Review: Ashwin Desai, Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island

A Tribute, and a Call to Action

Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island, by Ashwin Desai is a slender volume that contains a gigantic book. Time seems to bend, slow down, expand and contract as we read it, as the eons of suffering packed into decades spent imprisoned on Robben Island are confronted by an individual and collective will to knowledge, dignity and resistance, and as the time of individual biography is swallowed up by world-historic time. It is here that the book is most bittersweet, as the fruits of the prisoners’ passionate commitment to liberatory education profoundly enrich the post-prison lives of the Robben Islanders profiled here, but against the backdrop of a post-apartheid neoliberal state run by their former comrades on the island, who see themselves as hemmed in by global forces beyond their control.

Desai wants us to read Reading Revolution “not only as an act of historical memory but also as a critical examination of the past as a means of responding to challenges in the present. Not to be imprisoned by history but to make it.”[1] As the freedom fighters profiled here so profoundly illustrate with their subversive readings of Shakespeare, the act of reading is a transformative process that works upon both reader and text. As such, the appropriate question regarding Reading Revolution probably isn’t what its revolutionary message is, but rather what revolutionary discoveries lie in store for us if we explore even a few of the myriad paths and possibilities encountered on our individual journeys through the text. Our individual readings can coalesce into collective action through critical dialogues about the text, and our experience reading it, that actively seek common ground for action on the basis of challenges and possibilities encountered while reading.

Reading Revolution is nothing if not a testament to the power of the printed word to transport individuals beyond the dismal confines of their immediate environments to a place in which the construction of new spaces, and the forging of new futures, can be imagined, debated, planned and realized. A crucial challenge confronted by the Robben Island prisoners, which certainly faces any meaningful attempt at anti-capitalist organizing today, was the bridging of the gap between the highly educated and the functionally illiterate among them. To me, what is most significant about the painstaking efforts with which education at all levels was systematized by the prisoners on Robben Island was that this was seen as indispensable, revolutionary work. That so many of the revolutionaries profiled here made ongoing work in education central to their post-prison activities speaks to the centrality which a program of “radical literacy” should have on the agenda of any serious, anti-capitalist left, yet the lament of former Robben Island prisoner Stone Phumelele Sizani, made in 2011, would seem to speak far beyond South Africa to the entire screen-infatuated capitalist world: “Intellectual discourse in South Africa is held back because there is no engagement, because very few people read these days, not in a manner in which you will read on Robben Island, you read and engage…Also there is no political education at all taking place now precisely because who is going to do it anyway. Who?”[2]

Sizani’s question was rhetorical, but it’s up to the reader to determine its effect, to decide whether it will add to the burden of an oppressive defeatism, or serve as a sharp-edged goad to action. At this point in my journey through this incredible book, as I stood in awe of the Robben Island prisoners’ ability to implement a comprehensive program of radical education in the face of overwhelming cruelty and unmitigated repression, the thought came to mind that a possible answer to Sizani’s question of “Who?” was, “Why not us?” As we live through our own period of mass incarceration here in the United States, surely there is a desperate need for books of all kinds in the prisons, especially those needed for revolutionary political studies and programs of basic literacy. One pathway from text to action could lead to participation in a books to prisoners project. But as I deliberately read Sizani’s question as a challenge, as a call to action, I recalled an earlier point in my journey through the book, when former Robben Island prisoner Marcus Solomon described the central place of the education of children in his current (2011) revolutionary work:

[T]he main mission is to build a children’s movement…so for me it is a very important political project. Having children become active participants in creating the environment in which they will grow…children as co-constructors of their own environment…So we say children must become partners, they constitute half the country’s population…so it is a very important constituency and this is where the disaster of our education system is failing us, because we had hoped with the new South Africa there would be a major focus on creating an environment in which children can learn.[3]

As Sizani’s challenge and Solomon’s mission began a dialogue with one another in my head, I began to imagine a literacy project which linked the children of neighborhoods (or, on my scale, the children of a neighborhood in my city of Atlanta) targeted by the War on Drugs and the state’s program of mass incarceration to prisoners from those neighborhood via books, letters, and visits. This outline of a possible path to follow, from Robben Island to Desai’s text to my own desire to participate in the creation of new spaces of solidarity which undermine the current landscape of economic insecurity and fear, was still in my head as I read Desai’s profile of former prisoner and revolutionary educator Neville Edward Alexander, who exhorts us to “Stop schooling, start educating.”[4] While Alexander passed away in 2012, the end of his life found him organizing Saturday reading clubs for children in direct response to what he saw as the complete failure of the ANC government in the sphere of education.[5] He describes the effort as an attempt to:

recreate conditions that would stimulate the love of reading and writing amongst young children…This is what we are trying to do. It doesn’t exist in most working class homes even though there is a veneration for education, the conditions simply are not conducive to children organically acquiring the love of reading and writing, and what we are trying to do now is take the most advanced, the most enlightened elements of the community and put them together once or twice a week with children and create that environment. That’s the basic principle of these reading groups.[6]

One path that I will follow from this text to future action is to learn more about the nuts and bolts of this project, which is being run by a community organization with support from the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, as I continue to think of ways to use a radical literacy project as a means of connecting prisoners with the neighborhoods they left behind.

I closed the book saddened by the fact that alumni of “Robben Island University” went on to preside over South Africa’s ongoing austerity program, and that the current political climate, there and here, is one in which Sizani’s deploring of the poverty of current efforts at political education—especially those which bring together the highly educated and functionally illiterate in meaningful dialogue—can only be acknowledged as a sober assessment. Alongside this sadness, however, is a sense of hope, purpose, and responsibility that comes from a recognition of the scale of the Robben Island prisoners’ accomplishment at implementing their program of revolutionary education in the face of such crushing repression. If they were able to pull off such a feat then, there, and in those circumstances, then who might begin new projects of revolutionary education here and now? Who, indeed—why not us?

  1. [1]Desai, p. 10.
  2. [2]Ibid., p. 100.
  3. [3]Ibid., p. 61.
  4. [4]Ibid., p. 103.
  5. [5]Ibid., p. 108.
  6. [6]Ibid., p. 112.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Phil Gasper,

    Publication details: 50% off all Haymarket titles until the end of the day, Nov. 7.

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