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Ahmed Kathrada's Life Is A Powerful Message About The Triumph Of The Human Spirit

'Kathy' relished every opportunity to be with young people and to be able to talk to them about his life.

22/08/2017 15:28 SAST | Updated 22/08/2017 15:28 SAST
Odd Andersen/ POOL New/ Reuters
Ahmed Kathrada.

Monday marked the 88th birthday of Ahmed Kathrada. It is the first one that we have not been able to wish him well, or organise some celebratory event with young people, as we had been doing over the past few years.

Last year was very special. The morning was spent with the learners and teachers at Bonteheuwel School in Cape Town and the late afternoon with students at Stellenbosch University.

'Kathy' relished every opportunity to be with young people and to be able to talk to them about his life. He did this in a way that disarmed the Fees Must Fall students at Stellenbosch, whom I thought were going to give him a hard time. By this time, he had gotten used to prefacing his views with, "I won't be so presumptuous as to give advice, but I will express a wish on this issue."

He would then go onto say, that while he supported the motivation behind the Fees Must Fall campaign, he had reservations about some of their tactics. This was typical of him, not wanting to oppose what young people were struggling for, but dropping hints about their choice of tactics. He understood that the struggles of young people were important, as he had spent much of his own youth in the Young Communist League and the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress.

Ahead of Kathy's 88th birthday, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation opened a site of remembrance at his grave at the Westpark Cemetery.

He was as militant as many of the leaders of the student protests today. Kathrada was after all, a full-time activist from the age of 17 and experienced his first spell in jail in 1946 when he was sentenced to a month in prison for being a participant of the Passive Resistance Campaign of that year.

Ahead of Kathy's 88th birthday, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation opened a site of remembrance at his grave at the Westpark Cemetery. The site is symbolic of one of the most defining aspects of Kathrada's life -– his time on Robben Island, both pre and post democracy -– as a political prisoner and as a free man.

Kathy was a most energetic promoter of Robben Island. He was the first chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council. It was during his tenure that Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site and he took it upon himself to act as its chief 'tour guide'. He carried out over 300 visits to Robben Island after his release and wanted to change the narrative of the Island away from it being a place of despair, but to one that symbolised the triumph of the human spirit over apartheid.

It was just a year ago that we stood at a replica of a Robben Island cell in Stellenbosch. He was impressed by the design, and thus in our search for ideas on how best to present his life at his gravesite, there was no option but to link it to Robben Island in some way.

We hope that many will visit the site of remembrance and reflect on how powerful simplicity can be.

At the opening of the site of remembrance, all who attended were of the view that it represented the qualities that were most associated with Kathy. The site is very similar to the cell replica we had seen in Stellenbosch -- it is simple and humble, but like Kathy, gives off a powerful message about the triumph of the human spirit.

We hope that many will visit the site of remembrance and reflect on how powerful simplicity can be, and how much it needs to be emulated today.

In time, more work will be done to add to the site, the names of others with whom Kathy had been in the struggle with, and whose names must never be forgotten. Work around this has started, captured by the common pathway and garden linking the gravesites of Beyers Naude and Reg September to that of Katharada's.

Just as Kathy relished telling young people about the past, we hope that generations to come will visit the site and learn about the stories of the brave individuals that it commemorates.

* Neeshan Balton is the Executive Director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation