When Ahmed Kathrada died early on Tuesday morning, many, many South Africans felt a profound sadness. It was as though we had been conveyed to a moment heavy with our own grief, a moment so severe in its depth that we were struck by our own singularity.
It was a moment of loss.
He was a leader. He was a visionary. He was a fighter. But he was more than that. He was fiercely principled. He was sincere in his beliefs. He remained faithful to the organisation he so loved. And he was a unifier. He eschewed the politics of factionalism. And he embodied the ideals of nonracialism in everything he did.
And yet he was also just Uncle Kathy.
He was accessible and warm, open and honest.
From the sound of the many tributes paid to him this week, he could well have been the uncle of a whole nation.
He gave his life to the cause of human dignity for all South Africans. He was that rare leader who gave so much, with little or no regard for his own advancement.
And he’s no more.
We mourn the loss of the irascible young man who stood up to the apparatus of the apartheid state, staunchly faithful to his comrades and determined to continue until a sense of dignity was restored to all South Africans.
But heavy as this moment is with grief, it is heavy too with longing.
In eulogising Kathrada, we remember his comrades and friends: the women and men who stood up to tyranny. Not all of them were Rivonia triallists. Most of them will not have plaques made in their honour. They are the nameless and faceless thousands who stood in the shadows of their leaders — resisting by just being.
We are because they were.
And yet as we move through this moment of loss, our bereavement is acutely felt.
We are a nation beholden to a president, and to an entire class of people, whose personal interests are so intricately entwined with the state that it is almost too difficult to understand where one begins and the other ends. The ANC must take responsibility for constructing a class of people who depend on corruption in the state for their own advancement.
It was only apt, then, that Uncle Kathy’s funeral was also a beautiful moment of resistance.
Indeed, the time of the political funeral has not passed.
Kathy’s funeral was a defiantly political affair. The defiance, however, was directed within, to the president of the ANC and a culture of self-enrichment that tarnishes the history of a great organisation.
Two decades ago, when South Africa’s Constitution was ratified, its drafters — and those who fought a long, hard war for a nonracist, nonsexist South Africa — cannot have imagined that one day they would be asking the president, the leader of the country as well as the head of a century-old liberation movement, to resign.
Yet that is the message from Kathrada, read out at his funeral by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, addressed to President Jacob Zuma: You have violated your oath of office. Do the right thing and resign.
The words have been echoed in a declaration by struggle stalwarts, the leadership core of South Africa’s liberation movement who are now appalled by the actions of their president. So they are not Kathrada’s words alone: they are those of a considerable bloc of leaders who are unimpeachable.
What did the president think, hearing about those scenes? He was, of course, not at the funeral. Kathrada, we are told, did not want him there. Surely, it is an opportune moment for the president to reflect why.