Apartheid activist Sonny Venkatrathnam died on Friday. Picture: Supplied
Hearing heartbreaking yet inspiring tales of prison life on Robben Island is what will stay with Teneille Pillay after the death of her apartheid activist grandfather Sonny Venkatrathnam on Friday morning.

Venkatrathnam, 84, who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and Mac Maharaj, died in hospital on Friday after taking ill.

He was famously known for Shakespeare’s Bible, which was an edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, that he had covered in old Hindu Deepavali greeting cards to disguise and avoid it being confiscated.

The book was passed around to other prisoners such as Mandela, Maharaj, Raymond Mhlaba, Billy Nair, and Govan Mbeki, to read and mark their favourite passages.

“We grew up listening to these tales, each time told so emotionally, it was as though you could feel the torture they endured.

“My grandfather had a good way with speaking, and he had been a lecturer, so he knew how to draw you into a story. We will miss those times,” said Pillay.

Due to torture in prison, Venkatrathnam was rendered deaf in one ear and suffered a burst hernia. He had been sentenced to two concurrent six-year terms on Robben Island.

“We will definitely carry on his legacy and his commitment to justice and human rights,” said Pillay, adding that messages of condolences had been streaming in from around the world.

He worked for Amnesty International from April 1983, after he was unbanned.

Venkatrathnam was known for leading the organising of the Human Rights Now! concerts, held to increase awareness and celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its 40th anniversary in 1988.

A worldwide tour of 20 benefit concerts took place over six weeks in 1988, and featured singers such as Tracy Chapman, Sting, Peter Gabriel Youssou N’Dour, and Bruce Springsteen.

Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said: “I met Sonny while I was in exile and he hosted me in his home in New York for a few days.

“I found him to be deeply intelligent, committed to the maximum to our struggle for liberation, and compassionate at the same time.

“His passing is a sad loss for the people of Africa.”

Venkatrathnam’s body will be at Clare Estate Crematorium between 11am and 2.30pm on Sunday.

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