The meaning of Ahmed Kathrada's life and death


Andrew Mlangeni and Goerge Bizos attending Ahmed Kathrada's funeral on 29 March 2017.

In life, Ahmed Kathrada symbolized the very best of the anti-apartheid struggle and the core founding principles of the ANC. In death, he shone a light on what has gone so terribly wrong with a country that was born with so much hope and promise 22 years ago.

Kathrada’s funeral was a meeting of the who’s who of the anti-apartheid struggle still in the ANC and out; those in government and those who have gone on to pursue other interests, political or not.

There was Sophia Williams de Bruyn, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni – struggle stalwarts and Kathrada’s contemporaries.

Then there was Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, both senior ANC members and South African ex-presidents. With them were former cabinet colleagues from the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies, including Mohammed Valli Moosa and Terror Lekota. There was also a good number of current members of government, such as Derek Hanekom, Aaron Motsoaledi, Susan Shabangu and Lindiwe Sisulu.

With the presence of former-comrades-now-turned-ANC-adversaries like Julius Malema and Lekota, the occasion was like a family funeral, where appearances are kept up and even the black sheep are tolerated.

But politically, the event bore much symbolism of the values espoused by the founders of the ANC. One was the belief in non-racialism, the very antithesis of apartheid, which aimed to keep the country’s racial groups separate, on the belief that they could never, and should not be allowed to get along as compatriots. In the event there were Indians, blacks, whites, coloureds and everybody else.

It harked back to the founding all those many years ago of the United Democratic Front – a potent, non-racial formation against the apartheid state – in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town.

Non-racialism is a key nation-building principle less spoken about by ANC leadership these days – on the mistaken basis that it is less important than land redistribution and the in-vogue project of “radical economic transformation”. And then we feign surprise and outrage that racism continues to blight our society, be it at a Spur restaurant, in our workplaces or on social media.

It was perhaps apt that it fell to Hanekom, a white man of Afrikaans descent, presiding at a Muslim funeral, to again refute another core tenet of apartheid, declaring: “We are all equal”.

The fact that Kathrada, despite being of Indian extraction, emerged to become one of the most popular leaders of the struggle among South Africans of all colours, served as a reminder of the open character of that struggle, in which many Indian people participated and even lost their lives.

By deliberately making the service an interfaith one, the organisers were also making a point about the importance of religious tolerance in a diverse country such as ours, another feature of the new society envisaged by the ANC founders. And so we had speaking leaders from the Islam, Christian, Hindu and Jewish religions.

And it was no accident that the coffin of a Muslim was draped in the ANC flag, reminding us of the many Muslims who took part in the struggle to end apartheid and bring about a more just society.

The references to Martin Luther King junior and the Palestinian struggle, served to highlight the role of the international community in ending apartheid, and South Africa’s obligation to help others still fighting for their freedom elsewhere in the world.

Again regarding attendance, the big talk was of course about the missing VVIP – President Jacob Zuma. Although barred from attending by the Kathrada family, he was very present in the consciousness of those who gathered in the marquee at Westpark Cemetery, with speakers levelling often barely veiled criticism at him.

Motlanthe, his former prison mate on Robben Island, delivered the most direct censure of the president. He brought the mourners to their feet when extolling the courage of the late Kathrada, who wrote to Zuma, asking him to resign.

The fact that, as reported by the presidency, he had been asked to stay away, reminded all of the groundswell of disaffection with Zuma’s leadership – and by extension the misgovernance afflicting the nation.

In the end, the question is whether he and the ANC leadership around him are paying attention.