his lawyers that he will comply with a request from State that they be barred from seeing the material. He also has assured them that he will not allow the confidential material to influence his eventual decision.
Robert Esbrook, head of the citizenship department for INS in Chicago, said Brutus' present status is "nothing--he's an alien in the U.S. without legal status, undergoing deportation. We do thousands of these a year."
While remarking that "they told me not to say too much because of adverse publicity in the case," Esbrook talked at some length about the case, the controversy, and the intricacies of U.S. immigration law. He said the basic question of Brutus' status arose when INS learned he had gained tenure at Northwestern. "Perhaps we were wrong to let it go on so long, but then he was given tenure and factually, we knew he would be permanent. We no longer considered him a temporary visitor."
Brutus was notified to leave the country and reapply for entry from abroad, as many in similar situations have done. But the State Department's classified information about Brutus might have meant he would be turned down. So Brutus never left. Meanwhile, his wife, May, a South African living in London, hesitates to leave England to visit her husband here for fear she will not be allowed back by British authorities. One of the last times they saw each other was at their son Antony's graduation from Harvard in 1980.
Esbrook said Brutus has lost his request for extension of his non-immigrant status; been denied permanent residency; and failed to gain political asylum. The judge can order him deported or grant asylum. "In asylum, Brutus has to show that this is the only country where he can live."
During a five-day hearing last month, witnesses for Brutus said they feared for his safety if he were returned to Zimbabwe. The file submitted to Schwartz included a letter from a Zimbabwe political leader asserting the same thing.
"There were quite a few persuasive people" testifying for Brutus, Esbrook said. "I think he'll succeed in getting asylum," which can be granted if the judge decides there is "reasonable fear of persecution." Esbrook said wearily that any notion that INS has racial or political motives is totally erroneous. "We are charged with enforcing the law," he said.
The government will present its case next month.
Is Dennis Brutus a communist or a capitalist? Or something in between? Whatever State thinks about these matters can't be known. Here is what Brutus says of his political views:
"We are national liberationists, interested in liberating our country. We are not at this stage attempting to determine what the economic or political system will be, although we have some ideas.
"We have a very firm commitment to a nonaligned state, not to be drawn into eastern or western blocs. We're not interested in taking sides or becoming anyone's pawn, or being used. Of course, we're up against the absurdity in the West of, 'If you're not with us, you're against us.' They will not concede us the right to remain neutral. And the right to make our judgment on the merits of each issue--sometimes to be with the West, sometimes with the East. Sometimes to say, a plague on both your houses. Committed to a nonaligned state."
If he ever has a say in South African domestic policy, Brutus says it would sound like this:
"The African National Congress in its 1955 Freedom Charter says that every man and woman shall have the right to vote and there will be no race limitation on voting at all. It says South Africa belongs to the people who live there and who give their loyalty to the country. Third, that the wealth of the country must belong to everybody and must be shared among those who work for the wealth of the country. So that's a kind of implied socialism. I have no regrets about it, make no secret of it. I believe in a socialist form of government, and it can have all kinds of variations in it."
Brutus says he has found life in America at once congenial and puzzling. "I find so many dichotomies that it's almost schizophrenic . . . Although this is a placid society, supposedly a normal, sane society, I feel a lot of schizophrenia between what people say and how they perceive themselves and what in fact they're doing. There is a startling contrast between what is happening and what people think is happening.
"If you ask the average American, white or black, 'Do you realize your government authorized the sale of 2,500 cattle prods to South Africa, for the militia and the police for crowd control, giving people 3,000-volt shocks,' they probably would be horrified. 'My government doing that?' Then you have to ask why they don't do anything about it. And you're up against all kinds of contradictions. On one hand, America is filled with decent people, not only concerned about their own lives, but the lives of other people elsewhere. Yet they can vote into power a man like Reagan who seems to me very clearly the enemy of the poor and contemptuous of blacks. I'm sure there are rebuttals to these things; I'm just giving you my opinion.
"In relation to Africa, we find many people sympathetic to African liberation and freedom, and so we have to distinguish between the American people and the American government."
Brutus claims that without U.S. efforts to strengthen Pretoria, the black timetable for ousting whites from power would be much farther along. "The United States' position is to hold the whites in power, finance them with arms, and if change ever comes, the whites will determine the changes, inch by inch. And the changes will not be toward greater freedom, but lesser freedom and greater white control.
"I grew up in Port Elizabeth, surrounded by factories: Ford, General Motors, Eveready, Union Carbide, Firestone, Uniroyal, Pepsi, Coke. I walked past them to go to shops, to schools. And yet I didn't really understand that the 500 U.S. corporations in South Africa not only had a stake in profiting from the apartheid system, but had a stake in preserving the system that guarantees their property."
He recalled joining with some churchmen to attempt to persuade a major Chicago bank not to proceed with a large loan to Pretoria. "The stockholders tell you, 'We're powerless.' The board of directors say, 'We don't like investing in South Africa, we think it's a terrible system. But if we didn't invest, the stockholders would have our heads.'
"So in a sense, both sides are shrugging off their responsibility, saying, 'Man, that's where you can make a profit, and we're going to be in there as long as we can and the hell with it. We don't care how many people die in the ghettos or the mines. We are not going to stop making a profit only because you tell us that a thousand high school students were shot down in June of 1976.' Not enough to deter people from investing in the regime!
"In some cases, this shocked me because people here seem so decent, so humane. They took good care of their kids, their dogs, their plants. What's to stop them from caring about human beings? But they didn't."
Brutus stares intently through his glasses. "You have to make it a two-front fight. You have to struggle inside South Africa to unprop the regime, and struggle in the United States--to challenge the U.S. role, and if possible, inhibit it. Cut off the money, the flow of arms, the flow of political and military support. You have to educate the American people. And that is what I think I'm doing." CAPTION: Picture 1, Dennis Brutus. Copyright (c) 1983, John Goodman; Picture 2, Dennis Brutus; by AP