The life and times of struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada

March 29, 2017
| Report Focus News

Struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada died early on Tuesday morning‚ his foundation said.

| Report Focus NewsThe 87-year-old Kathrada was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital on Saturday‚ March 4‚ initially for dehydration but doctors later picked up a clot on his brain‚ which was subsequently removed.

On March 15‚ the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s director Neeshan Balton disclosed his recovery from his operation had been “slower than hoped for”. He said “Uncle Kathy” had “experienced several health-related setbacks”.

He leaves behind his wife‚ Barbara Hogan‚ 65‚ an ANC activist who was jailed for treason. They met on his release from prison and she later served as an MP and Cabinet Minister in the post-apartheid era.

Despite their life-long political commitment‚ they shared snippets of Kathrada’s personality when celebrating his 85th birthday at the showing of a documentary by filmmaker Anant Singh. Guests learned that at 7pm‚ no one dared to interrupt Kathrada‚ as the soapie Isidingo was on air – and that he liked to have dessert before the main course‚ because “life is too short”.

The Rivonia trialist‚ anti-racism activist and author‚ whose full name was Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada‚ was born on 21 August 1929 in Schweizer-Reneke in what is now the North West province.

“Kathy” was 12 when he joined a club affiliated with the Young Communist League and 17 years old when he was first arrested‚ for participating in the Passive Resistance Campaign of the South African Indian Congress.

He met ANC leaders Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in the 1940s‚ with whom a decade later he received a suspended sentence for organizing a defiance campaign against apartheid laws and later stood trial for high treason. They were acquitted that time but Kathrada was restricted to house arrest until he went “underground”.

In July 1963‚ the police swooped on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia‚ a Johannesburg suburb‚ where “banned persons” had been meeting. This led to the famous Rivonia Trial‚ in which Mandela‚ Sisulu‚ Kathrada and five others were jailed the following year.

In a tribute to Mandela after his death in 2013‚ Kathrada disclosed the nature of his relationship with the two famous ANC leaders. Referring to Sisulu‚ he wrote: “To me‚ over the years he had become the father I had lost in 1944. I could‚ and did turn to him for the most personal advice. Now I have lost you‚ my older brother‚ comrade and leader.”

Kathrada’s death means only two of the eight Rivonia Trialists are still alive – Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg.

Kathrada spent 26 years and 3 months in prison‚ 18 of which were on Robben Island.

While in prison he obtained four university degrees: BA (in History and Criminology)‚ B Bibliography (in African Politics and Library Science)‚ BA Honours (History) and BA Honours (African Politics).

He was released on 15 October 1989.

At the ANC’s first legal conference in South Africa‚ Kathrada was elected onto its National Executive Committee and until 1994 he headed its Public Relations Department. In 1994 Kathrada was elected to Parliament and served as then President Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor.

He also became chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council until 2006‚ and shared memories of their incarceration with politicians Barack Obama‚ Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher as well as Hollywood actors Samuel L Jackson‚ Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman.

In 2008‚ he started his foundation.

Balton told the 85th birthday party that Kathrada had attended about 250 public engagements a year since the foundation started but his age had begun to hamper his efforts. “He won’t be able to sustain that many engagements any longer‚ but our wish for him is to live as long as possible‚ and to share his integrity and humility for generations to come‚” Balton said in 2014.

Awards bestowed on Kathrada included the “Isithwalandwe”; the highest award bestowed by the ANC‚ and the Presidential Order for Meritorious Service; Class 1: Gold. He was also awarded the City of Johannesburg’s Freeman of the City honour.

His published books are Letters from Robben Island (1999)‚ Memoirs (2004) and A Free Mind: Ahmed Kathrada’s Notebook from Robben Island (2005).

Kathrada also collaborated with former Wits University academic Tim Couzens for the 2008 book A Simple Freedom: The Strong Mind of Robben Island Prisoner‚ No. 468/64.

In the introduction Mandela wrote: “Kathy was always analysing and trying to understand‚ even while he was an active participant” and praised Kathrada for being “an important depository for organisational memory”.

Most recently‚ Kathrada’s foundation has spearheaded a campaign against racism with over 60 other organisations from various regions across South Africa.

A famous quote attributed to Kathrada is: “Hatred‚ revenge‚ bitterness – these are negative emotions. The person harbouring those emotions suffers more.”

In a similar vein‚ he advised South Africans in a newspaper comment piece just last year that while he endorsed a heightened assertiveness in tackling racism‚ “I am not for once saying that racists cannot be humanised. Through education and learning‚ even the worst racists can unlearn their prejudices.”

He urged individuals‚ organisations and communities to “stamp their dignity” when trying to counter racism‚ as the veterans had when fighting apartheid‚ merrily recounting an incident when he and some friends used a “Europeans only” lift.

“A white woman‚ who also wanted to use the lift‚ told us to read the sign. We responded by saying‚ ‘We do not mind sharing a lift with Europeans’ and that she was welcome to join us … She chose not to take the lift. But we asserted our dignity and made our point.”