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Complete Works of Shakespeare covered in Hindu deities, smuggled into prison, accompanied Nelson Mandela in solitary confinement

By WcP.Story.Teller - Posted on 08 December 2013

Act II, Scene 2: Julius Caesar's words of wisdom inspired Mandela for years to come.

The Robben Island 'Complete Works of Shakespeare' was disguised in Diwali cards.


"A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of."

"I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles."

"Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished."

- Nelson Mandela

(CNN) -- Nelson Mandela spent almost three decades in jail, but he wasn't alone -- he had two Indian goddesses and a 17th century playwright for company.

Locked in solitary confinement on Robben Island, newspapers were banned and letters from loved ones a rare treat. Where did he find the inspiration to continue his long struggle for freedom?

A tattered book covered in luminous Hindu deities might have seemed like a strange choice for the South African leader. But the beatifically smiling women on the cover knew something the prison wardens didn't. Inside was the "Complete Works of Shakespeare," and the historic text became a source of strength for Mandela and his fellow inmates during their darkest days.

The book was smuggled into the jail by political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who disguised it in colorful Diwali cards celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, convincing the warden it was his bible. Between 1975 and 1978, the volume was passed between 33 of Venkatrathnam's fellow prisoners -- including Mandela.

Many of the inmates signed and dated their names beside particularly poignant passages... Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar -- just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March. It includes the lines: "Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once."

”Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core”
~ Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

Like with Nehru in India, it was South Africa’s good fortune that when the moment came, Mandela was there to lead it to “life and freedom.” If that nation-building moment brought out the best in these men, they also used their brilliance and integrity to shape the moment. They imprinted upon their national histories the memory of the higher order values of consent, tolerance, and pluralism, which forged the unity of their nations at their birth. Their concrete legacies are enshrined in the modern constitutions they helped mould.

Nelson Mandela Life Story: A Timeline of Facts and Moments
July 18, 1918: Rolihlahla Mandela is born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei, South Africa, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, principal counsellor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo.

1925: Attends primary school near Qunu. His teacher Miss Mdingane gives him the name Nelson, in accordance with the custom to give all school children “Christian” names.

1927: Entrusted to Thembu Regent Jongintaba Dalindyebo.

1934: Undergoes initiation; Attends Clarkebury Boarding Institute in Engcobo.

1937: Attends Healdtown, the Wesleyan College at Fort Beaufort.

1939: Enrolls at the University College of Fort Hare, in Alice.

1940: Expelled from University College of Fort Hare.

1941: Escapes an arranged marriage; becomes a mine night watch man; Starts writing articles at the law firm Witkin, Sidelsky & Eidelman.

1942: Completes BA at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Begins to attend African National Congress (ANC) meetings informally.

1943: Graduates with BA from Fort Hare; Enrols for an LLB at Witwatersrand University.

1944: Joins African National Congress. Co-founds the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Marries Evelyn Ntoko Mase – they have four children: Thembekile (1945); Makaziwe (1947 – who dies after nine months); Makgatho (1950); Makaziwe (1954).

1948: Elected national secretary of the ANCYL. Engages in resistance against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies. By his own admission he leaves the University of the Witwatersrand without graduating.

1951: Elected President of the ANCYL.

1952: Defiance Campaign begins; Arrested and charged for violating the Suppression of Communism Act; Elected Transvaal ANC President; Convicted with J.S Moroka, Walter Sisulu and 17 others under the Suppression of Communism Act; Sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years; Elected first of ANC deputy presidents; Opens South Africa’s first black law firm with Oliver Tambo.

1953: Devises the M-Plan for the ANC’s future underground operations.

1955: Watches as the Congress of the People at Kliptown launches the Freedom Charter.

1956: Arrested and joins 155 others on trial for Treason. All are acquitted by 29 March 1961.

1958: Divorces Evelyn Mase; Marries Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela – they have two daughters: Zenani (1959) and Zindzi (1960).

March 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre.

March 30, 1960: A State of Emergency is imposed. Mandela is among thousands detained.

April 8, 1960: The ANC is banned.

March 29, 1961: Is acquitted of treason.

1961: Goes underground; Umkhonto weSizwe (M(Spear of the Nation) s formed.

January 11, 1962: Leaves the country using pseudonym, David Motsamayi. Travels around Africa, visits England to garner support for the ANC. Receives military training in Morocco and Ethiopia.

July 1962: Returns to South Africa.

August 5, 1962: Arrested near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal.

November 7, 1962: Sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor for incitement and leaving the country without a passport.

May 27, 1963: Sent to Robben Island.

June 12, 1963: Returned to Pretoria Local Prison.

October 9, 1963: Appears in court for the first time in what becomes known as the Rivonia Trial. Facing the death penalty his words to the court at the end of his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ on 20 April 1964 became immortalized.

December 3, 1963: Pleads not guilty to sabotage in what becomes known as the Rivonia Trial.

June 11, 1964: All except Rusty Bernstein and James Kantor are convicted and sentenced (June 12) to life.

1968: Nelson Mandela’s mother dies. He’s not allowed to attend the funeral.

July 13, 1969: His oldest son, Thembekile is killed in a car accident. He’s not allowed to attend the funeral.

March 31, 1982: Mr. Mandela, Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni and later Ahmed Kathrada are sent to Pollsmoor Prison.

1985: Rejects South African President PW Botha’s offer to release him if he renounces violence.

November 3, 1985: Has prostate surgery.

August 12, 1988: Admitted to Tygerberg Hospital and is diagnosed with Tuberculosis.

August 31, 1988: Admitted to Constantiaberg MediClinic.

December 7, 1988: Moved to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl where he was held for 14 months in a cottage.

1989: He obtains an LLB through the University of South Africa while in prison. He graduates in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.

February 2, 1990: ANC is unbanned.

February 11, 1990: Released from prison.

March 2, 1990: Elected ANC Deputy President.

April 16, 1990: Nelson Mandela gives a speech at the Wembley stadium, two months after he is released from Prison.

December 10, 1993: Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with FW de Klerk.

April 27, 1994: Votes for the first time in his life.

May 9, 1994: Elected by Parliament as first president of a democratic South Africa.

May 10, 1994: Inaugurated as President of the Republic of South Africa.

December 14, 1994: Starts writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

1995: Establishes the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

1996: Divorces Winnie Mandela.

July 18, 1998: Marries Graça Machel on his 80th birthday.

1999: Steps down after one term as President, establishes the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

2001: Diagnosed with prostate cancer.

2003: Establishes the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

June 1, 2004: Announces that he will be stepping down from public life.

January 6, 2005: Announces that his eldest son Makgatho had died of AIDS.

2007: Witnesses the appointment of his grandson Mandla as chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council.

July 18, 2008: Turns 90 years old, asks future generations to continue the fight for social justice.

2009: Votes for the fourth time in his life. Attends the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma on May 9 and witnesses Zuma’s first State of the Nation address.

2010: Is formally presented with the FIFA World Cup trophy before it embarks on a tour of South Africa.

June 11, 2010: His great-granddaughter Zenani is killed in a car accident.

June 17, 2010: Attends the funeral of his great-granddaughter Zenani.

July 11, 2010: Makes a surprise appearance at the Final of the Fifa World Cup in Soweto.

July 2010: Celebrates his 92nd birthday at home in Johannesburg with family and friends.

October 2010: His second book Conversations with Myself is published.

November 18, 2010: Meets the South African and American football teams that played in the Mandela Challenge match.

January 2011: Is admitted to hospital in Johannesburg where he was diagnosed with a chest infection. He is discharged after two nights.

May 16, 2011: Votes in the local government elections.

June 2011: His book Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations is published.

June 21, 2011: Is visited at home by American First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia.
July 18, 2011: Celebrates his 93rd birthday with his family in Qunu, Eastern Cape.

October 21, 2011: Is officially counted in South Africa’s Census 2011.

December 2011: Spends Christmas with family in Qunu.

February 25, 2012: Admitted to hospital for abdominal complaint. Discharged after one night.

July 18, 2012: Celebrates his 94th birthday with his family in Qunu, Eastern Cape.

December 8, 2012: Is admitted to hospital.

December 26, 2012: Is discharged from hospital.

January 1, 2013: Spends New Year’s Day with members of his family in Johannesburg.

March 9–10, 2013: In hospital.

March 27 to April 6, 2013: In hospital.

June 8, 2013: Admitted to hospital.

September 1, 2013: Discharged from hospital, but still in poor health.

December 5, 2013: Mandela passes away at age 95.


Image courtesy National Geographic, British Museum, Matthew Hahn, and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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