Speaking Volumes: The reader of Robben Island

Letter from Mandela to Judge Pillay, smuggled out of Robben Island; from the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory 

(Published in the Business Standard, June 24th, 2013, as news came in that Nelson Mandela had been hospitalized.) 

The prison rules on Robben Island allowed the incarcerated to study, with some caveats. Their most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, meant to continue reading, no matter how small his cell.

The Robben Island library was limited, though prisoners could ask for books if they were enrolled, as Mandela was, in a university course. Mandela wrote in his autobiography,  “We had access to many unremembered mysteries and detective novels and all the works of Daphne du Maurier, but little more.”

Political books were off limits, especially if they had “red” or “war” in the title. South Africa’s censors, more literal than literary, would not allow Little Red Riding Hood or The War of the Worlds into the prison library.

Newsmagazines were strictly banned, until Mandela’s fellow prisoner Mac Maharaj asked a friend who was studying economics to request The Economist. As Mac had reasoned, the authorities would let the newsweekly through: they judged books by their title. Mandela and his friends had what they wanted most, news of the world, until the censors found out what The Economist was.

Censorship was a casual fact of South African life under apartheid, though Mandela had not grown up in a censored world. As a young boy, the stories that he remembered were not written: memories of the tribal meetings at the Great Place, where everyone had a chance to speak, memories of the great Mqhayi, who recited his famous poem where he allocates the stars and the heavens to different nations. The Xhosas received the Morning Star, but Mqhayi did not forget the white man. To the people of Europe, the storyteller said,  “I give you the Milky Way, the largest constellation, for you are a strange people, full of greed and envy, who quarrel over plenty.”

The limitations on Mandela’s reading life as a young student should be familiar to readers in any country with a colonial history. He discovered his own South African history as he grew interested in politics. Those were the books left off the shelves, out of condescension and the assumption of the superiority of European writers rather than as a matter of deliberate policy.

He was a law student in the late 1940s when Daniel Malan’s Nationalists spread their politics of hate: “Die wit man moet altyd baas wees (the white man must always remain boss). Their platform rested on the term baasskap, literally boss-ship, a freighted word that stood for white supremacy in all its harshness.” They fought the elections, he recalled, on the twin slogans of “Die kaffer op sy plek (the black man in his place) and Die koelies uit die land (The coolies out of the country).”


By the 1950s, Mandela was himself a censored man, banned in December 1952 from attending meetings or talking to more than one person at a time; by 1956, the bans had been extended to his appearances in public.

South Africa’s censor board was evolving, to keep pace with the turmoil of the country’s politics. Bureaucracy lent the censors a solemn, comic absurdity. In 1964, for instance, Wilbur Smith’s swashbuckling bestseller When The Lion Feeds was banned by a censor who called it “highly entertaining… and very easy to read”.

However, it contained descriptions of: white slavery and prostitution, passionate love scenes, sexual intercourse, loose morals and blasphemous language (though not “sex perversion”), and was banned for indecency and blasphemy. As Peter McDonald notes in The Literature Police, South Africa’s censors did not operate on aesthetic principles. Their job, as JM Coetzee put it, was “to sniff out contagion wherever it occurred”.

In Robben Island, Mandela broke the rules by reading a newspaper left behind by one of the wardens. “Newspapers were more valuable to political prisoners than gold or diamonds, more hungered for than food or tobacco; they were the most precious contraband on Robben Island,” he wrote.  “We were not allowed any news at all, and we craved it.” The wardens found the newspaper; Mandela did his stint in solitary, with few regrets.

But the newspaper was the kind of incendiary, banned material the censors understood, and were equipped to prevent their prisoners from reading. In his years at Robben Island, Mandela mentioned two works in particular (aside from the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer) that made a great impact on him: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a rare exception to the rule that no book with the word ‘war’ in its title would be permitted. Mandela saw similarities between Steinbeck’s migrant workers, and the farmworkers and casual labourers of South Africa. From War and Peace; Tolstoy reminded him “that to truly lead one’s people, one must also truly know them”.

For all the effort that went into building the apparatus that sustained apartheid, there were places where the wardens couldn’t reach. Mandela was free in his own mind; no censor could lean over his shoulder and listen in to the conversations he had with Steinbeck’s characters, and Tolstoy’s words


One response to “Speaking Volumes: The reader of Robben Island”

  1. shovonc Avatar

    We went to this Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum last year, and the last thing on display, just before we walked out, was Nelson Mandela’s personal copy of Shakespeare. It was allowed in prison, and apparently they drew a lot of inspiration from it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: