A veteran of the struggle in the truest sense of the word, a fighter until his last breathe, the passing of Comrade Dennis was sad but also a seminal milestone in the history of social movements in South Africa. Dennis made a difference with his life from the earliest days of struggle against Apartheid, and left an impression which for sure will be cherished for many generations to come.
Relatively little is known about him in the constellation of the big stars of the struggle due to his humility and his reflective manner of speaking truth to power, to those placed in power for decades of struggle to achieve finally the new, democratic society of South Africa in 1994. In ideological formations set in rock, he spoke his mind whether to those seeking power, or Apartheid monsters abusing power. Once, when he openly criticised Thabo Mbeki's government for rejecting calls out of hand to not repay the Apartheid Debt, Essop Pahad responded in a most disparaging manner publicly calling Dennis a "drop out from the struggle". These unkind and unwarranted words spoke the headlines of the Sowetan daily newspaper and did more convey the Jubilee message than what Pahad had in mind. In fact he apologized to Dennis out of his own accord. Hit a hero, you hit rock bottom!
In his last years Dennis fought for the many thousands of men and women who gave their lives and liberty for a better future, but who were scandalously left out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process aimed at restoration and reparations. Indeed, Comrade Dennis is counted among 20 victims of Apartheid in a test case lawsuit seeking justice and reparations under the Alien Tort Act in the New York District Court. The judicial process is ongoing and the victims ion the test case are suing the big corporations on behalf of many thousands more, reparations in view of corporate collaboration with Apartheid.
Dennis was born in Port Elizabeth on the 28th of November, 1924. His parents settled in the then Rhodesia but returned to the home town Port Elizabeth when Dennis was four years old. He was a brilliant pupil at school and went on to the Universities of Fort Hare and the Witwatersrand. From early on in life he experienced the stain of Apartheid on his skin being classified as a Coloured. He fought against the marginalization of his people and by the late 1950's, when it was high tide for the mainstream liberation movement with the Defiance Campaigns, he was a banned person for long periods of his most productive years of his life, and finally imprisoned on Robin Island in 1960. His faith in a humanity that heals itself speaks in his poetry, and he saw the reality that sports in a spirit of freedom and justice is the catalyst in building people and societies.
While imprisoned in Robben Island and taken to the city for medical attention, he escaped from police custody and was shot in the back while attempting to flee on a bus in Cape Town. Shortly thereafter he was in exile in London, and later still in the US, where he played a forefront role in the sports boycotts against Apartheid.
I met Dennis for the first time in the canteen of the Eskom Conference Centre in Johannesburg, while attending the founding meeting of the Jubilee Anti Debt Movement, aimed at getting the Apartheid era debt declared odious and not repayable. That was way back in 1998 shortly after the ANC's scrapping of the Marshals Volunteer Corps inspired by Comrade Walter Sisulu. Dennis was a quiet person and humble person. He had a healthy phobia for imposed, top-down structures and a great believer that a love for justice and equity directs social movements from the bottom up. In his view, leaders are to be weather veins who should come and go and not cling to leadership pretending they are the rudders with ideological pilots in their heads.
I had an immediate liking for the man and we became good friends. As always, with Dennis the small things in life count and I enjoyed his witticisms that came from his customary spontaneous manner.One day I was driving him through East London when he asked me to drive on, but around the block and stop at the exact same place he redirected me from. Not knowing what was up with him, whether he saw something that needed attention, I fulfilled his request. I came to a stop in the middle of Argyle Street, in front of Procter House. I had to turn off the car as close to the kerb as I could while he went into a quiet meditation. After he came out of the mediation he told me, "that was very healing, thank you Berend". Why? Well, in his years on the run from the security police he was caught in East London, detained and interrogated in that very same Procter House where the Security Police in those days had their "chambers".
Our mission in town was to look up the CNA for a few journals, including The Economist. The man behind the counter, a white, gave it to him in a civil manner greeting him friendly with, "enjoy your day". With a wry smile he turned to me as we walked out of the CNA and said, "you know, in the old days when I bought The Economist the salesperson invariably would ask, 'is this for your master?'" I immediately could picture a scene like that. "I asm glad to caught the irony of it", he said.
Dennis, the Poet and the Fighter for Justice,
Still with us and to me, in this precious poem he wrote: