'Prison Can Put Your Brain to Death'

Ashwin Desai, Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island

Unisa Press, 129pp, £32.00, ISBN 978-1-86888-683-8

reviewed by John Green

There have been literally hundreds of books written about the apartheid period in South Africa, both by outsiders and those who fought and suffered under the system. Reading Revolution provides a unique perspective on the anti-apartheid struggle and a fascinating insight into how literature can sustain resistance and keep hope alive, as well as fundamentally changing lives. Ashwin Desai has interviewed many of those who were incarcerated on Robben Island for their opposition to the apartheid system, including members of Pan African Congress (PAC), the African National Congress (ANC), Communist Party, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the National Liberation Front. They recall how literature became a vital source of education and inspiration for them.

It is perhaps hard today for a younger generation which has seen how Mandela is venerated and admired by people across the political spectrum, to realise that while he and his comrades rotted in the Robben Island prison, few people outside South Africa - apart from small groups of informed leftists - showed any interest in their fate at all. Those politicians like Thatcher, Bush, Cameron et al. who today queue up to be photographed standing next to Mandela, had vilified him as a terrorist only a few years previously. The imprisoned leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle - mainly, but not exclusively, members of the ANC - were invariably condemned to serve their draconian sentences on Robben Island, a bleak and bitterly cold, wind-swept piece of rock a few miles off the coast of Cape Town.

There are always ironic contradictions in any oppressive system, and Robben Island was no exception. The prison became a kind of university for the comrades who languished in its cells. While prisoners were subjected to daily hard labour, vicious beatings and continuous humiliation, some were permitted to pursue study courses and to read books that were allowed through the idiosyncratic censorship, even though these ‘privileges’ were continually frustrated or removed at a whim. At one stage, the prison service protested to the government because the inmates were obtaining degrees and diplomas and becoming more educated than their guards, who invariably only had a few O-levels under their belts. Desai interviews a former Robben Island guard who recalls the absurdity of having to censor books on political science when he didn’t even know what the political science was. Left-leaning books often slipped by the censor whereas a right wing book with the word ‘communist’ in the title would be banned.

The works of Shakespeare made a deep impression on many of the prisoners, who interpreted his words to fit their own struggles and realities. To read the prisoners’ stories of how they learned Latin grammar, simple maths or told each other stories while smashing rocks or pushing wheelbarrows in the quarries is to have one’s eyes prised open to what education can mean for those deprived of it. Their guards often looked on bemused, not understanding what ‘gobbledygook these Kaffirs were muttering’. To read, also, how the inmates cut up pencils into four, to share, and used pieces of old cement bags or soap wrappers to write on, is to understand what scarcity really means. By contrast, the extremely brutal and insidious methods the guards used to cow their captives into submission and to deny them access to the essentials of life, shows humanity at its most base.

Many of those who spent time on Robben Island came from poor rural backgrounds and often couldn’t read or write. It was one of the goals of the leading prisoners to ensure that all inmates left the island with basic literacy and numeracy skills. This was largely achieved. Natoo Babenia, who spent 16 years on the island, said: ‘If you don’t watch out prison can put your brain to death.’ The only way to prevent that was through intellectual and creative activities, even under these most inclement circumstances. Having dedicated their lives to the struggle, many of these revolutionaries would be bitterly disappointed in the post-liberation South Africa, which failed to deliver social justice.

By the time the South African people defeated Apartheid, Soviet communism had collapsed, leaving those now taking power in South Africa, many of whom had dreamed of building a socialist society, in confusion - capitalism was now the only show on the road. This vacuum allowed Western consultants and technocrats to come in and impose their neo-liberal economic ideas on the country. Desai’s book is not only a great read, but is also beautiful visually: the text and photos are superimposed on mock-sepia, dog-eared paper, to give the feel of a weathered and historically valuable album, with photos of the prisoners and of the books they read and marked, and the certificates and diplomas they gained while in prison. This book provides a necessary reminder of the sacrifices made by so many for their fellow compatriots. It tells a story that needs to be kept alive, not least in modern South Africa today.
John Green is a freelance journalist based in London. He is the author of several books, including a biography of the radical artist Ken Sprague and a recent biography of Friedrich Engels.