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How Julius Caesar is wrong on the Anti-Apartheid Struggle: The valiant didn’t ‘taste of death but once’, but a second time

Cowards die many times before their deaths.

The valiant never taste of death but once.

These are the celebrated lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that Nelson Mandela marked on 16th December 1977 in the prisoners’ clandestine copy of William Shakespeare’s Collected Works. The Robben Island Bible, as the book became known, was smuggled into the prison by fellow political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam. During his imprisonment, Venkatrathnam circulated the book among the prisoners and asked them to sign passages meaningful to them.

The Robben Island Bible has attracted considerable international attention and exhibited around the globe following the end of Apartheid – including at the British Museum’s Shakespeare 2012 Staging the World exhibition in London and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2013 A book Behind Bars exhibition in Washington. Shakespeare’s prison text in turn inspired a play by Matthew Hahn, drawing on interviews with the former prisoners. The Royal Shakespeare Company was inspired by the Robben Island bible to set its 2012 production of Julius Caesar in a modern African state. And we can enjoy leafing through the Robben Island Bible. The Folger Library has an on-line display of the marked passages with commentary from David Schalkwyk’s book Hamlet’s Dreams.

The Robben Island bible testifies how great literature becomes a world possession. Generations of political prisoners have found inspiration and solace in literature. The Robben Island regime only allowed clandestine reading of Shakespeare – the bard had too many seditious ideas as Martin Orkin’s Shakespeare against Apartheid (1987) explores. Shakespeare’s potential to be appropriated by oppressed colonial subjects is seen in A Tempest (1969) by Amie Cesaire, leading Martinique politician and one of the founders of the Negritude movement. While Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania from 1964 to 1985, famously translated Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili as part of promoting the Swahili language and his Ujamaa vision of African independence.

The Caribbean writer CLR James saw Shakespeare as politically affirming the capacity of people to make their own history and transform society for the better. James’ Beyond a Boundary (1963) writes of Caliban having to ‘pioneer into regions Caesar never knew’.

The passage from Julius Caesar marked by Mandela has been much quoted and retweeted in the admiring tributes paid to Mandela on his death last month. The passage speaks to Mandela’s strivings to maintain his dignity and integrity during those long decades of imprisonment. Obituaries have praised Mandela’s magnanimity as leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1990s and his ability to rise above his years of incarceration to promote reconciliation and secure a peaceful end to Apartheid. In this, Mandela appears as someone like Caesar who:

doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

At the same time, political figures around the globe have clambered for some reflected glory and their chance to ‘purchase… good opinion/And buy men’s voices to commend [their] deeds’ through Mandela’s ‘silver hairs’.

Commentators have noted the irony of Mandela, as a political prisoner resisting tyranny, identifying and be identified with the tyrant Julius Caesar. Mandela, who stepped down as president after one term, was no tyrant in Julius Caesar’s mould. Direct parallels cannot therefore be made with the political tragedy of Julius Caesar and Mandela’s political leadership. Nevertheless certain characters and themes in Shakespeare’s play resonate with the political tragedy of Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Shakespeare’s political tragedy revolves around the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. The conspirators fear that Caesar will have himself crowned emperor and destroy the Roman republic. They reject the prospect of living under a tyranny and decide to assassinate Caesar in the name of liberty. Such ideas are proclaimed by Cassius:

So every bondman in his own hand bears

The power to cancel his captivity…

Cassius and the other conspirators are dismissed as self-seeking individuals and not really acting to save the republic from tyranny by Caesar’s supporters. Only Brutus among the conspirators is held up to be honourable, even among the conspirators themselves.

Of the characters, Mandela most closely resembles the honourable idealist Brutus, who wants to eradicate Caesar the prospective tyrant, but not Caesar the person. Brutus is considered the ‘Soul of Rome’ for his integrity and belief in its republican tradition. Brutus is torn. On the one hand he loves Caesar and has no personal cause against him. But Brutus believes that Caesar is a threat to the republic, and that he will become a tyrant and that the only way of preventing this is to kill Caesar. As he declares to the people after the assassination, his decision was ‘not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more’.

While Brutus struggles with his own conscience over shedding Caesar’s blood, he and the other conspirators fail adequately to plan through what to do once they have seized power.

Brutus’ honourable character does not stop him from fatal errors of judgement which precipitate civil war and hasten the fall of the republic. Indeed his sense of honour leads to political aloofness from Roman citizens which fatally leads him to lose the initiative. So while Brutus articulates the people’s aspirations not to be bondsmen and is shown to be very caring towards his wife and servants, he fails to engage their active support in re-establishing the republican character of the state. Moreover the republican opponents of Caesar appear as disdainful as Caesar’s supporters towards the plebeians’ role in the public life of Rome. They regard the people as idle ‘trash’ and ‘offal’.  ‘You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things’, one republican patrician shouts at them for their support of Caesar.

Yet the potential positive political force of the plebeians is symbolised in the opening scene by a cobbler who describes himself as ‘a mender of bad soles’:

I am indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes: when they are in great danger, I recover them.

Disdain towards the plebeians proves fatal for the conspirators. The republican conspirators prematurely declare victory for ‘Peace, freedom and liberty’ and fail to engage the plebeians in their cause. Their instinct is to drive the people off the streets instead of mobilising them to the republican cause. However it is the plebeians who hold the balance of power for the republican cause, if they are engaged on their side. Yet the people are left to be mobilised by Caesar’s supporters led by Mark Antony and transformed into ‘dogs of war’.

Victory to Caesar’s supporters seals the fall of republic and the assumption of imperial power by the victors. So while Caesar is killed, the spirit of Caesar-ism reigns stronger than before. As Brutus cries out:

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet.

Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords

In our own proper entrails.

Both Brutus’ poor republican leadership and Mark Antony’s imperial popularism undermine the people’s potential to be healers of the state.

I have said of the characters, Mandela most closely resembles the honourable Brutus, although their decisions may seem diametrically opposed. If Brutus plunged Rome into a literal bloodbath and civil war, Mandela has been praised for preventing a bloodbath and promoting racial reconciliation. Nevertheless Mandela’s pragmatic political approach also involves fatal errors. The fatal errors of both the republican leaders against Caesar and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership against Apartheid relate to their ambivalence towards the people. They squandered opportunities in becoming aloof from the people, and this aloofness weakening initial political gains, and allowing the spirit of the previous regime to reassert itself.

In these political failures, the valiant of the anti-Apartheid struggle, namely the black masses, didn’t ‘taste death but once’, but suffered the indignity of a second death. Namely history has been rewritten to exclude the role of the black masses in bringing down Apartheid and to legitimise their interests becoming marginalised in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

The eulogies given by world leaders on Mandela’s death promote the idea that Apartheid was ended by Mandela with external support. Not only does this narrative neglect how western governments supported Apartheid South Africa, but it also ignores how it was resistance of the black masses who were decisive in the fall of Apartheid and the freeing of Mandela.

Their neglect in international tributes suggests other passages from Julius Caesar: 

But men may construe things after their fashion,

Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

Mass black militancy exploded in the townships in the 1970s and 1980s. The watershed was the 1976 Soweto Uprising of school students against the Afrikaans language, which was met with violent state suppression resulting in nearly two hundred dead and many others in the months that followed. The Soweto Uprising galvanised the rising black labour militancy and mass strikes – from around a hundred strikes a year at the end of the 1970s to over 1,000 a year by the late 1980s. State killings, instead of crushing resistance, incited more determined opposition seeking to make Apartheid unworkable.

Meanwhile Mandela had gained international symbolic significance. But Mandela’s isolation in prison meant that he had little role in the cataclysmic events outside. Indeed the younger generation of activists inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement and leaders such as Steve Biko, murdered by the regime in 1977, were far more radical in their goals for social transformation, and were impatient with the more cautious older generation of ANC leaders, either in prison or in exile.

The Apartheid government in the face of radical political economic forces and civil war was compelled to the realisation that it had to reform the Apartheid political system. It therefore sought to make compromises with Mandela and other moderate anti-Apartheid leaders to ensure a smooth transition from Apartheid with as little disturbance of their interests as possible. Negotiations were marked by Mandela’s release in 1990, the ANC agreeing to suspend armed struggle, and the holding of multi-racial elections in 1994, and the drafting of a new constitution. Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president and presided over a Government of National Unity involving a coalition between the ANC and the former ruling National Party under FW De Klerk.

Mandela’s conciliatory course in the 1990s was credited with defusing bloody civil war, and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as establishing a model for conflict resolution and peacebuilding with justice. The TRC promoted individual testimony of suffering and violence on both sides in a forum seeking forgiveness and racial harmony. But its approach crucially neglected how Apartheid was not simply exceptional individual acts of violence, but was a totalising system of state racial political, economic and social exploitation and terror. Yet the negotiated political settlement sacrificed the interests of the black majority to the interests of the reconciled white and black elite and left most wealth still concentrated in the hands of the white minority. Poverty and stark racial inequalities still characterise post-Apartheid South Africa. Indeed it is not just apologists for Apartheid claiming that their incomes have deteriorated relatively in the two decades since the end of Apartheid. According to the World Bank, the bottom 50 percent of the population enjoys less than 8 percent of the country’s income.

Core social-economic demands of the anti-Apartheid struggle remain unfulfilled. Consequently the celebrated rainbow nation looks more illusory two decades on. The formal political Apartheid system has been dismantled, but informal economic Apartheid has persisted. So while the black middle class professionals advanced their position, the interests of the vast majority of Blacks, the mass of blacks in the townships or rural homelands struggle to live with dignity amid the continuing stark inequalities, poverty, insecure work and economic exploitation, as Steffen Jensen’s Gangs, Politics and Dignity in Cape Town (2008) documents. While key international poverty alleviation approaches such as microcredit have actually exacerbated the impoverishment and exploitation as the economist Milford Bateman has analysed.

Mandela’s elevation as father of the nation has taken place against this fraught political economic context. Essentially the political sanctification of Mandela has helped sanctify the inequities of post-Apartheid South Africa.

Just as the republican leaders ambivalence towards the people weakened the republican cause, so the ambivalence of Mandela and the ANC leadership towards black militancy weakened their negotiating position with the former Apartheid regime. And just as Brutus underestimates Antony, so the ANC leadership underestimated the capacity of the former Apartheid elite to save their privileges. And just as Cassius love for Brutus and his articulation of the republican cause, leads him to follow Brutus despite fearing his errors of judgement, so the people’s love for Mandela and his articulation of their dignity against the Apartheid regime, led them to follow Mandela and the ANC, despite their errors of judgements.

Mandela effectively presided over the demobilisation of the collective black resistance and thereby limited the socioeconomic transformation of South Africa. Reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa is too commonly experienced by the majority as resignation to persistent economic inequalities, insecurity and squalor.

Moreover those resisting economic exploitation have found themselves facing state violence echoing that of the former Apartheid state. The post-Apartheid state appears ready to use lethal force to suppress labour militancy as testified in the police shooting of 34 Marikana miners in August 2012. So while Apartheid is dead, the spirit of Apartheid lives on. The continuing political tragedy of South Africa as witnessed in the Marikana shootings can only be overcome when the majority of South Africans determine the future of South Africa and realise their freedom and capacity as ‘menders of souls’.



Vanessa Pupavac teaches on the international politics of race. She is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.


Published inAfricaArt, Fiction & Politics


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