Former Robben Island prisoner and struggle icon, Surinarayan or Sunny Venkatrathnam has been described as a man dedicated to fighting for equality and human rights.
The 84-year died at a Durban hospital in the early hours of Friday morning. He gained worldwide recognition for his book titled “Shakespeare’s Bible” which he penned during his nine-year imprisonment.
Venkatrathnam began his career as an educator in Durban and fought for equal rights in the profession. He fostered a great love for literature from a young age.
He joined the Unity Movement and later the African Democratic Union of South Africa. His political activities drew the attention of the security police and he was often harassed.
His grand-daughter, Teneille Pillay, says while the family remains distraught, they are proud of his many contributions to South Africa’s struggle for freedom.
“They just saying it was hypertension and dehydration so his blood pressure dropped too low and also with that his heart rate. He didn’t have any other complications, he wasn’t ill as such although, he was old, he was aging. We are sad because we’ve lost our hero but we also happy that he lived a very full life. He’s accomplished so much in his life. We also very proud of him and what he has accomplished. There is a big legacy that he has left behind for all of us.”
While Venkatrathnam remains an unsung hero in South Africa, whose tales of bravery and courage was barely told, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navanethem Pillay, says he was a freedom fighter that was known all over the world.
“He’s probably unsung in South Africa because South Africa at present tends to think all the heroes comes from the ANC and they tend to ignore minority organisations. If you go to Robben Island, the tour guides never mention all the other persons. He’s truly known all over the world. I have seen him address University’s outside the country. He was so articulate and swayed hug audiences in favour of rights for all black people. He was a staunch believer in land rights for women.”
He is best known for his role as a political science lecturer in the United States and the then University of Durban Westville, where he mentored many current activists. One of them is political commentator, Dr Lubna Nadvi, who described him a principled man that guided her academic career.
“Because if his activism around the system if education at the time, he was fired from his job. He also was banned for some time and of course as a consequence or all the political activities he was engaged in, he was convicted and sentenced to time on Robben Island. He was somebody who was very principled about making sure that everybody had equal rights. He had also spent some time in the U.S teaching at Columbia University, teaching about political science and what was going on the country.”
In 1972, Venkatrathnam was convicted following a terrorism trial and sentenced to Robben Island. Before he was released from prison, Venkatrathnam asked fellow inmates to sign collected Works of William Shakespeare which he concealed as the Holy Bible. Dr Nadvi says this book later become the symbol of the hardships faced by the prisoners.
“A life lived very much dedicated to fighting against apartheid and advancing human rights. The famous part of the story on Robben Island is that he had a volume of Shakespeare’s righting. He has asked many if the prominent activist who were jailed on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, to sign their names next to their most favourite passages from Shakespeare. That book has now become a symbol of struggles that these people took inspiration from the writing and words of Shakespeare.”
His close friend, Kiru Naidoo ,says Venkatrathnam was a leader who questioned injustices at every level, often rallying others to stand up against the apartheid government.
“When he was in the single cell section, the terrorists section on Robben Island. He formed friendship rights across the political spectrum. His friendships with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj are legendary. One of the first great acts of resistance that he led was in opposition to the 1963 Indian education act, he organised the boycott at the then ML Sultan technical colleague and they fired him from there so he was constantly being fired from work because he stood for what he believed in.”
Former cricketing boss and UKZN academic, Cassim Docrat, says Venkatrathnam brought a wealth of knowledge to the Political Science and Philosophy Department at the University.
“He brought a tremendous reservoir of knowledge with him because of his earlier days at Robben Island. But being there, he was able to associate with the students with his experiences and how to relate it to the present times. Many of us being his colleagues, I often asked him the helping hand to guide us and lead us in the direction which the rainbow nations needs to go. We can all stand high, those who robbed shoulders with him.”