History and heritage


South Africa, freedom and Shakespeare

14 December 2012

One of the most remarkable stories of South Africa’s freedom struggle took centre stage at the British Museum’s "Shakespeare: staging the World" exhibition, which ran in from 19 July through to 25 November.

The exhibition featured a unique edition of the Collected Works of Shakespeare – known as the Robben Island bible - which includes a signed text by Nelson Mandela highlighting a soliloquy from Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s epic play about tyranny and conspiracy.

    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 Robben Island bible

The Robben Island bible was disguised as the Hindu scriptures by a fellow political prisoner, Sonny Venktrathnam, in the 1970s to avoid seizure by the prison authorities who banned any literature in the island prison and had impounded the book after it was sent to him by his wife, Theresa.

Venkatrathnam later persuaded a sympathetic warder to release the book when he insisted that it was "the bible by William Shakespeare".

The book became a treasured text in the island prison, and Venkatrathnam and 32 prisoners marked and signed chosen quotes which provided a means of discussing political and moral issues relating to the anti-apartheid struggle and what might follow its overthrow.

(The Venkatrathnams, who live in Durban, South Africa, have safeguarded the "bible" for the past three decades since Sonny Venkatrathnam’s release from prison in 1977. The Venkatrathnams are visiting London as guests of the British Museum for this month’s launch of the exhibition.)

The "bible", exhibited in London for the first time this year, was viewed by upwards of 200 000 visitors to the British Museum during the course of the European summer.

The names in the book include the late Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s closest confidante; the late Govan Mbeki, father of the democratic South Africa’s second president, Thabo Mbeki; leaders of the black consciousness movement, Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley; leader of the Unity Movement, Neville Alexander; Liberal Party member Eddie Daniels; and Ahmed Kathrada, a confidante and adviser to Mandela.

"Somehow Shakespeare always had something to say to us," Kathrada told Anthony Sampson in the authorised biography of Mandela.

Sisulu chose Shylock’s "Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe".

Kathrada chose "Once More Unto the Breach" from Henry V, while Govan Mbeki chose "If Music be the Food of Love" from Twelfth Night.

Shakespeare 'a way of talking about politics'

As interesting as the individual choices was the fact that the passages each inmate chose became akin to a calling card for some and continued to have influence in their lives beyond the confines of Robben Island prison.

"After Robben Island the quotations continued to function as proxies or textual carte de visites which were produced in a variety of public forums," according to Professor Isabel Hofmeyr of Witwatersrand University.

She said the first reason was the style of schooling that Mandela and his colleagues experienced at mission schools, which "taught the English language intensively, often requiring pupils to recall large passages by heart".

Alexander Kerr, Mandela’s teacher at Fort Hare University, believed that all pupils should be familiar with the works of Shakespeare and Tennyson, and he taught "with a vividness which made Shakespeare seem totally relevant to contemporary Africa".

The second reason was that Shakespeare offered "an allegorical resource through which to comment on the oppression of apartheid South Africa", in sharp contrast to the "anodyne and apolitical" teaching of English literature at most mission schools.

"Shakespeare, in short, became a way of talking about politics."

Dr Dora Thornton, curator of the Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum, said that the Robben Island bible was one of the most powerful examples of Shakespeare’s enduring legacy and reach 400 years after his writings.

"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," she said.

'More politically relevant than the Bible or Marx'

Also in London, earlier in July, drama lecturer and playwright Matthew Hahn, co-author of this article, presented a staged reading of The Robben Island Bible at the Southbank Centre. The script was drawn from extensive interviews with eight of the dozen or so surviving Robben Island prisoners and interwoven with extracts that prisoners had chosen from the collected works.

Interviewing the former prisoners made a profound impact on Hahn. He found them to be "the most gentle of men".

The most popular choices for the 32 prisoners who highlighted their favourite passages in Shakespeare’s collected works were from Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Tempest and As you Like it.

Mandela and other prominent leaders of the African National Congress, such as Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani, quoted frequently from Shakespeare in their speeches after they returned from exile in 1990 ahead of South Africa’s first democracy elections in 1994.

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 2001. "Successive generations of African leaders saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and for humanity."

The resonances of Julius Caesar

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) presented Julius Caesar with an all-black at various venues around Britain as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Britain’s cultural out-reach during the 2012 Olympic Games.

The play, which was the RSC’s first all-black production, has strong resonance for Africa.

Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, said in an interview that Julius Caesar worked better in Africa than elsewhere. “It has always appealed to people in moments of crisis,” he said.

He said that Julius Caesar’s assassination raised questions today about the way tyrants were removed from power and what and who would take their place.

Julius Caesar was first translated into the African language of Tswana by the South African scholar and author Sol Plaatje (1876-1932), a leading intellectual in the ANC, and published posthumously in 1937.

In 1963, Julius Nyerere, the father and first president of an independent Tanzania, translated the play into Swahili.

"Julius Caesar had more impact than any other play," wrote Sampson. "But in South Africa the play had a deeper resonance, for it vividly described how an oppressed people can realise their potential against tyranny and escape from their sense of inferiority."

In his book The Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island, South African author Ashwin Desai noted how Mandela’s quote from Julius Caesar must have taken him back three decades to 1944, when he was instrumental in drafting a manifesto for the ANC Youth League, campaigning for a more militant African nationalism.

Mandela penned a quote from Cassius in Julius Caesar:

    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars ... But in
    ourselves, that we are underlings.

More Mandela quotes from Shakespeare

Mandela’s most dramatic resort to Shakespeare came in 1964, when he was facing the death penalty in the Rivonia sabotage trial. Desai said that Mandela recalled drawing on the words from Measure for Measure:

    Be absolute for death; either death or life
    Shall thereby be the sweeter.

In his personal memoirs, Conversations with Myself (Macmillan 2010), Mandela recalls two conversations with his late son Thembekile involving Julius Caesar.

In a letter to his daughter Zindzi in 1979, Mandela recalled how a nine-year-old Thembekile had asked him who Mark Antony and Julius Caesar were after he had used Mark Anthony’s betrayal of Caesar as an analogy.

In a letter to his former wife Winnie in 1969, when he was informed by the prison authorities that his 24-year-old son had been killed in a motor accident, Mandela recalled how Thembekile, on his departure for boarding school, had given him "an interesting interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I very much enjoyed".

In a letter to Winnie a year later, in 1970, Mandela used a quote from As You Like It to amplify his point that "the chains of the body are often wings to the spirit".

    Sweet are the uses of adversity
    Which like a toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in the head.

In 1990, addressing business executives, Mandela used a quote from The Merchant of Venice: "Hath not a Jew eyes?" In an address to the British Parliament in 1996 he used a quote from Coriolanus: "We are accounted poor citizens."

The significance of 16th December

The RSC’s Doran said that he thought that the date of Mandela’s signing of Julius Caesar’s speech in the Robben Island bible – 16th December 1977 - was highly significant.

The 16th December is one of the most significant dates on South Africa political and historical calendar.

On that day in 1938, a small detachment of armed boers, white Afrikaner pioneers, defeated thousands of attacking Zulus in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and the adjoining Ncome river, later called Blood River, ran red with the blood of fallen Zulu warriors.

The rifles of the Afrikaners overwhelmed the Zulus armed only with spears. Some 3 000 Zulus were killed and not a single boer was lost.

But the Afrikaners saw the victory as confirmation that God was on their side, while black South Africans mourned the day as a wholesale massacre of their people.

In 1961, Mandela chose 16th December to announce the formation of the military wing of the ANC, Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto we Sizwe) which marked the end of the ANC’s 50 years of peaceful resistance to apartheid.

"We chose December 16 to show that the African had only begun to fight, and that we had righteousness - and dynamite - on our side," Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

On 16th December, 1961, MK, as the armed wing of the ANC was known, launched its first acts of sabotage against the apartheid government.

When the first democracy elections were held in 1994, Mandela insisted, in the face of resistance within his own ranks, that the 16th December continue as a national holiday for all South Africans and be renamed Reconciliation Day.

Shakespeare 'like an African storyteller'

In 1997, Dame Janet Suzman, a South African-born actress enobled for her services to the theatre in Britain and who directed the acclaimed South African John Kani as the first black Othello in South Africa in 1997, went on to direct Kani, the doyen of South African actors, as Claudius in Hamlet in South Africa in 2006.

Kani, who served time and jail for his resistance to apartheid, is as passionate about Shakespeare as Mandela and his colleagues.

He said in an interview in 2006 that at the age of 16 he was fascinated with the lyrical sounds of a Julius Caesar transformed by the click sounds of his native isiXhosa language.

"Shakespeare's words paint pictures in glorious colour in my language. They were written by a man whose use of words fits exactly into Xhosa," said Kani.

"When I first encountered Shakespeare as a boy, I read every word this man had written. To me, he is like an African storyteller."

John Battersby is co-author of Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs (David Elliot Cohen and John Battersby, Sterling 2010). Battersby is author of the Afterword in the updated (2011) version of Mandela: The Authorised Biography (Anthony Sampson: Harper Collins 2011). He is a former correspondent of the New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor and a former editor of The Sunday Independent. He is currently the UK country manager of Brand South Africa, based in London.

Matthew Hahn is a lecturer in Applied Theatre at St Mary’s University College, London. He also works for Theatre for a Change in Ghana and Malawi. He has a degree in political science and journalism from Indian University in the United States and is a gradute of Goldsmiths College Master's theatre directing program. He has visited South Africa twice.

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)

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)

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