Pieter-Dirk Uys returns to Robben Island
It was at the Grahamstown Festival of 1987 that my play Panorama had its world premiere. It was fitting that the 2013 novel, inspired by that human drama, was also launched in Grahamstown at this year’s National Arts Festival.
I was 11 when I went to Robben Island. Not as an anti-apartheid freedom fighter, but as a small Dutch-Reformed Church Christian. It was summer in 1956 and our Sunday school annual outing focused on an adventure at the sea. Op ’n Eiland!
We bundled on to the boat and, happily, a calm day saw us all laughing and happy to run about the beach in the full view of Table Mountain and our Mother City. I think we had a braai and I remember the watermelon treat, especially the fun we had chasing the girls and then rubbing watermelon all over their bodies.
That is all the memory I have. Maybe there was some building behind the wattle bush that was not friendly. Possibly some barbed wire dividing the arid rocky ground into go-go or no-go areas.
It was only after I opened the Pandora’s box of satire that I discovered the blood-soaked alphabet of our political legacy and realities. Like the evil genie out of a rusty lamp, the spectre of Robben Island rose again, not as a place for a picnic, but as the secret horror that lay in full view of a comatose white nation.
By 1975, after two years at the Space Theatre in Cape Town, inspired by Athol Fugard and meeting John Kani and Winston Ntshona while seeing their production of The Island every night during its controversial run, I became familiar with the smell and taste of that terrifying life across the bay.
I would stand on the top of Table Mountain and not just look at the view. I would peer out at the muddy pancake of land drifting on the blue sea and wonder what was really happening there. If one asked that question, no one would answer.
In 1985 the idea of a drama set on the island became more than just a thought. Because the passion of The Island was so obviously focused on the pain and suffering of the prisoners there, I wanted to veer away from that arena and look at other lives being lived at the same time, nearly in the same place.
Who were the white people imprisoned by their work in guarding those behind the walls who would never feel imprisoned?
I wrote the play Panorama with the view of Table Mountain as the linking symbol of what could be better in a life that could not get going.
The two women in the play represented the fears and prejudices of so many of us and the need for comedy — black and white — made the journey even more necessary and unexpected.
Today we read and hear about the humour and laughter that kept political prisoners alive behind those walls of hell. Then it was unheard of to associate Robben Island with a laugh.
The play opened at the 1987 Grahamstown Festival to critical acclaim. It travelled to Johannesburg and Cape Town and eventually saw a production in London. Some years later the play was staged in the United States.
Business Day newspaper called Panorama “a wrenching comedy, a maturely crafted play: each line has layer upon layer of significance; each character strata of biography — they have weight and the encounters crackle with vitality”.
The Eastern Province Herald said: “The dialogue is crisp and entertaining throughout and Uys’s singular genius has succeeded in instilling much needed lightness and humour into what is after all a serious situation.”
In early 1988 I received a message from the lone Progressive Federal Party MP in Parliament, Helen Suzman. She said there was a prisoner on the island who wanted to meet me. He liked my work. He was a fan. He was allowed a visitor. Would I go?
Of course I would go, I said, with a casual smile, while inside my stomach exploded. The last place I wanted to be was there, virtually walking into the lion’s den covered in the smell of satirist mouse.
I was given a permit. I was instructed. This was a maximum security area. Not for public consumption. Do not break the rules. I did. The idea of going there without something creative was a no-brainer.
What would these prisoners in so much darkness crave more than even light? Information! So I collected some news magazines (which were allowed in Cape Town, so they could not have carried a banned picture of Nelson Mandela). A Newsweek, a Time, a Financial Mail, a Weekly Mail.
I thought of rolling them up and hiding them somewhere on my person, but soon found out that such genius is only possible in a Hollywood film.
I put them in a Pick n Pay bag with the banned script of my play Selle ou Storie. If they arrest me for the treason of information, I might as well also be locked up for distributing a banned play!
The journey of the Susan Kruger was uneventful, except the knowledge that most of the people on board were not going for a picnic. Women with carrier bags of blankets and biscuits. Men without smiles. And somewhere, prisoners in handcuffs. I didn’t see them, but in my mind’s eye I heard them. My mind has a Hollywood studio of its own.
We arrived in the small harbour. Everyone was friendly. No one looked into my sling bag. Someone winked at me and said he had seen my show at the Baxter and where was Tannie Evita?
I was taken to a reception room for visitors and their families. I was alone. Then a uniformed man came in and shook my hand. Didn’t glance at my bag tick-tocking with subversion.
A youngish man of Indian descent entered. He embraced me like a long-lost friend. I was visiting him!
The uniformed man left us alone. I glanced around for mikes or hidden bumps in the plastic flowers dusty on the windowsill.
My imprisoned fan talked about seeing my videos. Where? I asked. Here, he said. On Robben Island? Smuggled in? No, he laughed, we listen to the news, even watch on TV.
With a beating heart I took out my package of danger. This is what I brought you, I whispered, expecting to be arrested at any second.
He looked through the cluster of magazines once, then again into the Weekly Mail.
Seen all these, he said. Didn’t you bring a Scope? Of course! Scope magazine! Maybe things were getting easier on Robben Island, but tits were still at a premium.
The next time I stood on that sacred ground was in high heels. Evita Bezuidenhout was making a series for M-Net called Funigalore, in which she interviewed the new leaders of our democracy.
One episode was dedicated to an adventure with the then minister of transport, Mac Maharaj. Most of the episode played out during their visit to Robben Island.
They visited Nelson Mandela’s cell and the limestone quarry. It was 1995. One photo had Evita and Mac sitting on a bench with the panorama of Table Mountain behind them.
Taking the 1987 drama from the play as the core and encasing it with a further enrichment of a 2009 development of the story, the novel of Panorama took shape.
I made a few trips to the island for purposes of atmosphere and reality checks. Constant media upheavals that focused on mismanagement of Robben Island’s affairs were a constant reminder that, while the furniture of the past might still be in place, existence as a World Heritage Site as well as the legendary “University of Robben Island” was a heavy burden to carry.
Small stories of life there might get lost in the rush for the international close-up shot of the megastars of the Struggle.
It is time to tell a small story set on Robben Island, right on the edge of the world, like a full stop at the end of a long sentence called Africa.
Panorama is published by Missing Inc. For more information go to pdu.co.za