Nelson Mandela and the Robben Island Bible
By SABHBH CURRAN
The life of Nelson Mandela still captures the imagination. Hence the success of Mandela Trilogy performed by Cape Town Opera, which is currently touring the UK. It melds Xhosa folk music, jazz and modern opera; and follows Mandela – who is played by three different actors – from child to revolutionary.
It is an unorthodox approach to biography, and it got me thinking about the difficulty of documenting such a varied life, and in particular the period – almost two decades – Mandela spent in Robben Island prison, which is dramatized in Mandela Trilogy’s final act. Those who have heard the opera may be interested in a relic from this time, the Robben Island Bible (RIB), which gives us another fascinating angle on it. The "bible" is in fact a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare – smuggled into Robben Island prison in the 1970s – that has long held potent anti-Apartheid associations. It is disguised in Diwali paper, masquerading as a religious text; in it thirty-four prisoners have marked and autographed passages that are significant to them. Those prisoners include Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Mandela himself.
The prisoners' selections are moving and revealing – and potently symbolic. Billy Nair’s choice of the assertion “This island’s mine” bristles with Caliban’s pent-up fury and baffled territorial claims, and becomes for Nair an aggressive proclamation of possession over Robben Island itself. Julius Caesar is, unsurprisingly, the most regularly chosen play in the RIB: from Can Themba’s South-Africanized 1960s version of the play to the RSC artistic director Gregory Doran’s recent all-black, African adaption (2012), the play has continued to offer a paradigm of political insurrection. By 1977, when Mandela signed the RIB, South Africa had been through the systematic homeland development, popular removals and industrial decentralization of apartheid. His selection from Shakespeare (signed “NRD Mandela 16-12-77”) is a defiant one:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant 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 lines echo his experience of near-execution during the 1960s Rivonia Trial, recalled in Mandela’s autobiography (1995): “I was prepared for the death penalty. To be truly prepared for something, one must expect it”.
If Mandela saw something of his own resolve in Caesar, then South Africa itself could contemplate its reflection in Shakespeare’s portrayal of ancient Rome. “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!”, Cassius exclaims; Mark Antony, for his part, envisions “domestic fury and civil strife”, of “carrion men” and mothers who “smile” over their mutilated children. South Africa made the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 but, decades earlier, the Robben Island prisoners had no assurances that this would ever happen. Laloo Chiba, sentenced to eighteen years' imprisonment for heading the anti-apartheid sabotage units of uMkhonto we Sizwe (Zulu for "Spear of the Nation"), selected as his passage Brutus’s endorsement of continuing battle against the army of Octavius in Julius Caesar – “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”. Did Chiba find self-reassurance here – and some degree of self-justification for his actions?
With twentieth-century names inscribed over an Elizabethan text, the “Robben Island Bible” continues to be, as Dora Thornton, curator of the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the world exhibition (2012) argues, “an object that says so much about what Shakespeare still means”. Through the synthesis of printed word and written word, the literary artefact becomes a living text – an object denoting shared values and, as the retention of its nickname “Bible” suggests, an article of devotion.