After the student uprising of 1976 in Soweto, an event that rekindled the spirit of black resistance against apartheid, large numbers of young South Africans showed up at the military camps of the African National Congress (ANC) in Angola, ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for the cause. One group of recruits had a problem. There was a line in Shakespeare, from a passage in Julius Caesar, that had special resonance for them, whose exact wording they couldn’t agree on.
So they turned to Ronnie Kasrils, a veteran white commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed movement that Nelson Mandela had created 15 years earlier. As Kasrils recalled in a phone conversation earlier this month, the passage in question begins with the famous lines, “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once.” The young men, soldiers now face to face with mortality, had those words nailed down. It was the final line of the sequence that was troubling them. Did Shakespeare use the word “will” or “shall”? Was it “Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come”, or was it “Shall come when it shall come”?
Kasrils, who incidentally trotted off the whole passage from memory when I spoke to him, was pretty sure that it was “will”, which is in fact correct. “But since we didn’t have Google in those days, and since the matter was so important for those guys,” he said, “I sent off a message to London for clarification.”
The scholarly pedantry of those young black South Africans, their concern to distinguish between the woollier “will” and the more forthright “shall”, showed how serious they were about their Shakespeare. But so was the entire South African liberation movement, from top to bottom, as visitors to the British Museum will learn should they attend an exhibition starting on Thursday and running until November 25, called “Shakespeare: staging the world.” One of the principal items on display, “Exhibit A” to illustrate the contemporary dramatist Ben Jonson’s line that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”, will be a book known as “the Robben Island Bible”.
Robben Island was the Alcatraz on the South Atlantic where Nelson Mandela and other South African political prisoners spent many years of their lives; the “Bible” was a collection of the complete works of William Shakespeare smuggled into the jail in the 1970s by a prisoner called Sonny Venkatrathnam. They called it the Bible because Venkatrathnam cheated the prison censorship system by telling his warders that it was a Hindu religious work. But there was another reason, too. As the book circulated, Shakespeare’s poems and plays acquired the condition of secular scripture, interpreted by one and all much as believers might the Koran, the Christian Bible or, for that matter, Karl Marx.
As Dora Thornton, the curator of the British Museum exhibition put it, “They used him as a way of developing their own moral sense.” With Shakespeare having anticipated and explored the competing questions of leadership and self-doubt, idealism and expediency, ambition and loyalty that bedevil politicians everywhere and always, but all the more urgently at times of national conflict, Mandela and his comrades drew from his works to shape political debate and lay the philosophical foundations for political action.
There was no question more central to the debate within the ANC, almost from its inception, than whether to opt for violent or peaceful resistance in their mission to end white minority rule; whether to go for the “Cry ‘Havoc’!” route or seek to persuade their oppressors to cede power. It was a moral question but also a practical one. Which would work best?
And here is why the timelessly political Julius Caesar was the Shakespearean work that most concentrated the minds of South Africa’s freedom fighters. As notes written on the margins of the Robben Island Bible show, many of the island prisoners delighted in As You Like It, Twelfth Night and the sonnets; some drew inspiration from The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest; and in one particularly interesting case, concerning not a prisoner but a leader in exile, Hamlet offered sharp food for thought. But it was the pages of Julius Caesar, as Thornton found when she leafed through the Bible for the first time, that had been most thoroughly pored – and pawed – over; it was in Julius Caesar where the prisoners found the most valuable examination both of the core dilemmas that assailed them and of the possible consequences of electing war or peace.
Remarkably, Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the ANC in 1912, thought the play of sufficient importance to take on the mission of translating it into the African language Setswana. More interesting still, Mandela included a quote from it in a 1944 manifesto that he helped to pen for the ANC Youth League. The choice he made points to his budding exasperation with what was then the prevailing ANC policy of passive resistance: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The lines are from Cassius’s temptation of Brutus, the attempt by the most convinced of the conspirators to persuade the most reluctant of them to join the plot to kill Caesar. And yet, when Mandela did eventually opt for violence 17 years later, as the first commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, he did so in a spirit more in tune with the morally ambiguous Brutus, the real hero – not Caesar – of Shakespeare’s tragedy. “Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers,” says Brutus, “ … we shall be called purgers, not murderers.” Shakespeare captured there the self-justifying argument of all terrorists (or guerrillas, depending on the point of view), but Mandela took the idea further, insisting while he was in charge of the armed struggle that the apartheid regime’s strategic installations, not people, would be the only acceptable targets.
The policy would turn more aggressive after Mandela went to prison, yet, over its 30 years of existence, Umkhonto we Sizwe would kill no more innocent bystanders than the number that perish today on an average day’s bombing in Afghanistan or Iraq. Even then, when it did happen, when a bomb caused death and mayhem on a Pretoria street or in a Durban shopping centre, the ANC leadership, both in prison and in exile, would react with soul-searching and self-doubt, among them Mandela’s best-known successor as head of Umkhonto and hero of the black townships, Chris Hani.
Hani, who was assassinated by rightwing fanatics in 1993, was fascinated by Hamlet, as Ronnie Kasrils, his close friend and comrade in arms, told me back then. Hamlet wrestles from beginning to end with the dilemma that Brutus has resolved by the beginning of Act Two, to kill or not to kill; or in Hamlet’s case (entirely pertinent to a black South African population exploited for the three centuries), revenge or not revenge.
Contrary to the evil image of Hani presented to the white population by their government, conscience did make a coward of Hani. The native hue of resolution did eventually impose itself, for he was a brave fighter and a resolute leader, who gave orders to take human life. However, as a thoughtful man who read the classics as well as Shakespeare, and as someone who in his youth had seriously contemplated becoming a Catholic priest, he agonised over succumbing to the mortal sin of murder. The two Hanis, the philosopher and the avenging angel, found a mirror in the character of Hamlet.
Nelson Mandela’s mirror was more Shakespeare’s Brutus – though not entirely. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in Brutus, Mandela saw a reflection of the man he strove to be, but also a compelling cautionary tale. The self-sacrificing creed of Mandela, who came within an inch of receiving the death sentence at his trial in 1964, finds no better expression than in the declaration of faith Brutus makes when he says, “If it be aught toward the general good,/Set honor in one eye and death i’ th’ other,/And I will look on both indifferently/ … I love/The name of honor more than I fear death.” Or when, in response to Cassius’s “threats”, he says, “I am arm’d so strong in honesty/That they pass by me as the idle wind.”
Yet Brutus erred. Brutus was not shrewd – but Mandela was. It would be a stretch to say that there is a direct line between Shakespeare’s words and the decision of the ANC leadership to opt in the end not for armed confrontation but for peaceful talks. But it would also be misguided to neglect the degree to which a play like Julius Caesar, in which not just the elders but some of the youth of the liberation movement were steeped, did not substantially inform their mental processes. The decision to kill Caesar led to civil war, precisely the outcome that seemed so plausible a prospect in South Africa for so long and which Mandela strove so clear-headedly to avoid, both after he was freed from prison in 1990 and after he ascended to the presidency in 1994.
Mandela’s moment of truth came after rightwing plotters assassinated Chris Hani in April 1993. It was a loss that pained him terribly. Hani, Mandela’s almost certain presidential successor had he lived, was like a son to him. The black population loved Hani, as Shakespeare’s Roman masses did Caesar. They were baying for blood. It was a moment, as all those of us who were there recall, when South Africa was staring into the abyss. (I remember, not entirely incidentally, meeting a brooding, vengeful young black man in one of the embattled townships outside Johannesburg whose first name – some people would not believe me but I really didn’t make it up – was Macbeth.)
Mandela found himself suddenly in the role not of Brutus, whose die was cast early on, but of Mark Antony. Would he answer the call of his heart, as Antony did? Would he let slip the dogs of war? Or would Mandela’s reason prevail, restrained by the spectre he would sometimes conjure of a country “drowning in blood”? It was the turning point in South African history, a large part of the reason why the country today, for all its shortcomings, remains stable and democratic. Mandela, setting aside the grievances that he and generations of fellow black compatriots had been nurturing for centuries, made a call for peace. Brutus would have applauded. Shakespeare, recognising in Mandela a hero nobler than any he devised, would have done so too.
John Carlin’s book ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation’ was the basis for the film ‘Invictus’. ‘Shakespeare: staging the world’ runs at The British Museum from July 19 to November 25; www.britishmuseum.org/