Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Robben Island Bible at Oxford University


riboxford1More than 50 delegates to the 20 years of Democracy conference at Oxford University attended the special reading of the Robben Island Bible by Matthew Hahn in the Nissan Lecture Theatre of Thursday night.
The reading was held on the eve of a major–two-day conference organised by Professor William Beinart and his team from the African Studies Centre at Oxford. The conference attracted over 300 academic papers and covers a wide range of topics related to South Africa’s first 20 years as a democracy.
The keynote address was delivered by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and speakers included the most renowned domestic and international academic experts on South Africa and the launch of Hugh Macmillan’s eagerly-awaited The Lusaka Years (Jacana) and Busani Ngcaweni’s Liberation Diaries: Reflections on 20 Years of Democracy.
South African actor Jack Klaff and British actor Jeffery Kissoon brought back the rich dialogue between the country’s liberation leaders incarcerated in the single-cell high security section of the island prison.
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 movements including the top leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) – Nelson Mandela. Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki; the Black Consciousness Movement’s Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley; the Liberal Party’s Eddie Daniels and leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Unity Movement including Neville Alexander and Sonny Venkatrathnam’s.
Venkatrathnam’s late wife, Theresa, smuggled the Collected Works of Shakespeare onto the island for the literature-starved prisoners and disguised the book with stickers from the Hindu Festival, Dewali, presenting it first as the Hindu scriptures and then as “the bible by William Shakespeare.”
Thirty-two prisoners marked and signed texts which 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 and he – and other prominent leaders of the ANC such as Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani – quoted frequently from Shakespeare in their speeches after they returned from exile in 1990 ahead of the 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 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.
Matthew Hahn, a story-teller and editor and lecturer at St Mary’s University in London, was inspired by the story and travelled to South Africa to interview eight of the surviving Robben Island prisoners.
He wrote a script based on the interviews and the Shakespeare quotes chosen by the prisoners.
Extracts from the script have been performed at the Richmond Theatre (2009), the Southbank Centre (2012), the British Museum (2012) and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington (2013).

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