Shakespeare on Robben Island

©Matthew Hahn

Article by Ms Kassiani Lythrangomitis, in charge of web and social media for the Global Education Monitoring Report

This week on the 27th of April marks South Africa’s 22nd year of democracy, it is a date that commemorates the country's first democratic election in 1994, a day of reflection and celebration for many of those that had fought for and made great sacrifices for the liberation of the country from apartheid rule.

As the years go by we hear of many untold stories and the names of those who were not as well known as some, are slowly getting woven into the tapestry of the public story.

One of those people is Sonny Venkatrathnam, his story involves the complete works of William Shakespeare.

Sonny Venkatratham was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them.

When the book arrived on the island in the mid-1970’s, it became a coveted possession of prisoners denied reading material other than the Bible. The book was confiscated because it was used to educate, Venkatrathnam went back to the guards and asked; “Can I please have my bible back”, and thereafter he covered it with Hindu gods to disguise it as a Hindu Bible. The debates that took place in the high-security “c” section of the island prison gave rise to the inspiring South African story known as the Robben Island Bible.

The list of prisoners in the single cell section – there were 30 at any given time – reads like a who’s who of the liberation movement including the top leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) – Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki; Saths Cooper, Eddie Daniels and Neville Alexander.

The book became a treasured text and 32 prisoners marked and signed texts which became their hallmarks and provided a means of discussing political and moral issues.

Mandela studied Shakespeare’s plays at the Methodist mission school he attended in the Eastern Cape.

Anthony Sampson, Mandela’s official biographer, noted that for the second half of the last century, Shakespeare’s plays were one of the main influences on the liberation movement and its leaders.

“Shakespeare became more politically relevant than the Bible or Marx,” the late Sampson wrote in the Observer in 2001.

“Successive generations of African leaders saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and for humanity.”

Mandela’s selection from the Robben Island bible was a soliloquy from Julius Caesar, a play which had a particular resonance for Mandela and other ANC leaders because it raised the question as to whether it was justified to conspire against despotic leaders such as Julius Caesar.

Mandela chose the passage:

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.

Mandela’s entry, signed in his own neat hand, was dated: 16th December, 1977.

Sonny Venkatratham and the Robben Island Bible returned to Robben Island to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23 April.


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