By day they were stone-breakers, at night they were confined to prison cells. But in the books and other writing material that came their way, the Robben Islanders found an escape.
Reading Revolution, Shakespeare on Robben Island, tells the story of prisoners who were incarcerated because they dared to fight for freedom from apartheid, but who liberated themselves intellectually through reading. It is a book about books and the harrowing lengths to which political prisoners on Robben Island went so that they could read, write and study.
“If there was relief from the tedium and toil, it was reading.”
Even though it was not freely available their thirst for knowledge and information kept them going and they devised ingenious ideas to get reading and writing material.
While not everyone was entitled to study, the prisoners came up with a plan and everyone with a degree was given a subject to teach.
“Even places meant to be punishing, such as the lime quarry, became sites of inspiration and sharing.”
However, as Desai writes, they only received a “trickle of books” and those books had to be shared and they came up with clever ways to do that.
At the heart of Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island is the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a copy owned by prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam.
When the book was confiscated by warders, Venkatrathnam managed to get it back by convincing the authorities it was a Bible written by Shakespeare.
Once back in his hands his fellow inmates came up with a plan to disguise it so that it would not be taken away from him again.
Even paper was a rare commodity, but again the prisoners showed their ingenuity and cement bags were cut up and used as paper.
The book also contains other stories which are funny, heartbreaking and unbelievable.
The warders denied ANC veteran Ahmed Kathrada a copy of Indian Delights, a cookbook.
Marcus Solomon recalls how envious they were of the PAC’s Johnson Mlambo who was the first person to get permission to continue his studies.
However, because Mlambo was prohibited from sharing his books with anyone, he was put into a single cell.
While writing and researching the book, Desai said: he was so inspired that he went back and read all the classical texts which the prisoners had read at the time.
And he is hoping that through his latest offering he can inspire another reading revolution.
“Reading can so profoundly shape your life, how you interpret events…”
He says “any excuse for not reading goes against this incredible story”.
Desai notes that while Robben Island prisoners were seen as uncivilised people and barbaric savages by some, their quest for knowledge, intellectual acumen and sense of justice far overshadowed that of their white warders. The 129-page coffee table book was recently released by Unisa Press and should be on the bookshelves shortly.
While the book is about reading and about the remarkable courage of the Robben Island prisoners, Desai’s strong political bent and social activism shines through his writing. He ends the book with a warning that because the masses of South Africans are still struggling for a better life almost two decades after democracy there are signs that the Struggle is far from over.
“… ‘small’ rebellions across the country point to the makings of a generalised social implosion because the present arrangements are unsustainable, and the memories of what was promised are still raw. The often brutal suppression of community protest is indicative of a government that has run out of ideas, that tinkers with ‘new growth paths’ while bemoaning their impotence in the face of global forces.”