The Robben Island Bible and the SA story
21 December 2012
The liberation leaders and activists who served on Robben Island prison came alive
on a London stage in July 2012 in a staged reading of The Robben Island
- inspired by a disguised copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare -
that highlighted the power and resonance of the South African story.
The reading of the script by Matthew Hahn, an American-born playwright and drama
lecturer who has interviewed eight of the surviving Robben Island prisoners, took
place at the Southbank Centre, one of the world's leading entertainment centres, in
an event co-sponsored by Brand South Africa.
At the centre of The Robben Island Bible
story are the men who were
forced to work long hours chipping stones from the island quarry over three decades.
But in their spare time they debated strategy to overthrow apartheid, and eventually
studied and read whatever they could find to assist in the process.
Bible by William Shakespeare'
One of the books that they read and debated for many hours was a copy of the
Complete Works of William Shakespeare which was sent to Sonny Venkatrathnam, a
prisoner from the Unity Movement in the 1970s who lives with his wife and family in
Durban, by his wife Theresa.
The book was initially impounded but later returned to Venkatrathnam when he
convinced a sympathetic warder that it was the “the Bible by William Shakespeare”.
Coming from the Hindu faith, Venkatrathnam later disguised the cover of the book
with Diwali (Hindu festival of light) greeting cards.
The book became one of the most treasured documents on the island.
Six months before he left the island in 1977 Venkatrathnam asked his 32 fellow-
prisoners in the single-cell section which included the most senior leadership figures
of the liberation movements, to choose their favourite passage from Shakespeare
and sign their name alongside their
and The Tempest
as the most popular and keenly debated texts, focusing on issues such as loyalty,
betrayal and assassination and what the legacy would be of the assassination of evil
Robben Island's 'Reading Revolution'
The staged reading of The Robben Island Bible
was preceded by a
passionate introduction to the evening by South African author Ashwin Desai, who
recently published Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island
(Unisa press, 2012).
As Desai notes in his book: "There was a camaraderie on the island, political
discussions amid the struggle to survive. For Venkatrathnam, there was
Venkatrathnam’s interest in Shakespeare had been intensified by an essay he wrote
at university on the jesters in Shakespeare’s plays.
Desai: "The prison setting suddenly made so many lines resonate with new
Following the staged reading was a lively panel chaired by South African actress
Pamela Nomvete, with Hahn and Desai and one of the actors, South African-born
Vincent Ebrahim of the Kumars fame, with many questions from the packed audience
of some 300 people. The conversations went well into the night at a reception
hosted by Brand South Africa.
Desai spoke about the importance of the Robben Island prisoners as an example to
the youth of today and their relevance to the current heated debates going on
about the form and structure of South Africa’s future economic and political models
and the need to honour the spirit, integrity and vision of the men on Robben Island.
Inclusivity and tolerance was a strong theme, and it was moving in the extract from
Hahn’s script to see the full spectrum of liberation leaders presented discussing their
chosen quotes from Shakespeare: Eddie Daniels from the Liberal Party; Saths Cooper
from the black
consciousness movement; Neville Alexander from the Unity Movement;
Theo Cholo, Michael Dingake, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and
Nelson Mandela from the ANC; Kwede mohlobe (Kailipi) from the Pan Africanist
Desai is passionate that the example of the Robben Islanders should be used to spark
a reading revolution in South Africa which informs the debate about South Africa’s
future in the same way that the study of Shakespeare and other texts on Robben
Island informed the anti-apartheid struggle and helped win freedom for all.
Playwright 'inspired' by Robben Island survivors
Hahn, who first read about the Robben Island Bible in a brief mention in the late
Anthony Sampson’s authorised biography of Mandela, admits that his life has been
changed by the inspiration he has experienced interviewing eight of the surviving
Robben Island prisoners.
He visited South Africa again recently to pursue his vision of drama and
being used as a major tool for development of the country and its people.
Hahn’s staged reading was first performed at the Richmond theatre in London in 2009
in collaboration with iconic South African actor John Kani.
Greg Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and his partner
Sir Anthony Sher, were instrumental in getting the Robben Island Bible to Stratford-
on-Avon for a major Shakespeare exhibition in 2006.
Doran’s production of Julius Caesar
, the first-ever RSC production with
an all-black cast, drew capacity audiences in British theatres this year, and a filmed
version has been shown on BBC television.
Shakespeare was at the centre of Britain’s Cultural Olympiad, an arts and culture
outreach which coincided with the hosting of the 2012 Olympics in London.
Robben Island bible at British Museum exhibition
The Robben Island bible, on loan to the British Museum, was a
centre-piece in the
hugely successful exhibition "Shakespeare: Staging the World", which ran at the
British Museum from 19 July through to 25 November.
The internationally renowned director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, focused
in May on the Robben Island bible in the last of a 20-part series of BBC radio
programmes highlighting 20 objects on display in the Shakespeare exhibition.
He said it was one of the most powerful examples of Shakespeare’s legacy that his
writings could be of such influence in a political prison at the southern tip of Africa
more than 400 years after his birth.
Dora Thornton, the curator of the exhibition, noted: "The book was used in the same
way as the Bible has been used down the ages: as a constant reference for debating
the moral issues of the day."
Telling South Africa's unique story
The engagement of the audience at the Southbank Centre was a powerful reminder
that the South African
story is the rock on which the South African brand is built and
the medium through which South Africans' unique experience of turning adversity into
triumph can be best communicated globally.
We may have gold and amazing scenery, mountains, sunshine, beaches and game
parks, and we are thankful for that. But it is the people of South Africa who move
and inspire the world with their achievements, human spirit and determination not to
settle for second best however difficult it may be getting there.
Just as the writings of Shakespeare resonate around the world 400 years after his
life, so will the readings and debates of the Robben Island prisoners will resonate for
centuries to come.
All the more so when we learn to take ownership of the richness of our own heritage
and treasure and showcase priceless symbols and objects such as the Robben Island
bible, which is becoming such a source of inspiration to audiences in Britain and the
rest of the
John Battersby is UK country manager of Brand South Africa and a former
newspaper editor and foreign correspondent. Brand South Africa co-sponsored the
Robben Island Bible event, which was programmed by the Southbank Centre and the
Nelson Mandela Centre at the Museum for African Art in New York City.