Sonny Venkatrathnam, Anti-Apartheid Crusader With a Shakespearian 'Gita'

During his pre-trial detention, he was brutally tortured. But he refused to be broken.

“If you ever go visiting in Cape Town/and look across that blue and silver bay/spare a thought for those who ploughed/the grey 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 (former Robben Island prisoner), 1996

Johannesburg: Early on Friday, Sonny Venkatrathnam, aged 84, died. A man of incredible stature and learning, it is tragic that many reading these words would never have heard of him. A freedom fighter, he was incarcerated on Robben Island in the 1970s – alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. 

Sonny’s parents arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers. They worked under terrible conditions on the plantations of white colonial settlers, suffering arbitrary beatings and denied wages for minor infractions. One of 12 children, his parents escaped the plantations and made a meagre living as vegetable hawkers.

From these beginnings, Sonny was to emerge as one of the country’s most respected liberation fighters. During his pre-trial detention, he was brutally tortured, suffering a burst ear drum and permanent injury to his kidneys. But he refused to be broken and arrived on Robben Island with his head held high.

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I knew this man – from afar, mostly. But then I got a chance to tell his story in my book, 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 years ahead. But then, the atheist was saved by divine intervention:

“And one Sunday morning… A warder tells me, ‘The (Anglican) Church is here… I tell him I’m an Anglican you know but I left my Bible in the storeroom… He takes out his keys, opens the storeroom and I pick out my book – The Complete Works of Shakespeare… The problem is how do we hide it, it’s a bare room… So what I did was that, again, providentially, it was Diwali, and my parents sent me greeting cards. So I took those cards, cut them up and pasted them with porridge over the covers of the book. The warders would come and ask me, ‘What’s that?’… And I said, ‘It’s my Bhagavad Gita, my Bible.’ They did not touch it.”

As the years passed, Sonny asked the prisoners incarcerated with him in the single cells to sign next to the section of Shakespeare’s writing that spoke to them. Mandela famously chose lines from Julius Caesar.

Nelson Mandela’s signature on Venkatrathnam’s book. Credit: Special arrangement

On the island, books were reflected upon with passion. They opened up new ways of seeing, allowing prisoners to escape the walls. Given the limited number of books available, many prisoners read the same books over and over again, often deriving new meanings. 

Lettered prisoners taught others how to read and write. And so, for the first time, many prisoners read and wrote their own letters. Breyten Breytenbach – himself a long-term political prisoner – put it beautifully: “As your letter opens, there is an unfolding of sky, or word from the outside of memory.” 

In telling Venkatrathnam’s story, I spoke to many Robben Island prisoners. Some would not talk to me because they resented Sonny. Their years in power stood in stark contrast to Sonny’s refusal of high office and his bare assessments of their betrayals. 

The value of speaking to Robben Islanders was in listening to people who live in two temporal zones. One was behind bars but driven by the ideal of a new South Africa. The other, a subsequently apartheid-free country. As Susan Buck-Morss put it, “When biographically lived time crosses collective time, this historical conjuncture marks a generation born twice.” 

Paths diverged. Men who bravely stood against apartheid submitted to new power-wielders – but not Sonny. He pointed me to Macbeth with a wry smile: “Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself. And falls on the other.”

Venkatrathnam lived in Durban for most of his life. He was very critical of the new South Africa that he had sacrificed so much for, telling the project Voices of Resistance in 2002, “I am bitter, I don’t deny that… So many years of struggle seem to have gone down the drain… You can’t eat a vote. You can’t shelter under a vote… Freedom means the basic conditions of life need to be addressed.”

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Bitterness aside, Venkatrathnam considered lecturing at the University of Durban-Westville through the 1990s as the most rewarding part of his life. He was invigorated by young students thinking about the pitfalls of the national democratic revolution on a diet of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said.

Venkatrathnam said that his students appreciated that their lecturer bore the scars of his beliefs on his body but was unbowed. A pupil, Sipho Buthelezi, wrote of him: 

“In your voice, there is history. Unfortunately, it is a history of pain and torture. It is a history of tears and misery. It is a history of the struggle and sacrifice. No money can pay your sacrifice. No object can express my appreciation. Blessed is the ground you lie your bones. I will be there to mourn for you. I will testify (that) you were a noble hero.”

The last time I saw Sonny alive, he was watching over his fabulous red roses in his garden. As I left, I saw him through the rear-view mirror – slightly hunched, slightly lost. Learesque.

I thought about Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea – Santiago is the solitary fisherman battling the odds; it does not matter that Santiago has returned with the bony residue of a fish gobbled on by sharks. During the 84-day odyssey, he has grown as a person and refuses to give up the skeleton or his own dignity. It is this journey that leads to his memorable line, which can sum up Sonny’s life too: “A man can be destroyed but never defeated.”

In post-apartheid South Africa, when so many Robben Islanders were diminished, Sonny grew in stature. 

On Sunday, I joined the throngs at the Clare Estate Crematorium. Listening to the speeches, I realised that it was hard to pay homage to a man whose ideals were turned to dust by his own comrades. Still, the wonderful historian Carolyn Steedman reminds us, “Dust is the opposite thing to waste… It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing… Nothing can be destroyed.”

She quotes the late 19th century French writer Jules Michelet: “We will enter our career (the career of the citizen and the revolutionary). When our elders are no more. We will find there their dust. And the trace of their virtues.”

Ashwin Desai is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg and the author of Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island.