Ahmed Kathrada (1929-2017): An honourable and humble hero


Anti-apartheid activist and close friend of former South African President Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, talks during a tribute to Mandela at Gandhi Hall, on December 8, 2013 in Johannesburg.

Anti-apartheid activist and close friend of former South African President Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, talks during a tribute to Mandela at Gandhi Hall, on December 8, 2013 in Johannesburg.

Ahmed Kathrada, one of the most respected of all of South Africa’s Struggle heroes, has died at the age of 87. 

“Hatred, revenge, bitterness,” Ahmed Kathrada explained, “these are negative emotions. The person harbouring those emotions suffers more.”

Kathrada may have had a deeply spiritual understanding of transcending suffering. But by many accounts, he had his feet planted firmly on the ground, with no shortage of good humour.

In 2014, Daily Maverick’s Ranjeni Munusamy recounted the day she spoke to Kathrada on the 25th anniversary of his release from prison. As one of the country’s best-known political prisoners – with 26 years of incarceration under his belt – Kathrada calmly reassured her that disgraced Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, whose trial was dominating headlines at the time, would be just fine in prison.

“When people talk about prison, I naturally get interested. I think (Pistorius) will have nothing to complain about. He will be able to adjust to it,” was his kindly assessment.

That moment, one might say, was Kathrada all over. A no-nonsense, fearless ability to tell even brutal truths, without resorting to cruelty.

This honesty was a distinguishing characteristic both under apartheid and following it. Possibly the greatest controversy of the final years of Kathrada’s life was his shatteringly true, but still kind, letter to President Jacob Zuma following the Constitutional Court’s judgment on the Nkandla scandal. Kathrada – clearly troubled – broke with tradition and opted to speak out against Zuma.

“I have agonised for a while before writing this letter to you,” he began, going on to describe himself, incongruously, as “just a rank-and-file member of my ANC branch”.

After a brief summary of his involvement in the struggle, however, he explained:

“In all these years it never occurred to me that the time would come when I would feel obliged to express my concerns to the Honourable President… I have always maintained a position of not speaking out publicly about any differences I may harbour against my leaders and my organisation, the ANC.”

But, he wrote, “[D]on’t you think your continued stay as president will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?” Stepping down was the “correct thing” for Zuma to do, he added.

Kathrada came under fire from various quarters for his letter; others, however, were reassured that respected voices within the ANC were calling for a serious review of Zuma’s leadership.

The Nkandla matter was not the only newsworthy issue to capture Kathrada’s attention in his later years: he spoke out against xenophobia and other human rights abuses, commented on various labour issues, and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation boldly called for a probe into “Guptagate” – allegations that the Gupta family had undue influence over the appointment of ministers. The foundation, throughout the course of its existence, worked tirelessly to develop a culture of non-racialism in South Africa, better the lives of disadvantaged citizens, and promote the protection of human rights. It also contributed, through its collection and curatorship of historical artefacts, to maintaining insight into the liberation struggle.

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada – later known by friends as Kathy – was born in 1929 in Schweizer Reneke, a small rural town about 200km southwest from Johannesburg. He was the fourth of six children; his parents immigrants from Surat, India.

Kathrada became involved in politics at an early age, joining a non-racial youth club run by the Young Communist League when he was 12. He could not be educated in the “European” or “African” schools in his area, so had to go to school in Johannesburg. At the age of 17, he left school to work for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council in opposition to the so-called Ghetto Act, which aimed to restrict the rights of Indians. The same year, he took part in the South African Indian Congress’ Passive Resistance Campaign, becoming one of 2,000 people who were arrested for their defiance of the law. He was not deterred, however, and went on to meet Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders in the 1940s.

Kathrada’s political influences weren’t solely local. In 1951, he travelled to East Berlin to attend a youth festival arranged by the World Federation of Democratic Youth, after which he travelled further and visited the Auschwitz concentration camp. According to the Kathrada Foundation, this made an “indelible impression” on the young activist.

By 1952, he had returned home and was one of 20 people – including Mandela and Sisulu – who were sentenced to nine months of hard labour, suspended for two years, for organising a Defiance Campaign against six apartheid laws. By 1954, he was placed under restrictions by apartheid security police and notched up several arrests for breaking his banning orders. The year 1956 saw him charged with over 150 others in the infamous Treason Trial. He, Mandela and Sisulu were among the last handful to receive their acquittals, but victory was still some distance away; in 1960, during the trial, the ANC and PAC were banned and by 1962 Kathrada was under house arrest. By 1963, he began conducting his political work underground, but later that year the raid on Liliesleaf Farm occurred and saw Kathrada heading for the Rivonia Trial. Along with Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, with hard labour.

Eighteen of his 26 years in prison were spent on Robben Island, and over the years it became a home of sorts, even if a cruel one. Ranjeni Munusamy wrote of interviewing Kathrada:

“I ask him how he can keep coming back here [to Robben Island], a place of so much pain and torment. He says he made it his home. I probe why he applied to come back to the Island after they were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. He explains that when prison conditions were relaxed, he enjoyed the company of and discussions with his peers. Only the senior leaders were transferred to Pollsmoor and you could swear and make jokes in front of them… [H]e goes on to say that he wants to get a house in the village on the Island, which were previously the warders’ houses. […] Why on earth would he want to stay there? ‘Oh, I like the peace and quiet. And it is nice to walk around in the mornings.’ He explains that he would not stay there full time if he does get a house, just when he wants to.”

After his release, Kathrada told numerous anecdotes about the shock of emerging from prison life (his reported response upon hearing a fax had been sent with news of their impending freedom: “What’s a fax?”). Getting to grips with the new roads, the new maps, the new technologies. According to Kathrada’s Letters from Robben Island, prisoners only received access to television after 1986. He and Andrew Mlangeni, fellow Rivonia Trialist, spoke of the prison habits they could not break when they were released. Cold showers, getting up at 5am.  It’s not clear whether Kathrada did find the “peace and quiet” that he sought. After the isolation of prison, perhaps even freedom felt like noise.

“In death,” he once said, “you once more challenge people from every stratum, religion, and position to think about how their own actions do and can change the world for better or worse.”

There can be little doubt that in the coming days and weeks of mourning, Kathrada’s extraordinary legacy will do just that.