Monday, 25 November 2013

"At that time if you were not knitting around Robben Island, you were not fashionable."

Robben Island is an island in Table Bay, off the coast of South Africa, that holds a former maximum security prison, where political prisoners and convicted criminals were incarcerated between 1961 and the 1990s. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. Kgalema Motlanthe, who also served as President of South Africa, spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, as did current president Jacob Zuma. A book called The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island, which documents the things political prisoners did to deal with the frustrations and boredom of prison life, includes a chapter on knitting.

One of the prisoners, Jerome Maake, had been taught to knit during the days before his arrest in the early eighties, when he couldn't leave the safe house where he lived for fear of police apprehension. His hostess, a professional knitter, taught him to knit to give him something to do. Once imprisoned, he requested wool and needles from the prison authorities, who were reluctant to comply at first but were eventually convinced that Maake wasn't going to knit a bridge to Cape Town, though he had to settle for plastic rather than metal needles. Other prisoners asked to be taught once they saw Maake at work. He taught many of the other inmates the craft. In the evenings the prisoners would visit one another's cells, and take their knitting. “Sometimes there would be four or five of us sitting there knitting,” says Maake. The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island contains pictures of some of the items the prisoners knitted.

The BBC video reports on Robben Island knitting as well as some of the other activities the Robben Island prisoners used to pass the time during their sentences.

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