Ahmed Kathrada, who passed away this week, was a gentleman in the true sense of the word. Like his great friend Nelson Mandela, he never allowed the violence he experienced during his life to warp his humour or embitter his soul.
That is what emerges most strongly from Conversations with a Gentle Soul, which was the result of numerous discussions with his longtime friend Sahm Venter.
His dazzling smile, twinkling eyes and spontaneous laughter were evident at one of the last times he was seen in public — at the recent launch of this, his sixth book.
Kathrada was in London with Venter in 2010 at the international launch of Nelson Mandela’s book, Conversations with Myself, when iconic British publishers Blackwell persuaded him to produce this book along with her.
SA’s reading public is fortunate to have two conversations with its great leaders — recording their wisdom and humaneness — which is sorely needed in a time of political turmoil.
The argument that finally persuaded Kathrada to sit down with Venter was that his life lessons held potential value for the youth.
The book starts with a reminder that Kathrada shot into the hearts of millions of people throughout the world on December 15 2013. "It was then, with an unsteady voice, he delivered the heartbreaking eulogy to his departed ‘elder brother’ Nelson Mandela at his funeral," Venter writes.
Kathrada called Mandela "elder brother" because it did not sit well with him that a man 11 years his senior could be known as his "friend".
Venter’s description of a 1950 meeting on Johannesburg’s Commissioner Street between Mandela and "Uncle Kathy" as he was affectionately known, is deliciously evocative.
At a time when most black people lived in a state of fear and intimidation, "a suave, dapper, fairly short, but good-looking young man … bumped into the tall, aristocratic Nelson Mandela, a rising star in the anti-apartheid campaign".
The image of these two handsomely attired men is in stark contrast to the Robben Island prison-garbed comrades who hacked rock together in the lime quarry.
Typically, Kathrada had something good to say about his 26 years on the island. In November 1975, although he was suffering from excruciating back pain to the extent that he couldn’t move at all, the prison authorities refused to take him to hospital.
Instead, they brought in a bed (prisoners had to sleep on the ground) and strapped him to it.
"They tied ten-pound iron weights to my feet to stretch my spine. They didn’t have enough weights so they added bricks. As crude as it was, thanks to them … I now have no back problems," he told Venter.
For the 10 days he lay immobile on that bed, Mandela spent hours with him, "to keep up my spirits".
Another hangover from Robben Island is the cold water with which Kathrada ended his daily showers in both summer and winter, "because it’s just a habit now … it’s not a symbol. You feel very fresh thereafter," he said to Venter.
An extraordinary story he recounted concerns the human bones he brought back to SA after a visit to Auschwitz six years after the Second World War. He found them lying in a street next to a crematorium. He kept them in a bottle and produced them at political meetings, "to show people what the logical outcome of racism can be. It was quite effective," he recalled.
In one of the many police raids on his home, they found the bottle, and when Kathrada explained its contents and the Nazi genocide, "their reaction was, ‘It’s just Jews, isn’t it?’."
But one National Party supporter was so shocked by the bones that he told Kathrada "that he had changed his politics".
During his 26 years in jail, Kathrada completed four degrees despite one prison officer removing prisoners’ rights to study as punishment. He would "fabricate misdemeanours in order to punish us".
Two special books accompanied Kathrada in and out of various prisons for decades — The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and The Oxford Book of English Verse. Strangely, the prison authorities never had a problem with these books, the passionate reader told Venter.
The modest man, who spent 26 years in jail and 26 years out of it before his death at 87, was given many awards for his work to end apartheid and his ceaseless efforts to promote peace and nonracialism.
Venter writes that the stalwart did not revel in these acknowledgements, "and woe betide you if, as a result of his eight honorary doctorates, you called him Dr Kathrada".
A prime example of his commitment to nonracism involves his romantic partner at the time he was imprisoned. Sylvia Neame, also a political activist, was white. If they had been caught together, they may have faced charges under the Immorality Act.
"In retrospect, if I had been arrested with her and sentenced, I would have got six months and not life," Kathrada told Venter, delivering a line that, the author writes, "he gets a great kick out of … it never fails to amuse him".
Venter, who has co-edited several books, befriended Kathrada shortly after his release from jail in 1989. Over the years, she has accompanied him on several overseas visits, "because he didn’t like taking long-distance trips alone". She also became his driver on occasion because he didn’t drive.
"We joked that I was his bodyguard too. He had long spurned all efforts to get him a proper chauffeur and a security detail," Venter writes.
Their friendship shines through a book that has powerfully and faithfully distilled the essence of this man for all seasons — whether he was in a cold prison cell or basking in the sunshine of children’s laughter.
It has been published at a pivotal time for it beams an unwavering light in the country’s gathering gloom of scandal and corruption.
Conversations with a Gentle Soul
Ahmed Kathrada with Sahm Venter