History and heritage


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 Bible - 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.

'The 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 chosen quote.

Julius Caesar, Hamlet and The Tempest emerged 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 dictators.

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 Shakespeare."

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 meaning."

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 Congress.

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 the arts 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 world.

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.

First staged reading of The Robben Island Bible

John Kani, flanked by Atandwa Kani and Omphile Moulusi, in the first staged reading of The Robben Island Bible at the Richmond theatre in London in 2009 (Photo: The Robben Island Bible)

South Africa, freedom and Shakespeare

The Robben Island bible, a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, was disguised by Diwali cards to prevent its seizure by prison authorities (Photos: British Museum on Facebook)

The Robben Island bible signed by Nelson Mandela

The Robben Island bible, open at a passage from Julius Caesar that was highlighted and dated by Nelson Mandela on 16 December 1977 (Photo: British Museum on Facebook)

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