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Nelson Mandela, Shakespeare and The Robben Island Bible

The world is full of extraordinary people. Mostly they are unknown outside their immediate community. Occasionally they enjoy a brief renown. More rarely, their lives will be remembered for centuries to come. Nelson Mandela is one such person. Along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he is one of the truly great leaders of the last century. Without him, South Africa might have faced decades of bloodshed. Its future is still uncertain, but he gave his country freedom and continues to give it hope.
Mandela’s recent health scare was in part due to the fact that he is now an extremely old man. It was also due to a lung condition related to the tuberculosis he suffered whilst in prison on Robben Island. His twenty seven year incarceration is now part of the Mandela legend. Less familiar is the important role Shakespeare played in his captivity, as well as the lives of fellow inmates.
What was to become known as the Robben Island Bible belonged to prisoner 183/72, Sonny Venkatrathnam. Imprisoned during the 1970s, he disguised his copy of Shakespeare’s complete works by pasting Deepavali greetings cards onto its covers using porridge for glue. He then told the Afrikaner warders it was his bible, knowing that ‘There are two things he’s scared of: his God and his Bible… They did not touch it.’
Conditions on the island were always tough, but harshest between 1962 and 1966. A hunger strike brought some improvement, as did an International Red Cross inspection of the island and testimony given to the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid by former inmate Dennis Brutus. Further hunger strikes finally gained prisoners the right to study.
Such rights might be arbitrarily withdrawn. Warders could be obstructive.  And even once right to study had been granted, there were other obstacles to learning such as an absence of chairs in the prison cells. This at least had the advantage that students were less likely to fall asleep whilst reading.
Education was taken just as seriously by inmates who had had little or no formal education. Books were secretly made out of cement bags. Teachers or those with specialist knowledge used to hold lessons whilst working in the limestone quarry while prisoners organized groupings in the communal cells into those who wished to learn and those who did not. C1, a cell housing up to fifty men, thus became the study area. According to Sedick Isaacs,
‘Somebody clapped his hands and quiet descended over the cell. It was study period… An hour later the same person clapped his hands to signify the study period was over and conversation started again… At eight o’clock the bell rang to tell prisoners that they must now sleep. Only those with study privileges were allowed to stay awake till ten o’clock when a warder would come and flick the lights to indicate it was time to sleep.’
It was into this world that Sonny Venkatrathnam arrived with his ‘bible’.
As he approached his release date, Venkatrathnam passed the book around some of the senior prisoners, asking them to mark the passage they felt had most resonance. Nelson Mandela chose lines fromJulius Caesar. This was not a surprising choice, since the play had profound significance for black African Nationalists. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyere, translated it into Swahili and in 1944 the Youth League of the African National Congress ended its first manifesto with the lines,
‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves that we are underlings.’
A young Nelson Mandela was one of its signatories. The lines he was to mark in theRobben Island Bible three decades later were these,
Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come, when it will come.
The passages marked by Mandela’s comrades in the Robben Island Bible were varied. Walter Sisulu chose from The Merchant of Venice,
‘For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe;
You call me mis-believer, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine.’
Born of a Xhosa woman and white father, Sisulu clearly knew what it was to be despised. Billy Nair, who spent twenty years on the island, marked off a passage from The Tempest. Again, the implications are immediate,
‘This island’s mine…
… and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.’
For a person dispossessed of his land by whites, imprisoned on a barren island, kept in a bare cell and forced to work the hard rock of a quarry the passage is staggeringly apt.
Andrew Masondo also chose from Julius Caesar,
‘Oh, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
The words are powerful, but become multiply more so once placed in context of the treatment Masondo received. It is described by Dennis Brutus,
‘He had been tied to a stake in the centre of his working group…and he had been left there for some time, in the sun… the guards were armed with batons, or leather straps…they waded into the prisoners with batons and straps and sticks and then grabbed wooden pick handles and staves from a nearby storing shed… It was an indescribable fury unleashed.’
After such an experience, Masondo’s take on bleeding pieces of earth and costly blood, is likely to be notably different to that of the average academic.
Most of the information in this piece has been taken from Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island, by Ashwin Desai. It’s a fascinating and at times very moving book, placing Mandela amongst others with whom he shared both the struggle against apartheid and prison. After the years of his presidency and retirement, it has almost come to seem as if he was the only important activist or the ANC the only protest movement.
Reading Revolution reminds us otherwise. Prisoners on the island belonged to the Black Consciousness Movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Pan African Congress, Azanian People’s Liberation Army and many others.
The portrait that emerges of Mandela is of a man of huge intelligence, thoughtfulness and strength of character though not an easy person to know. Richard Stengel, who ghosted Mandela’s autobiography, said of him, ‘The man and the mask are one.’ Ahmed Kathrada, who spent twenty five years in prison with Mandela put it more simply, ‘He’s impenetrable.’
Ashwin’s view of post-apartheid South Africa is also questioning; only too aware of the corruption, violence and persistent inequality marring his country. Sonny Venkatrathnam is even more critical,
‘I am bitter. I don’t deny that. I think I’m bitter that so many years of struggle seem to have gone down the drain… we’ve got the right to vote, we’ve got the right to free speech… but we don’t have the right to free education; no free medicine; no free housing or anything like that; which is the crux of democracy. If you don’t have that, to have the right to vote is meaningless.’
Sonny Venkatrathnam’s Robben Island Biblewas one of the concluding exhibits at last year’sShakespeare: Staging the World exhibition at the British Museum. Having to hurry through the final sections, I missed seeing it. It was a shame, but not a great one. It was after all, just anotherComplete Works, though one with Deepavali greetings cards pasted to its covers with porridge, admittedly.
The value of any book isn’t in its materiality, but in its content. Forced into exile on a ‘rotten carcass of a butt’, Prospero took with him the most precious volumes from his library, prized ‘above my dukedom.’ They lined his bare cell and Caliban knew them as a source of power, urging Stephano and Trinculo, ‘First to possess his books; for without them/He’s but a sot, as I am.’
The warders on Robben Island were also aware that knowledge is power, one of them telling Alcott Dumelelo Blow, ‘If we give you education, we are sharpening the spear against us.’ Having won the right to study, prisoners took degrees in law, accountancy and computing - even though they had no computers.
Yet books have power beyond equipping us for law or accountancy, however important these are. They also feed the soul; fire the imagination. They set us free, even from the worst of prisons. As Mandela’s colleague Eddie Daniels put it,
‘Shakespeare was a voyage of discovery. I never knew about Shakespeare, never heard of Shakespeare at primary school, but when I discovered Shakespeare it was beautiful, it was beautiful you know. It was a voyage of discovery for me… to read books which I never ever dreamt of reading was beautiful.’


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