South African poet-in-exile keeps up barrage against apartheid

Dennis V. Brutus, a political refugee from South Africa, does not think much of his homeland's latest ''reform'' to permit some nonwhites to vote. Growing up in South Africa, he was classified as a ''Colored'' - one of the groups just granted a limited right to participate in the national government. But to Mr. Brutus, doling out constitutional carrots to placate a few nonwhite people does not a democracy make.

''I would refuse to vote if I lived in South Africa today,'' Brutus says.

South Africa's ruling white minority voted 2 to 1 on Nov. 3 in favor of a new constitution that brings Coloreds (people of mixed heritage) and Indians into Parliament as junior partners. South Africa's 22 million blacks, who comprise 72 percent of the population, still are excluded.

Brutus, a poet and tenured English professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, has lived in the United States since 1971. September marked the end of a 30-month legal battle he waged to win political asylum and the right to stay in the United States.

Brutus recently came to New England as a visiting professor at three New England colleges. In an interview, he criticized ''the reform election as the first of a series of actions by South Africa to erase its international image as a racist nation practicing apartheid.'' He foresees these actions:

* An attempt by South Africa to return to international Olympic competition next summer when the 1984 Olympiad is held in Los Angeles. Before he was exiled, Brutus led the fight to have his homeland banned from the Olympic Games. (South Africa was expelled from the games after 1970.)

* A policy that would permit economic upgrading of blacks (Africans) in South African industry, but would continue to force blacks to live in compounds and continue to deny them the ballot.

* An attempt to sell the image of South Africa to the US as a nation edging toward more rights for nonwhites.

The most potent antidote to South Africa's apartheid policies, Brutus says, is divestiture of American investments in South Africa - whether by multinational corporations, by investing groups such as universities or pension funds, or by state actions such as taken by Massachusetts. The Bay State law proposes that the state not do business with firms that are major investors in South Africa.

The (Leon) Sullivan Principle - designed to upgrade conditions and jobs for black workers at factories run by American firms in South Africa - has not worked, Brutus says.

''It's no surprise to me,'' he says. ''This plan was a fig leaf used by corporations to cover up the obscenity of the exploitation of black labor. At its best it was an economic band-aid that exposes the political powerlessness of African people.''

During the interview, Brutus also touched on personal problems. The most important are his legal status as a political refugee and the cloud over his wife ''as a woman without a country.'' She lives with their children in England.

The crisis occurred after Zimbabwe became an independent nation in 1980. (Brutus was born in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, but grew up with his family in South Africa.) England was no longer responsible for his visa, and Zimbabwe did not issue him a new one in time for registration deadlines for aliens. The US Immigration and Naturalization Agency leaned toward deporting him.

But this September, in Immigration Court in Chicago, Judge Irving Schwartz reclassified Brutus an ''asylee,'' giving him political asylum in the US. His next challenge is to gain political-refugee status for his wife. ''I want my wife and children here with me as a family,'' he says.

Brutus, who wears his hair long and his beard flowing, is not convinced that South Africa's announced changes are better for nonwhites.

''Accepting the vote weakens the power of coloreds and Asians in South African society,'' he says. ''And it does not begin to address the central issue - the exclusion of 22 million blacks from voting.'' Blacks are 72 percent of the South Africa's population. The 4.5 million whites comprise 15.8 percent and the 3.5 million Indians, 12.2 percent.

The referendum ''fixed in concrete'' the constitutional exclusion of the nation's majority population from the polls, Brutus says. ''I see no reason to believe that blacks can ever be included in the voting process under the latest reform,'' he adds. Coloreds and Indians will reject the change, he says. ''They will be inclined not to be involved in this electoral sham.

''Instead, they will make a clearer commitment to support the black majority. They know that those who ally themselves with the white minority will be swept from power together with whites when the black majority does gain access.''

Being at odds with the government of South Africa and its policy of apartheid - strict racial segregation and discrimination against black Africans - is not new to Professor Brutus. As a young adult he often criticized this policy.

For nearly 20 years, Brutus clamored for integrated Olympic squads. In part, his agitation led to the barring of South African athletes from the Olympic Games of 1964 and 1968. In 1970 South Africa was expelled from the International Olympic Committee for excluding blacks from competion for its Olympic squads.

South Africa expelled Brutus in 1966. He moved with his wife and children to England, then to the US.

''At last I'll have time to write poetry once more,'' he says.

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