Ahmed Kathrada

Anti-apartheid icon

Print edition : April 28, 2017

President Nelson Mandela talking to fellow veteran politician Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada before Mandela's address to the South African parliament in Cape Town on March 2, 1999. Photo: Reuters

Kathrada (left) and former South African President Thabo Mbeki carrying the centenary torch during the ANC's centenary celebration in Bloemfontein on January 8, 2012. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada (1929-2017), South African leader and Nelson Mandela’s fellow prisoner for 26 years, spent the better part of his life fighting against racism and oppression.

A LIFE in the shadows may not be everybody’s idea of greatness. But some people can go far even there. This was the case with Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada. He was with Nelson Mandela from the darkest nights as a fellow prisoner on Robben Island to the high noon of a South Africa free of the shackles of serfdom and racial discrimination.

He never once left Mandela. In prison he shared his bread with him; Mandela was entitled to gram and no bread, whereas Kathrada as a man of colour got bread too. As South Africa embraced freedom and equality, Mandela returned the favour by making Kathrada his Parliamentary Counsellor, which virtually made him Mandela’s shadow. Little wonder he regarded Mandela as his elder brother. Mandela reciprocated his sentiments, remarking: “Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.”

Overpowering influence

In prison, Mandela and Kathrada discussed politics and history while working in lime quarries. Kathrada got himself some bookish education too while in prison and earned degrees in history and criminology and in African politics and library sciences. It was Mandela, though, who was an overpowering influence on Kathrada. Even some 25 years after Kathrada’s release when this correspondent spoke to him, all he wanted to talk about was his illustrious fellow prisoner. Recalled Kathrada: “For 26 years, eight of us were together. We were sentenced to life imprisonment. When we reached the prison, Mandela was already there. As we interacted, I realised that he was a natural leader of leaders. He had already emerged as a force to reckon with in the early 1960s.”

While Kathrada was allowed to wear full pants with socks and shoes in prison, Mandela was denied this privilege and was forced to wear shorts and sandals to reinforce racial discrimination. “The day he was allowed to wear full pants, we all laughed. It had been so long,” remembered Kathrada, who was among the eight freedom fighters jailed for life following the Rivonia Trial in 1964. He and others had been arrested a year earlier at Liliesleaf Farm in Johannesburg, the secret meeting place activists of the African National Congress (ANC) used, and charged with plotting to overthrow the government.

When Kathrada was given the option of a lesser sentence in jail, he preferred not to break ranks with his fellow prisoners. This refusal to part company with other prisoners meant that he spent 26 years in jail, including 18 on Robben Island, where after South Africa’s transformation, he served as chairman of the Robben Island Museum Council. He was released on October 15, 1989.

Kathrada could be self-effacing to a fault. Yet he had his own life and was brave and pioneering. His was a life worthy of far greater recognition and plaudits than it received, notwithstanding the Presidential Order for Meritorious Service Class 1: Gold he was awarded in 1999. He started young.

As the son of parents of Indian descent—his father hailed from Surat and the family first landed in Transvaal—Kathrada experienced discrimination early. He was denied an education in his hometown because of his colour, so his family had to move to a city. He was shaped by the violent, exclusionist nationalism of the whites and his long detention. His anti-apartheid ideology came through a gradual churning.

Kathrada’s parents got their children admitted into schools in Johannesburg. It is here that he was influenced by the Transvaal Indian Congress. He joined the Young Communist League, an affiliate of the Communist Party of South Africa, a year short of teenage, and within five years was taking part in defiance campaigns. Around this time, he went to work for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. And almost unbelievably for a teenager, he fought against the Ghetto Act of 1946.

He played a prominent role in forming coalitions of oppressed classes from the 1940s onwards. He was also influenced by Yusuf Dadoo, a Communist Party leader who was an important part of the Non-European United Front. The NEUF was initially opposed to Indian and African participation in military service during the Second World War but later, realising the great threat that Nazism posed, reversed its position. It was not a decision that had a consensus, with a section of communist leaders staying firmly anti-British. Within South Africa though, the NEUF continued to struggle against racism and founded the Anti-Segregation Council.

Political home

Young Ahmed was not destined to have a steady academic life. He dropped out of school at the age of 17, and his university studies were impacted by his decision to be part of a South African delegation to Europe to highlight the wrongs of South African polity and society. On his return, he was arrested for treason. Later, when he was put under house arrest to curtail his growing popularity among the masses, he worked for the ANC’s military wing and once managed to smuggle Mandela out of the country for a seminar in Ethiopia. The ANC was like a political home to him.

His stock really rose in the 1950s and 1960s. This was when the South African government passed controversial Acts such as the Suppression of Communism Act and the Separate Representation of Voters Act. These actions were meant to break the unity between people of Indian origin and blacks but had a contradictory effect. Thus began the campaign that brought the masses together, very much in the way that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements had done in India earlier. Kathrada recalled: “Mandela’s personality came to the fore when hostilities were at their peak. Mandela remained optimistic all along. When the Defiance Campaign and other movements of boycott were launched, it was with the sense that they would be successful. One does not expect immediate results. Success takes time. As an Indian you would know freedom cannot be attained in a matter of a year or two. We took heart and inspiration from the Indian struggle. We understood that the protest had to be continuous. In South Africa, the Defiance Campaign helped in rousing public opinion. For instance, before the campaign, the ANC had 5,000 members but following the campaign the number rose to over 100,000.”

Inspiration from India

Kathrada revealed that when all the important anti-apartheid leaders were in jail in South Africa, the ANC continued the struggle with the support of India and other countries. “The aim was to force the government to come to the negotiating table. Mandela started talking to the government from prison. One of his demands was to release all political prisoners, legalise the urban spots, and allow exiles to come back. The government acceded to all the requests. The ANC was allowed to function. It was in the 1960s and was a big moment for us back then.”

Mandela and other leaders drew inspiration from India’s non-violent path to freedom. “The enemy does not concede anything in a hurry. Our struggle took a long time. Contrary to what many people believed, we had a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy,” Kathrada claimed.

Kathrada’s time on Robben Island came to define him and what he stood for. His incarceration left an indelible imprint on his mind. The books he brought out after his release — Letters from Robben Island and A Free Mind: Ahmed Kathrada’s Notebook from Robben Island—stemmed from his experiences there. They read like guidebooks to a life of servitude in prison. Far from being disheartened or dispirited, the detainees always planned for a more egalitarian society, a country where skin colour would not be the deciding factor for opportunities in life. Kathrada studied closely the ideology of Gandhi, in particular, his non-cooperation movement, and used it in the fight against apartheid.

Like Gandhiji, he did not believe in revenge or hatred. Kathrada is reported to have once said: “Hatred, revenge, bitterness, these are negative emotions. The person harbouring those emotions suffers more.”

He retained his principles to the end, though he left the Communist Party after performing Hajj in 1992. He was elected to the parliament in 1994 but refused to contest for re-election in 1999, thus ending his involvement with electoral politics. That did not dissuade him from urging Jacob Zuma to resign after South Africa’s highest court had found the President guilty of not paying back the public money he spent on doing up his house. To Zuma’s credit, when Kathrada passed away, he remembered him as a titan and ordered the national flag to fly at half mast as a mark of respect. And interim President Kgalema Motlanthe confessed at the memorial service: “It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of the comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the post-apartheid failure of politics.”

Even as a son of Gujarat breathed his last in faraway South Africa, it barely caused a ripple in this part of the world. But in South Africa, it marked the near end of the generation that fought against apartheid. With five of the eight Rivonia Trial detainees having passed away earlier, Kathrada’s demise means there are just two left: Dennis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni.

Until recently, Kathrada maintained a brisk lifestyle, often devoting long hours to the foundation he set up around a decade ago. But a brief illness that started with indigestion led to the doctors discovering and removing a clot in his brain. He failed to recover. Kathrada continued to be hopeful of the future to the end, arguing passionately that most South African children were in school now, “clinics and hospitals have been established. Electricity and sanitation have reached a majority of population.” His life was his message. South Africa could do worse than follow his example. Greatness can reside in the shadows too.