Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Opening up the Robben Island Bible

12 September 2014

Last month, 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.  

Monday, 22 September 2014

Video of reading at Michael Oak School, Cape Town presented by The Shakespeare Society of South Africa (Cape Town branch).

Here is the link to the reading performed on 22 August at Michael Oak School, Cape Town presented by The Shakespeare Society of South Africa (Cape Town branch).  Maurice Podbrey produced and cast the play.  Actors were Vaneshran Arumugam, Andile Nebulane, Andrew Roux & Chi Mhende.  It was attended by students from Michael Oak School, Bergvliet High, Constantia Waldorf and Stellenbosch Waldorf Schools. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The work continues in Johannesburg

I am so pleased to hear that the Southwest Gauteng College and their students have continued to work in the community centre for homeless young men in Johannesburg. 

I was so impressed with their work during the ‘Ethical Leadership’ workshop that they facilitated a drama workshop with me later in the week in Maboneng.

It is so important that this sort of work becomes sustainable and with the energy of these young students and the support of their college, it is my hope that these workshops can continue.

Below is a recent email from one of the SWGC students and below that from the gentleman who runs the homeless shelter:

Dear Matthew
Trust all is good that side and hope you are missing us this side. 
We had gone to see the boys on Friday the 12th. We spent half the day
with them and it was fun. The most fun part as we went with the group
that was in workshop(hope you still remember them all) we were about 9
in number if that isn't good enough..the College borrowed us
their mini bus to use..(That was great!!!!)
Most of those faces we met with you have left. So Friday we
saw new faces and they had as much fun as we had with them. We had
activities lined up and played games and they were delighted.
Seems like the College is going to help out in this in terms of
assisting the boys in shaping their future. Mr Mojela is also
instrumental in guiding us as to how to get the school on board. This
seems like a wonderful journey that you have started for us.. We thank
u again and hope you will visit again soon.
Be well Matthew,we miss you and thank you for everything.
Kind,Warm Regards,


Mr Mojela,

We were greatly privileged by your visit to the centre. Your programme is valuable to our vision to give children a future. As I told you, we might not always have children who qualify, but we will always in touch for the few that we come across. It is unfortunate that I didn't manage to sit throughout your presentation on Friday. Please be encouraged to come back as soon as you students have something they can share with our boys.

Kind regards