By Matthew Rothschild on December 28, 2009

I saw the Nelson Mandela movie “Invictus” this weekend, the same weekend that the great South African poet Dennis Brutus died.

After being shot in the back in 1963, Brutus was imprisoned on Robben Island in a cell right next to Mandela’s, then exiled to the United States.

He was a leading anti-apartheid activist here, and continued to champion the cause of social justice globally after the fall of the apartheid regime.

I met him a couple times. He was an imposing figure, with a rich and distinctive voice, who bore the scars of apartheid nobly.

Just like Nelson Mandela.

But watching the film, you get the sense that the anti-apartheid struggle was almost all Nelson Mandela.

You don’t get to see the mass movement that led to its overthrow, the movement that Mandela and Brutus were a part of.

You don’t have any hint that Mandela himself and the African National Congress advocated armed struggle, or that a black consciousness movement, led by Stephen Biko, galvanized another generation, or that massive strikes by labor unions threatened to cripple the South African economy.

And, for that matter, you don’t get to see the hideousness of apartheid—the shooting at protesters, the torture of prisoners (like Biko) to death, the daily humiliations of the pass system, and the total economic, social, and political subjugation of blacks.

All you see is Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and every move he makes is glorified. Freeman and the scriptwriter depict him as preternaturally wise in everything he does. At one point, his aide asks him about where South Africa should turn for foreign investment. And he responds, instantly, to the United States.

Yet Mandela’s decision to adopt a free market orientation has had disastrous consequences for South Africa, and Dennis Brutus rightly criticized him and the African National Congress for it.

Speaking on Democracy Now! in September 2008, Brutus characterized the ANC’s economic policy this way. “First we keep the corporations happy. We don’t want them leaving the country. And if the people have to wait—questions of housing, jobs, education—all of that will have to wait.” As a result, he said, people are “living in the shacks and in the shanties, as they were under apartheid, still living under the same conditions.”

Brutus wasn’t the only one to fault Mandela and the ANC for kowtowing to neoliberalism. Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine” writes that South Africa “stands as a living testament to what happens when economic reform is severed from political transformation. Politically, its people have the right to vote, civil liberties and majority rule. Yet economically, South Africa has surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.”

Yes, Mandela is a hero. I have a poster of him up on my office wall. But beware hero worship.

As for Dennis Brutus, a fond farewell, and condolences to his family. At college, I knew his son Tony, a wonderful person in his own right. Tony, I hug you from afar.

Dennis Brutus, in a poem from “Sirens, Knuckles, Boots,” wrote:

“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.”

Thank you, Dennis Brutus, for fighting the good fight, and for underscoring the triumph of tenderness.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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