The wonderful thing about history is that it provides the most fascinating stories – factual tales that are often more interesting and convoluted than the best spy novels! Himalaya House, still standing today at 165 Julius Nyerere Avenue, is where we begin today’s story, for it was here, in Durban’s first high-rise apartment block, that a number of South Africa’s political stalwarts lived. Close to the offices of the the South African Students Organisation, headed up by Steve Biko, Himalaya House became a central meeting place for various political activists, including Sonny Venkatrathnam, who lived here with his wife and family. Placed under a banning order from 1965 until 1970, Venkatrathnam was eventually arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island in 1972.
One of his few possessions while in jail was the now famous ‘Robben Island Bible’, in reality a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The book was sent to Venkatrathnam in 1975 by his wife, but was confiscated until Venkatrathnam managed to convince a guard that it was the ‘The Bible by William Shakespeare’ – at the time prisoners were only allowed access to religious texts. Once it was back in his possession, to better disguise it from the prying eyes of warders, Venkatrathnam covered it with Diwali greeting cards featuring Hindu deities, which still adorn it today.
Venkatrathnam passed the book around the prison asking fellow inmates to mark their favourite passages. In total thirty-three prisoners signed it, including Mac Maharaj, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela, who selected a passage from the second act of Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths / the valiant never taste of death but once”. After his release Mandela was quoted as saying that in order to be taken seriously as a politician, one must always quote from Shakespeare – and dotted throughout Mandela’s speeches are nods to the great English playwright!
A peculiar tale – just one of the fascinating stories that weave their way through Durban’s Liberation Heritage Route.
Images courtesy of The Times Literary Supplement