The APC’s special event, ‘A Conversation on The Robben Island Bible’, attracted a large audience and lively debate. We felt especially honoured to welcome ex-prisoners, Khwedi Mkhaliphi, who attended with his wife, Ruth Mkhaliphi, the artist Lionel Davis (also a formerly banned person) and Yasien Mohamed. Both Davis and Mohamed are well-known tour guides on Robben Island. The event was organised and chaired by APC Honorary Research Fellow, Dr June Bam.
The presentation evolved around the play, The Robben Island Bible, by British playwright and lecturer at St Mary’s University in London, Matthew Hahn. Hahn also presented video clips of the interviews he did with former political prisoners of the Island, as well as clips of staged readings of scenes from his play. These included the passages of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, which were marked by the prisoners as meaningful for them, on request of Sonny Venkatrathnam. The book was brought to Venkatrathnam by his wife, Theresa, during his time of incarceration. While on the Island, he disguised it as a ‘religious book’ with Hindu religious motifs pasted onto it. According to Venkatrathnam, the warders feared two things: ‘the authorities, and God’. Hahn introduced his work in conversation with Robben Island CEO Sibongiseni Mkhize, and global Shakespeare scholar David Schalkwyk.
In recalling his ‘first encounter’ with the book, Hahn recollected the detail of the scent of eucalyptus leaves that emanated from between the pages, carrying the trace and scent of the Island. Speaking of the often controversial memories the interviews with ex-political prisoners brought to the fore, Hahn said that the genre of drama is especially able to embrace the multidirectional and, at times, conflicting memories of the ex-political prisoners – ‘since this is (also) what makes a good drama.’
Hahn sees the book as a repository of traces, resonating with hints of the thoughts and concerns of the prisoners at specific moments in time, which he then translated into the staged readings, which we viewedviewed – for instance, SB Benghu’s choice of a passage in Henry V that speaks of tolerance, of different elements that constitute a whole, or Chuk Iwuji’s reading of Wilton Mkwayi’s choice of Malvolio’s utterances from Twelfth Night.
At the APC event, Khwedi Mkalipi read his selection of Puck from A MidsummerNight’s Dream.
Of course, Nelson Mandela’s choice was included in the clips, which, as we hear it today, resounds profoundly with his Rivonia Trial speech:
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 CEO of Robben Island Museum, Sibongiseni Mkhize, drew the audience’s attention to the question of how we think of and represent Robben Island today, especially in the light of the deeper history of the Island: ‘Robben Island is not reducible to the Robben Island of the political prisoners under apartheid,’ he said, and spoke of the Island’s first-known political prisoner, the Khoisan leader and interpreter, Autshumao. He also spoke of the location’s history as a place of banishment for people infected with leprosy, and as a place of exile for early political prisoners, including women (such as the Khoisan interpreter, Krotoa), and unwanted persons as far back as the 17th century; of Imam Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, who was exiled to the Island in the 1740s, and imprisoned religious and political leaders from the Eastern Cape during the Frontier Wars of the 19th century – including the much revered Xhosa prophet and leader, Nxele Makana, who drowned while trying to escape with others from the Island.
Mkhize reminded us that, even when speaking of the recent past, we often exclude political prisoners, like Robert Sobukwe, but also internees from Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique. Who, he asked, is honoured as a political prisoner today? In illustrating this point, he drew attention to the large number of detainees under apartheid, many of whom (women and white male political prisoners) were not incarcerated on the Island but on the mainland. Mkhize’s insightful interventions led to a robust discussion of the politics of representation.
The second respondent, David Schalkwyk, distinctively put into perspective the meaning of the ‘Robben Island Bible’ for the political prisoners: firstly, he made clear that it does not appear in any of the memoirs of the political prisoners he knows. Secondly, he recalled the position of an ANC politician, who asserted that the prisoners at the time were: ‘inspired by the Freedom Charter, not by Shakespeare…’
Lionel Davis, who has been a visitors’ guide at Robben Island’s educational centre for many years, asked: ‘What do young South Africans take from the Island?’ He posed a further related question as to whether this World Heritage Site was still an important point of identification for young South Africans.
In answer to this, Khwedi Mkhaliphi spoke of the past struggle as an anchor for identification, of the bravery, faith, deprivation of the prisoners, of ‘not reading the newspaper, not knowing what was happening in the country and in the world’. He also pointed to the role of women in the struggle, as fighters, yet also as the wives and girlfriends of those confined to the Island; of these women being followed and spied on. ‘How come [is it],’ he asked, ‘that now the only person who played a role in the struggle [at least in international discourses] is Mandela?’
Hopefully, as Hahn’s staged readings and play circulate, it will become clearer and clearer to audiences around the world that this was not the reality of South Africa’s broad-based struggle against the injustices of apartheid.