/ 28 March 2017

Ahmed Kathrada: A life built on eradicating racism and inequality

Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada in 1990
Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada in 1990

Ahmed Mohamed “Kathy” Kathrada spent most of his life involved in the struggle against apartheid and other injustices.

He was only 10 when he distributed pamphlets and wrote political slogans on walls. Years later, in 1964, he would become the youngest of the Rivonia Trialists, alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Denis Goldberg and Elias Motsoaledi.

Born on August 21 1929 in Schweizer-Reneke in the Western Transvaal (now North West province), Kathrada joined the Young Communist League of South Africa in 1941 when he was 12. At the age of 17, in 1946, he decided to leave school and work full-time in the offices of the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. As a pacifist he was a big opponent of World War II.

Earlier that year, while he was still in high school, he had met Mandela, Sisulu and other prominent ANC leaders for the first time.

“I met Mandela through his fellow students, Ismail Meer and JN Singh, who were studying law with him at Wits University. Ismail had a flat, number 13 Kholvad House, which I inherited after he left. They used to come to the flat after lectures. That was where I first saw Nelson Mandela. At the time non-whites, especially Africans, were very few at university or as professionals so one would be in awe of him and want to be like him.

“He had this ability to relate to me, a high school kid, almost as an equal, wanting to know what my interests were, what I wanted to do and so on. I could go back and boast to my classmate that I was with this man who was a university student and he treated me like a friend. That was the first impact,” Kathrada recalled in a recent interview.

Years later, after Oliver Tambo had left the country to build the ANC in exile and the law firm of Mandela and Tambo had collapsed, Mandela continued using the flat as an office.

The ANC leaders were not the first people to influence Kathrada. Former South African Indian Congress leader Dr Yusuf Dadoo and the Cachalias, who were also prominent in congress activities, got there first.

But Mandela’s influence over him became stronger as time went on.

“We interacted a lot after that, politically through our organisations. He was in the ANC Youth League and I in the Transvaal Indian Congress. My impressions of him got stronger as I met him at various types of events and we grew quite close. He had an amazing quality and he could relate to a child, a peasant, an aristocrat, royalty and anyone. He related easily to people.”

The South African Indian Congress launched the passive resistance movement against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act of 1946. Kathrada was among 2 000 volunteers arrested in the passive resistance campaign against this Act, which limited the political representation of Indians and defined where they could live, trade and own land. This was his first time in jail.

Kathrada had his first major fall-out with Mandela in 1950 when the Transvaal ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Communist Party organised a Freedom Day strike on May 1 as part of a programme of action against the government’s policies and specifically the impending Suppression of Communism Act (passed in 1950). The ANC Youth League opposed the strike.

“Before the strike, I happened to meet Madiba on the street. After the initial pleasantries, I criticised him for opposing the strike and challenged him to a debate in any township, and ‘I will win’.”

The strike took place despite the youth league’s opposition. About 18 people were killed and 38 wounded. Mandela and Kathrada had another fall-out at a meeting to discuss a day of mourning to mark the deaths of the strikers.

“I was at the meeting as a volunteer. I was shocked when Madiba got up and complained about my disrespectful attitude towards him. I eagerly relied on my mentors Ismail Meer and JN Singh to defend me, only to listen to Ismail appealing to Madiba to dismiss the behaviour of the hot-headed youngster,” Kathrada recalled.

In 1951, he visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz, which affected him deeply and confirmed his conviction of the need to eradicate racism in South Africa. As chairperson of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress, he had attended the World Youth Festival in Berlin and a congress of the International Students Union in Poland. He ended up travelling to Budapest and working at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth for nine months.

In the 1950s, there was greater co-operation between the organisations in the Congress Alliance, which included the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress. Kathrada became a leader of the Youth Action Committee, which co-ordinated the activities of the different congresses.

In 1952, he helped organise the Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws, and ended up being charged and sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years.

Kathrada was served with his first banning order in 1954, which prohibited him from attending any gathering or taking part in the activities of several anti-apartheid organisations. He was arrested several times for breaking his banning order.

In 1955, Kathrada was one of the organisers of the Congress of the People in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted.

He was among 156 Congress activists and leaders charged with high treason in 1956. The trial continued for four years, from 1957 until March 1961, when all the accused were found not guilty. Kathrada, along with Mandela and others, were among the last 30 to be acquitted.

Kathrada was restricted to the Johannesburg area in 1957 and, after the killing of anti-pass protesters in Sharpeville and Langa in 1960, he was detained for five months during the state of emergency, when the ANC and PAC were banned. In 1961, he was arrested for his role in a committee that opposed the declaration of South Africa as a Republic.

He went underground in 1962 after he was subjected to house arrest for 13 hours a day, as well as over weekends and public holidays. He began attending secret meetings at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, the underground headquarters of the ANC.

When the police raided Liliesleaf in July 1963, they arrested Kathrada and several other ANC leaders. This led to the Rivonia Trial in which eight accused were sentenced to life in prison. Mandela, who had already been in prison, was flown to Pretoria to be the number one accused. They were all found guilty for their involvement in the activities of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

Kathrada said in a recent interview: “The moment that stood out for at the Rivonia Trial would be the end of Mandela’s speech where he said: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’. That was an electric moment. Although we knew it, we reacted the way the people and the prosecution reacted to it.

“The second moment that stood out for me was when we all expected death and the judge said life.”

Kathrada, at the age of 34, was sent to the isolation section of Robben Island with seven of the other convicted men – the eighth, Denis Goldberg, was white so he was sent to Pretoria Central Prison – where he spent the next 18 years. His prison number was 468/64, meaning that he was the 468th prisoner to be sent to the Island in 1964. Kathrada was eventually released in on 15 October 1989, at the age of 60, from Pollsmoor Prison, to where he had been moved later in his prison term.

Kathrada, who had prematurely left school and later the University of the Witwatersrand, pursued his academic studies in prison and obtained a BA (history and criminology), a B Bibliography (Library Science and African Politics) and two BA Honours degrees in African politics and history from Unisa. He has also received four honorary doctorates, from the University of Massachusetts in May 2000, the University of Durban-Westville in 2002, the University of Missouri in January 2004, and Michigan State University in December 2005.

In a recent interview, Kathrada said: “I owe whatever I did personally on Robben Island to Neville Alexander. He was such a brilliant chap. I did library science, not because I was interested but we had ulterior motives for everything. Neville took my books and guided me so I could get through my degree.”

(Alexander had been sentenced in 1964 to 10 years on Robben Island for conspiracy to commit sabotage.)

Kathrada was initially sceptical when Mandela began talking to representatives of the Nationalist Party government when they were being held in Pollsmoor Prison, but said later that he understood Mandela’s motivation. “He was a prisoner who did not negotiate but just facilitated the process with pre-conditions.”

After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, Kathrada was elected to the national executive committee at its first legal conference in South Africa in July 1991. He also served on the interim leadership of the South African Communist Party.

Kathrada became head of the ANC’s department of information and publicity and head of public relations until 1994.

(He also went on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) in 1992.)

Kathrada became an MP after South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994 and serve as chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council until 2006. He served as a Cabinet minister under Mandela for two days in 1994.

“I must still ask for my pension,” he laughed when asked about this during a recent interview. “Mandela had appointed me as minister of correctional services, even though I told them that I was not interested. Fortunately, the Inkatha Freedom Party agreed to join the government and wanted one of the four security positions: either intelligence, defence, police or correctional services. Correctional services was the least difficult so it was easy for Madiba to take my position and give it to them. It made me very happy but I was never interested in the Cabinet. He then made me his counsellor.” Kathrada stepped down from this position and from Parliament in 1999.

He then started the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. “My colleagues insisted that I do something. Our focus is on deepening non-racialism,” he said recently.

Kathrada met his wife Barbara Hogan shortly after she was released from prison in 1990. She had been serving a 10-year sentence for high treason, the first woman to be found guilty of this. In an interview, Kathrada said their common experience of prison helped them to understand each other better.

Kathrada, who received the ANC’s highest award, the Isitwalandwe medal, while he was still in prison, was one of the ANC elders who recently spoke out against the organisation’s current leaders.

In a letter to Jacob Zuma in April last year, he appealed to the president to “submit to the will of the people and resign”. He paraphrased Mandela’s famous speech from the dock of the Rivonia Trial when he said: “There comes a time in the life of every nation when it must choose to submit or fight.”

Kathrada was admitted to hospital on March 4 this year for surgery related to blood clotting on the brain.