18 March 2019

South Africa: Sonny Venkatrathnam (1935-2019) - Robben Islander and Rebel Without a Pause


Sonny would not lick the brogues of power and pomp. He poured scorn on how people were using the state as a weapon of personal graft and Shakespearean plots for power.

'If you ever go visiting in Cape Town/and look across that blue and silver bay/spare a thought for those who ploughed/the gray miles of water/salt and bitter as their tears/who stir in graves as restless as the surge/and wonder if they gave their lives in vain.' - Dennis Brutus, 1996

In the early hours of Friday 15 March Sonny Venkatrathnam, aged 84, died. A man of incredible stature and learning, it is tragic that so many of you reading these words would never have heard of him, let alone met him. A freedom fighter, he was incarcerated on Robben Island in the 1970s.

I knew this man. From afar mostly. But then I got a chance to tell his story, published in a book entitled Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island.

As the plot goes, Sonny received a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare on the Island, but it was quickly confiscated. He was shattered as he knew that Shakespeare would be a wonderful companion in the long...

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