Words as weapons

Reading Revolution:

Shakespeare on Robben Island

THE ECONOMIC and political crisis that engulfs great swaths of the world today is resulting in much soul-searching, not least about the certainties of the market. Growing inequality and unemployment demand answers from those who believed the rising tide of globalization would lift all boats. More parochially, this book also comes at a time of introspection in an organization, the African National Congress (ANC), which is one hundred years old and has firmly established its political control over the country it was founded to rule.

As Desai makes clear from the outset, this is a book about books. Books played a number of roles on Robben Island, the notorious prison where the apartheid regime held its political prisoners; from tools for basic literacy to weapons in a fight between the different liberation currents that the prisoners represented. The stories revealed here through the islanders searching recollections of books and island life paint a rich mosaic of liberation struggles consisting of many diverse political performers. Yet unlike the works of Shakespeare, this history has been overwritten by a very particular nationalist story. The book could then, in part, be seen as an attempt to rescue from the condescension of history some of the lives that gave life to a movement. Themed around interviews with some of the less well-known former prisoners like Mzwandile Mdingi, driven by quotes from classic literature, and enveloped in an appealing aesthetic design, the book personalizes their stories but still manages to go beyond the smallness of self.

The English writer Michael Rosen argues that to better understand Shakespeare it is important to put him in context and the context in Shakespeare. His work spanned a period of great uncertainty and anxiety about how society was to be ruled and the period in which he was alive was punctuated by riots and rebellions. It was a time of conflict and struggle and his plays are full of it. In Medieval Europe popular belief had it that people’s fate lay in the stars, the gods, and spirits—it was beyond their control. Shakespeare’s work reflects a period when people began to slowly, falteringly recognize that the world could be found anew through conscious action. What we find in much of Shakespeare’s work is a clash of worldviews and of viewpoints in action through which he asks us to engage in those debates. Consequently in much of his plays there is huge scope to re-read and reinterpret the scripts.

Into this context and through the prison walls and battered books of the island, Desai asks all of us to reflect in this centenary year of the ANC. To reflect on the desires and principles that drove those who, isolated on Robben Island, devoured the works of Shakespeare and other books. We must “Not . . . be imprisoned by history but . . . make it,” exclaims Desai. The subversive in Shakespeare carried many a prisoner through their prison time. For those ex-islanders who are disillusioned about South Africa, where is that subversive to be found today?

Desai was one of the first public voices to raise awkward questions about the unfolding transition in his book We Are the Poors. The effervescent certainties that were woven through this book were criticised for revelling in the comfort of being a critical outsider safely encamped on the margins of politics in the social movements. Desai and others read into the very emergence and acts of the social movements a new subversive and invested much in their potential to represent the future of radical politics. This illusion has since been remolded by the sharp jostle of experience. Although one of the first to champion the social movements, Desai has also been one of the first to question the romanticization that quickly framed much talk and writing by many of those closest to them.

Peeking in on the world of those who played their part in the liberation struggle, Desai is asking South Africans (including himself) to scrutinize new and old histories, including the history of the victors laid down in the new history books and political discourses that dominate South Africa today—the history being made and remade now. Like the prison doors on the island, the future of South Africa has never been so open.

Issue #102

Fall 2016

World economy

The return of crisis
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