Friday, 18 January 2008

O, what men dare do by Anthony Sampson

Banning Shakespeare is much ado about everything in South Africa where the Bard was bigger than the Bible and Marx in the struggle for freedom from apartheid, says Anthony Sampson Sunday 22 April 2001 The Observer There's a sad contradiction behind the attitudes of a teachers' committee in Johannesburg, which last week advised the provincial education department to remove several Shakespeare plays from school reading lists. They rejected Hamlet as 'not optimistic or uplifting'. King Lear was 'full of violence and despair' with a plot which was 'rather unlikely and ridiculous'. Julius Caesar was sexist because it 'elevates men'. Yet Shakespeare for the last 50 years has been one of the main influences behind the liberation movement in South Africa. Shakespeare became more politically relevant than the Bible or Marx. Successive generations of African leaders saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and their humanity. Julius Caesar had more impact than any other play. Africans saw it as a kind of textbook for revolution. In Tanzania, the first President, Julius Nyerere, translated Julius Caesar into Swahili, the common language of East Africa. 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 1944 a group of young black politicians including Nelson Mandela formed the Youth League of the African National Congress to provide a pressure-group for a more militant African nationalism: and its first manifesto ended with the lines from Julius Caesar : The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves that we are underlings. I first realised the full power of that play while I was editing the black magazine Drum in Johannesburg 50 years ago, when I soon realised that my black staff understood it much better than I - because they could identify with the conspirators. Julius Caesar was only one of several Shakespeare plays which Africans found intensely relevant: not only because they convincingly described revolutions, tyrants and human suffering; but also because the seething life of the black townships had many resemblances with Shakespeare's London. 'It was the cacophanous, swaggering world of Elizabethan England which gave us the closest parallel to our own mode of existence,' wrote the young novelist Lewis Nkosi. 'The cloak and dagger stories of Shakespeare.' Mandela learnt Shakespeare in mission schools and at Fort Hare University. It was not surprising that when Mandela faced the possibility of a death sentence in 1964 he should recall the words from Measure for Measure : Be absolute for death; either death or life Shall thereby be the sweeter. Opposition leaders found most solace from Shakespeare when they were imprisoned on Robben Island. The prisoners included Africans, Indians and Coloureds, Muslims, Christians and atheists; but they found a common supporter and teacher in Shakespeare, whose understanding of human courage and sacrifice could reassure them that they were part4 of a much larger world. When the leading prisoners in their segregated block were allowed to gather together, they soon began reciting long passages from Shakespeare: as the academic Nevile Alexander recalled, they were usually the more militant passages from plays such as Coriolanus , Julius Caesar and Henry V. One of the Indian prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam (now an academic in Durban), kept a copy of Shakespeare's works on his shelf, disguised behind Indian religious pictures. He circulated the book to all the leading prisoners asking them to autograph their favourite passages in the margins; and his unique marked volume reveals how individually they approached Shakespeare. Walter Sisulu, Mandela's closest mentor and friend, chose Shylock's Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe But Julius Caesar was the favourite, and Mandela chose Caesar's own fateful words, which he underlined with his signature and dated 16 December 1977: Cowards die many times before their deaths The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I 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 continued to reach back to Shakespeare after he was freed and later became President of South Africa. And the fascination with the Bard remained with the next black generation. Thabo Mbeki, the current President of South Africa, became enthralled by Shakespeare when he was at Sussex University, and has ever since quoted him at every opportunity. When Mandela celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1998, before stepping down as President, Mbeki made a speech speculating about how he would retire to the country, quoting from King Lear: To tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news In the light of this long history of collaboration between black leaders and Shakespeare, the advice of the teachers' committee to reject plays such as King Lear and Julius Caesar looks all the more crass. Not only is their president a passionate Shakespearean; so is the Minister of Education, Kader Asmal. The complete list of disapproved books is even more perverse. The most obviously absurd reject is July's People, the novel by Nadine Gordimer, the white Nobel prize-winner who has been most consistently supportive of black liberation. But the rejects also include works by respected black writers, including Mhudi by Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the ANC in 1912, which is considered anti-Zulu, and the much-praised short story Fools by the academic Njabulo Ndebele, now vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Nor are the books which are recommended obviously more politically correct. Macbeth is given the green light which may not be surprising for it has always been a black favourite. It was translated into Zulu by Robert Sobukwe, the leader of the militant Pan African Congress, who was Mandela's rival and also spent time on Robben Island. And last week in London Macbeth was performed in Zulu to enthusiastic audiences at the Globe Theatre, with much boot-stomping and spear-waving, as part of the current arts festival, 'Celebrate South Africa'. Yet Macbeth is hardly less violent than King Lear or more optimistic than Hamlet. Reports from Johannesburg suggest that the list is more the product of semi-literate and half-baked opinions than of any serious plan to impose political correctness. Ignorance of English literature is part of the tragic legacy of 'Bantu Education' which replaced the mission schools during the apartheid decades. Education Minister Kader Asmal has criticised the committee's recommendations and made clear that he will not allow the books to be removed. So how far should this condemnation of Shakespeare be taken seriously, as a threat of censorship in the future? The right-wing press has absurdly exaggerated its significance. They did not try to ban the books, and their advice has been emphatically rejected. But the South African case is worrying because it suggests a crude demagogic reaction against serious literature, and the country is at a formative stage. Yet the uproar which has followed, and the government's robust response, has reasserted the crucial importance of maintaining freedom of thought. People in every continent, in different times, have found what they want in Shakespeare. For South Africans to reject Shakespeare and Julius Caesar is to reject part of their own history, and their own contribution to world culture. ©Anthony Sampson Anthony Sampson is the author of Mandela, the Authorised Biography, published in paperback by HarperCollins.

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