Struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada (or “Uncle Kathy” – as he is fondly known) turned 87 years old a mere two weeks ago and as part of the celebration he visited Stellenbosch University for a screening of a documentary about his life.
Kathrada was an active member of the ANC along with his contemporaries Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, and became Nelson Mandela’s trusted advisor during his presidency. As a young and passionate member of the ANC, he went into hiding in 1956 with the group who were later brought before the Rivonia Trail, which known as The Sabotage Trial at the time. They were subsequently arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kathrada served a total of 26 years in prison, most of which were served on Robben Island alongside Mandela. “I first went to prison under Smuts” he recalls, comparing the apartheid government to the Nazis’ Third Reich.
A second-generation South African of Indian descent, Kathrada grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, yet was not allowed to go to either a white or a black school. While still a teenager, he joined the Natal Indian Congress, which aligned itself with Gandhi’s passive resistance movement. After leaving school to devote himself to the cause of freedom for all races, he was jailed for a month at the age of 17 and was later placed under house arrest. After meeting Govan Mbeki, he became a member of the ANC. It was during this time, especially after the Sharpeville massacre, that he realised a passive approach was not going to work against the increasingly aggressive ruling regime.
“When we embarked on the armed struggle in 1961 it was a departure from Gandhi’s method… to adapt to our situation in South Africa,” he says. Retired Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs described the young activist as sporting a thick mop of hair and a fiery, passionate temperament. “Even as a young man he stood out as a leader,” he said. Fellow Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg recalls: “Repression was becoming more and more stringent… then we got a message – we’re going underground.”
Kathrada disguised himself as a Portuguese man, donning a pair of black sunglasses and a false moustache. As he quipped: “You can’t become a white man overnight!” He hid out in an outhouse at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, and on July 11, Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu and others joined them. But the police had staked out the area and they were arrested. “From the word go, the message was – you are going to die,” said Kathrada. “What we were being arrested for already warranted the death sentence.”
Four charges – including sabotage and guerrilla warfare – were made against him, only one of which he was pronounced guilty of, as no sufficient evidence could be made against him. The death sentence was dropped and he was given a life sentence. Complete isolation followed, with no visitors or lawyers allowed. “The only thought you have is death,” he chillingly recalled. In exchange for money or even freedom, the police interrogated him, asking- why do you want to die for a small bit of information?
“You think of your responsibility towards yourself, your family and the organisation. I am an Indian, if I break down, what effect will it have on the Indian community? When they realised he betrayed his people?” Kathrada says he was fortunate in that he was never physically tortured, but the police systematically attempted to break him down psychologically. He recalled how Mandela, who had had become friendly with his warder on Robben Island, asked his advice on the outcome of the judgement, expecting a word of encouragement. The reluctant answer was a realisation: “They’re going to hang you.”
One of the many challenges he faced was racism within the prison. He noticed that his colleagues, who were many years his senior (he was the youngest of the four) were given shorts to wear and no socks, like boys, whereas he was allowed to wear trousers. In the illogical caste system of apartheid, Indians were treated better than black people. He says he found this “humiliating… I would get more soup, but Mandela gets no bread, and I get a loaf of bread a day”.
In his typical magnanimous way, Mandela urged him not to retaliate against this treatment – as it would help Kathrada to attain a lesser sentence. He described life in prison as being “ruled by the bell” and “cold food, cold cells, cold attitude” – as they suffered for a 12-year-long stretch with no warm water. Hard labour consisted of breaking limestone in the courtyard with a pick and shovel. Yet he says: “There was no time that I lost hope. When we embarked on the struggle we had the majority [of South Africa] on our side – the world on our side.”
He loved seeing wildlife out of the window of his cell on the island, and rain falling on the dry ground. One major deprivation was the absence of children, which is made all the more poignant as Kathrada, due to the length of his sentence, was not able to marry and have children of his own.In his typical humble way, he says: “Twenty years in the life of a nation is nothing. From prison, to Parliament, to president… the message of Robben Island is a message of victory: the forces of good over the forces of evil.”
Kathrada retired from formal politics in 1999, and founded the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation in 2008, which is committed to non-racialism in South Africa and the world. He has accompanied many famous people in over 300 visits to Robben Island, including Hillary Clinton, the Cuban 5 and even Beyoncé, of whose fame he was blissfully unaware. Recently, he has shown support for the Fees Must Fall campaign, and the SABC journalists who were unlawfully dismissed.
During the question-and-answer session after the screening, Stellenbosch University students expressed some complex feelings about racism, seeking his advice on how to move forward. “It would be arrogant of me to give advice,” he said. “All I can do is express my wish that we have the patience to understand and forgive. Freedom did not fall from heaven, our freedom was fought for, sacrificed for. With freedom comes responsibility towards yourselves, your parents, your country. You form the majority of the population of South Africa: the doors of learning are open, concentrate on that – we should reach a stage where we don’t have to import skills.”
Don’t harbour revenge, he urged. “You can’t live a life of bitterness and hatred. As difficult as it is, we need to forgive.” He extended a hand to engage with Stellenbosch University students in the future, to further unpack some of these challenges.
* Ahmed Kathrada: A Man for All Seasons is produced by Anant Singh.
FIRST PUBLISHED in Bolander, September 2016.