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Ahmed Kathrada Obituary, 1929 -- 2017

Kathrada was "a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old, and across the political spectrum".

28/03/2017 07:15 SAST | Updated 30/03/2017 13:45 SAST

With struggle giant Ahmed Kathrada's death, one of the last remaining elder voices of morality, and perhaps one of the gentlest, in the ANC is gone.

Kathrada, who was nicknamed Kathy by a grade 10 teacher, died aged 87 in the early hours of Tuesday morning in Donald Gordon Hospital after he contracted pneumonia following an operation related to blood clotting earlier in March.

He was from the calibre of former president Nelson Mandela, who he called his "elder brother", and ANC heavyweight Walter Sisulu, who he called "father".

Criticism against Zuma

In his latter years Kathrada, who was awarded the ANC's highest honours, the Isithwalandwe Award, while still in prison, became strongly outspoken against wrongs in the organisation he was deeply involved in, and he was a fierce critic of President Jacob Zuma.

The man who was reluctant to break with tradition by speaking out of turn, even went as far as saying, in an open letter in March last year, that he would have stepped down if he were in Zuma's shoes.

Citing the crises and loss of public confidence in the ANC and government, he said Zuma stepping down "is what would help the country find its way out of a path that it never imagined it would be on, but one that it must move out of soon".

Kathrada was also at court in November last year to support Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was facing fraud charges. In another open letter, him and his wife Barbara Hogan said there was an "undisguised campaign" against Gordhan. Ironically, on the day of Kathrada's death, Gordhan was on his way back from the United Kingdom after his investment road show was abruptly cancelled by Zuma the day before.

Kathrada's foundation, founded in 2008, partnered with the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 2015 to drive anti-racism campaigns, and has been outspoken against xenophobia and islamophobia.

Rivonia Trial

Kathrada was one of the eight Rivonia trialists, and his death leaves behind only Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg from this group. Together with Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Billy Nair, Elias Motsoaledi and Ray Mhlaba, Kathrada was charged in June 1964 with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government by violent means.

They were sentenced to life imprisonment to Robben Island, where Kathrada spent 18 years and became especially close to Mandela and Sisulu, who, he said, stood by him "in the highs and lows of prison life".

What Mandela said about Kathy

In his forward to Kathrada's Letters from Robben Island, published in 1999, Mandela said he was "someone I have known as a comrade in arms for over fifty years. We spent over two decades in jail together, almost all the time on Robben Island."

Of Kathrada's character, Mandela wrote: "As I have often found to my cost, he is a person of strong opinion and sharp insight. But he also has great humour and humanity."

What Sisulu said about him

Sisulu wrote in his foreword to the same book that he met Kathy as "dynamic youth leader in the mid-1940s" and they had an enduring relationship from there, "so much so, that over the years Kathy has come to be regarded by my folks as a member of the Sisulu family."

He further wrote: "Nelson, Kathy, and I participated in the important political campaigns of the day, as well as the major political trials of the 1950s and 1960s. Among these were the Trial of the Twenty, which followed the Defiance Campaign of 1952, the Treason rial, which lasted for more than four years from 1957 to 1961, and, of course, the 1963 to 1964 Rivonia Trial."

Kathrada has an "engaging personality, his uncompromising views and his sharp wit and humour," Sisulu wrote.

He called Kathrada "a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old, and across the political spectrum".

Sisulu also credited Kathrada for helping to actualise Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Prison life in his own words

Kathrada took an optimistic view of prison life, and in a letter to Essop Pahad and others in exile in 1968, he wrote: "Healthwise, I'm fine, i.e. besides the big of arthritis and other little aches and pains that go with prison life. Spiritwise, I couldn't be better. I suppose a very important factor here is that, long before my arrest, I had conditioned myself to the prospect of spending a long time in jail. And, as you will probably imagine, almost everything depends on one's mental attitude. So I don't for a moment regret my refusal to accept the suggestion in 1963 that I should take refuge in Swaziland or overseas. Having said this, I don't of course mean that I'm finding prison life to be a bed of roses, or that I shouldn't like to be with my loved ones. But at the same time, looking back over the past few years, I must say that my being in prison has not been without its advantages. It has been a real boon to have been able to devote time to reflection and thought and also to be able to acquire a bit of education. Almost everyday [sic] that passes reveals to me how really ignorant I've been, education-wise; and I cannot be thankful that I've had a bit of opportunity to make up a little in this direction." Kathrada was re-doing a BA with majors in history in criminology, which he failed the year before. Although he anted to do a history honours but new prison regulations didn't allow them to pursue postgraduate studies.

He completed his Bachelor's degrees in history/criminology and bibliography on Robben Island, and later he completed honours degrees in history and African politics through the University of South Africa.

No Bread for Mandela

Kathrada's views of non-racialism is expressed in a story he often told when he gave talks and in interviews, of the way he and fellow Rivonia trialists were treated. He said Goldberg, being white, didn't go to Robben Island but was kept with other white political prisoners in Pretoria. The other seven were flown to Robben Island, with him being the only Indian and the youngest.

He got long trousers, according to the regulations, while the others had to wear shorts even though Mbeki was 20 years his senior and Sisulu 18. At breakfast there was always porridge, soup and coffee for all, but he got a little more sugar than his black fellow prisoners, and less than Goldberg.

Kathrada god a quarter-loaf of bread every day, while Mandela got bread for the first time after 10 years -– something which affected Kathrada so deeply that it inspired the title of his memoir, No Bread for Mandela.

Non-violence and blundering

Other friends also had high praises for him. In a lecture earlier in March at the Mancosa colleague in Auckland Park, political theorist Achille Mbembe said social justice activists could learn from Kathrada who, like Mandela, was able to "read" the times very well. He also said violence wasn't always the best way of achieving an aim.

Abdushay Jassat (82), a member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, at the same occasion said Kathrada inspired him and got him involved in the armed struggle, even though Kathrada himself was never a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

He was also a little naïve at times, brave rather than violent.

"We made a lot of mistakes, a lot of blunders," Jassat recalled. I remember once when Kathy and I ... Kathy lived in a flat in Colorado House next to the Portuguese consulate or some Portuguese office. Kathy and I felt that we needed to dispose of the premises," he said.

"So, we took a can of petrol, we didn't go and assess what we were doing. We took a can of petrol at night, in Market Street, Johannesburg and threw the petrol through a postbox and then we lit it, not realising that there was big empty space which was a courtyard," Jassat said.

"These are some of the things we did. We blew up some government installations like post offices, pylons and various things like that for which some of us got arrested," Jassat said.

Kathrada's life

According to South African History Online, Kathrada was born in Schweizer Reneke in the then Western Transvaal to Mohamed Kathrada and his wife Hawa, shopkeeper immigrants from India, on August 21, 1929.

He was delivered by an Afrikaner midwife known as Ouma Oosthuizen.

Aged 8 he went to school in Johannesburg because there was no school for Indian children locally, and he stayed with his maternal aunt, Fatima, in Fordsburg.

Kathrada got involved in politics in the 1940 after meeting Yusuf Dadoo, who was involved in a campaign against World War II through the non-European United Front.

Aged 12 he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa and was admitted to the Communist Party in the 1940s.

He was a founding member of the Transvaal Indian Volunteer Corps and its successor, the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress in 1945-1946.

Aged 17 he matriculated and went to work full-time for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council where he got involved in civil disobedience campaigns against the "Ghetto Act" which sought to limit where Indians could live, trade and own land, and was imprisoned for the first time with 2,000 others in Durban.

In 1951 he enrolled as a student at the University of Witwatersrand and joined the Students Liberation Association and was sent as a delegate to the third World Festival of Youth and Students in Berlin, where he was elected the leader of a large, multi-racial South African delegation. He spent nine months in Budapest working at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth.

In the 1950s he was arrested alongside Mandela and Sisulu as one of 156 accused I the four-year Treason Trial, which lasted from 1956 to 1960. They were eventually all found not guilty.

He continued his political activities despite detentions and house arrests, but decided to go underground in 1963, when he was arrested with the other Rivonia Trialists.

After his release and the unbanning of the ANC, Kathrada served on the interim leadership of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, but resigned when he was elected to the ANC's national executive committee in 1991.

He became the head of the ANC's public relations as well as a fellow of the University of the Western Cape's Mayibuye Centre in the same year.

In 1994 he was elected as a member of parliament for the ANC, and a few months later appointed as political advisor to Mandela, who was then president.

He left parliamentary politics at the end of Mandela's presidency.

Kathrada served as chairperson of the Robben Island Council in 1994 and 1995.

He received many honours in his lifetime, including four honorary doctorates, he was voted 46th in the top 100 Great South Africans in 2004 and he was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in 2005.

He leaves behind his life partner, Barbara Hogan.

Ahmed Kathrada Funeral