Struggle hero whose Shakespeare book gave hope to Robben Island inmates has died

15 March 2019 - 13:51 By Lwandile Bhengu
Struggle hero Sonny Venkatrathnam has died
Struggle hero Sonny Venkatrathnam has died
Image: Supplied

Struggle veteran Sonny Venkatrathnam - who served time on Robben Island with the likes of the late statesman Nelson Mandela - died on Friday after a short illness.

Venkatrathnam's granddaughter, Teneille Pillay, told TimesLIVE that he was admitted to hospital on Wednesday.

"It was sudden and the family is still shocked but he passed on peacefully and was surrounded by his family," said Pillay.

Venkatrathnam, 84, was best known on the island for his well-thumbed "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare", a book which became a source of strength for Mandela and his fellow inmates during their darkest days of incarceration.

In 2016, Venkatrathnam told the Sunday Times he hoped that when he died, the book - which bears the signatures of Mandela and 31 other prisoners, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and Strini Moodley - would find a home at the Bard's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.

But Pillay said that he had since changed his mind.

"He now wanted to keep it the family because it was his way of sharing his experiences with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We are also open to travelling with the book and loaning it to people" said Pillay.

She said that she hoped that in his death the book would grow his legacy and inspire South Africans as it had inspired her as a child.

"South Africans haven’t taken a lot of interest in it, the interest has been international. We hope that this book will make a difference and inspire the political principles he had. We hope it will be a good eye-opener to people," she said

Community activist Kiru Naidoo, who once worked with Venkatrathnam  in the 90s described him as a very principled man

"He was a remarkably principled man who refused to water down his political beliefs," said Naidoo.

 Venkatrathnam will be cremated on Sunday at the Clare Estate Crematorium in Durban.