Ahmed Kathrada: struggle icon and Rivonia triallist
In his humble and quiet manner, Kathrada continued throughout his life to oppose abuses of power, weighing in on issues of national interest
Already in 2004, when he published his Memoirs, Ahmed Kathrada wrote: “As proud as all South Africans are entitled to be over the first decade of democracy, euphoria should not be allowed to lull us into complacency…. We need to continue guarding against the temptations of careerism, self-interest and corruption.”
Kathrada himself, after having played a massive role in the struggle for liberation in SA, never yielded to the temptations he warned of. After his release from 26 years in prison, he played a quiet, background role, shunning the race for high office, and he was noted for his humility, which Desmond Tutu referred to as his “self-effacement”.
Yet in his humble and quiet manner, Kathrada continued throughout his life to oppose abuses of power, weighing in on issues of national interest, most recently in his support for students calling for free education and also in his call for President Jacob Zuma to resign.
Kathy, as he is referred to by young and old alike, was born in Schweizer-Reneke in the year of the advent of the Great Depression, 1929, on August 21. Although he grew up in a deeply conservative Afrikaner region, the midwife at his birth was an Afrikaner, and throughout his life Kathrada hated racism but never Afrikaners, or any other people for that matter. He grew up speaking Afrikaans, and knew many Afrikaans poems by heart, which he used to good effect with some of his enemies.
An activist from an early age, he was involved in every phase of resistance to oppressive laws throughout the last 50 years of the 20th century.
With no schools for Indian children in the segregated dorp, Kathrada was sent to Johannesburg in 1938, aged eight, to begin his schooling. He did well, and in his first year, he was promoted to Standard One.
A precocious child, he heard talk of a Yusuf Dadoo, and was thrilled when he got to speak to the doyen of the Communist Party of South Africa, already his hero. He befriended Essop Cachalia, as well as other kids who came from families heavily involved in politics.
By age 11, Kathrada was distributing political pamphlets and scrawling slogans on walls, and in 1941 he attended his first political gathering, a meeting of the Non European United Front. He developed a love of poetry, memorising poems by Rabindranath Tagore, and attended a memorial for the poet when he died in August 1941. But his interest in politics overshadowed all others.
He acquired new heroes, all activists, such as Ismail Meer, and at the age of 12 he joined the Young Communist League. He met ANC and CP heavyweights such as Ruth First, Duma Nokwe, Harold Wolpe and Paul Joseph, and by 1943 was elected to the YCL’s Johannesburg District Committee. A few years later he was admitted into the CPSA.
When in 1944 Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other young radicals launched the ANC’s Youth League, which rejuvenated the mother body, the teen-aged Kathrada was following developments closely. He became secretary of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress and took an active role in the Passive Resistance Campaign. It was his involvement in the youth congress that turned him into a seasoned politician.
Still in high school, he moved into Meer’s flat in Market Street in Joburg. The flat, at 13 Kholvad House, was designed by Rusty Bernstein, an architect who was later a fellow Rivonia triallist. Until 1963, Kathrada lived in what became a meeting place for activists of many stripes. Dadoo and Albert Luthuli were frequent visitors.
In the late 1940s Kathrada became friendly with Sisulu and the ANC Youth Leaguers, who in 1949 became the leaders of the ANC itself. The cooperation between the ANC and the other congress organisations plunged Kathrada, who had quit school, into a whirl of political activity.
He met Mandela. The “extreme nationalist, though not a racialist” and the young communist did not always see eye to eye. Mandela at that time rejected the idea of alliances with non-African organisations, although he had identified with the Passive Resistance Campaign.
Within three years of the National Party coming to power in 1948, the CPSA and a number of its members were banned. Kathrada and his comrades organised protests against the bannings, and he saw the insides of police cells at almost every prison in Johannesburg.
In 1950 the ANC, together with the CP and Transvaal Indian Congress, called for a strike on the Witwatersrand, the first industrial action of its kind. But the Youth League opposed the move, arguing that the ANC’s programme of action would suffer as a result.
Mandela, a member of the ANC as well as of the league, engaged in rough tactics, removing an Indian speaker from the platform at one meeting. Soon after, Kathrada bumped into him in Commissioner Street and they talked, but the “friendly exchange” developed into a heated debate about nonracial alliances.
Far from humble in those days, the 21-year-old challenged Mandela to a public debate, bragging that he would “beat” Mandela, who was incensed. After the strike, at a joint meeting of the ANC and CP, he complained about Kathrada’s disrespect, and Meer and others prevailed on Mandela to forgive the impudence of the “hothead”. Mandela let it pass, but Kathrada was humiliated.
Kathrada was not always the saint he became during and after prison: he admits he was often motivated by bravado, arrogance and a need for action. He initiated some foolish escapades, but was advised by his more strategic seniors, and he began to develop discipline and acquire a certain wisdom.
He enrolled to study at Wits University, and attended the World Youth Festival in Berlin in 1951. His first foray abroad was an exhilarating encounter, and culminated in nine months spent in Hungary. Yet he yearned to be back in SA, he missed the action, and engineered a return to the fray just a year after he left. He arrived home to play a leading part in the Defiance Campaign.
In 1954 he was served with a two-year banning order, but he continued to work as an organiser for the upcoming Congress of the People in 1955, where the Freedom Charter was adopted. He observed the proceedings from a rooftop since, as a banned person, he could not attend. He frequently broke his banning order.
On December 5 1956, police swooped on his flat four times, but did not arrest him, although 140 people across the country were arrested on the same day to be confined at the notorious Fort prison. Kathrada addressed a protest meeting at Freedom Square in Fordsburg, and a few days later he too was arrested and taken to the Fort. While most of the total of 156 accused were released on bail, the Treason Trial took up the next five years of those arrested. It drew to a close just as the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre was used by the regime to declare a state of emergency. The trial ended on March 29 1961 without a single guilty verdict.
In January 1957 Kathrada was banned again, this time for five years. Restricted to Johannesburg, he nevertheless engaged in protests against looming Nationalist Party plans to leave the Commonwealth and remake SA a republic.
By now, the liberation movements had entered a new phase of struggle: Mandela had gone underground and the ANC had decided that non-violent resistance had proved futile. Kathrada was placed under house arrest in December 1962, and decided to go underground.
He was one of the earliest recruits to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s not yet launched armed wing, and served on its regional command, identifying targets for sabotage operations.
Yet after MK was launched in December 1961, Kathrada decided he was not a military man but a political organiser. He oversaw Mandela’s safety and planned his trips inside and outside the country for the 17 months that the “Black Pimpernel” operated underground. Kathrada went underground as the Rivonia strategists tried to find a way forward after the meagre yields of peaceful protests.
On July 11 1963, Kathrada and his comrades were arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and each put into solitary confinement for 90 days. The police, hoping to nab Sisulu, “hit the jackpot”, finding Sisulu, and also Govan Mbeki, Rusty Bernstein, Arthur Goldreich, Bob Hepple and Raymond Mhlaba.
The Rivonia Trial began on 1963. The accused were transported to the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, and prosecutor Percy Yutar argued that they were guilty of sabotage and deserved to be put to death. He very nearly succeeded.
The eight were found guilty on 11 June and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were flown to Robben Island and began serving their sentences on June 13.
Studies in prison life
On arrival at the prison, Kathrada was issued with socks and long pants, while his African comrades were given short pants, with no socks. Food was also determined according to race. They did not allow these divisive machinations to pry them apart.
Conditions were brutal. They were issued with blankets so flimsy they were almost transparent. Prisoners were segregated, never allowed to mix with those from others sections, or with common law prisoners. But there was solace to be had in their togetherness.
Kathrada and company spent 26 years in prison, during which the monotony was broken only by the comings and goings of prisoners, medical check-ups, and rare visits – from Helen Suzman, from family members –with months or years in between.
Kathrada survived partly by studying, becoming the first prisoner to obtain a degree, then another degree, and then studying for non-degree purposes.
The prisoners engaged on hunger strikes and sometimes extracted easier conditions, but the opportunities to punish them lay ready to hand. Stuck in a naked, primeval power play, every element of life could become a weapon in the arsenal of the warder: removal of a pen, of paper, of toilet paper, of food, of company.
They tried to keep up with news of the outside world, stealing scraps of newspaper from dumps or wherever they lay. New prisoners were a source of information and gossip.
Kathrada spent six months in solitary confinement for writing a letter to Andimba Toivo ja Toivo of Swapo. Govan Mbeki, caught delivering the letter, was given three months.
The Rivonia triallists became a cohesive group that acquired a moral authority that has not been equalled in the country. They became symbols of various qualities: Madiba the leader, Sisulu the strategist, Mhlaba the man of restraint, Kathy the sceptic…. They fed off each other, arguing, debating, agreeing, disagreeing.
When Mandela, Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni were moved to Pollsmoor prison in March 1982, Kathrada’s life changed. But six months later he too was moved to Pollsmoor, where the weakness of apartheid finally became visible – the state began to make overtures to Mandela. Of course, Kathrada argued with Mandela about the strategy. But the end of their incarceration, and of apartheid, was nearing.
Kathrada was released from prison on October 15 1989, along with Mhlaba, Mlangeni, Sisulu and several others.
Freedom in his lifetime
For the first time in his life, Kathrada was truly free – from prison, but also from the laws of apartheid, which were rapidly being dismantled even as he took his first steps out of Pollsmoor.
With the ANC and other organisations unbanned, Kathrada headed the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity. In 1991 he was elected to the ANC’s national executive committee, though he resigned from the Communist Party, and went to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage the next year.
He became an MP in 1994, and was announced as the new Minister of Correctional Services. But the need to give the Inkatha Freedom Party a seat in the government of national unity led Kathrada to give up the position.
In 1994 he became chair of the Robben Island Council. He took scores of world leaders and other dignitaries to the island, giving them a first-hand account of life there, effectively acting as the ANC’s historian-in-chief. That seemed to have become his passion: the history of the struggle. Kathrada was able to proffer analyses and accounts of every phase of the struggle, not just the prison years and not only of the ANC.
He published his memoirs in 2004, having already published a book of letters in 1999.
He began a relationship with Barbara Hogan, an ANC and MK operative he described as “feisty”. She was his soul mate, having her own history of struggle and imprisonment, and they married.
Above all, Kathrada loved children, after having been deprived of them for so long. He cultivated them, realising he would never have his own.
He withdrew from politics and positions of influence, eventually leading a quiet life in Killarney, Johannesburg. But he emerged every now and then to issue statements, especially if developments disturbed him.
In 2008 he was convinced by supporters to lend his name to a body that began to have some influence on the contemporary scene, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. He used it to pronounce on pressing issues.
A recent appearance on the world stage was a stark affair. At the funeral of Madiba in December 2013, with a quivering voice, he said goodbye to his “elder brother” for the last time, bringing tears to millions.
For some time, his life had become a series of farewells. Even before Madiba’s passing he had few close comrades left – mainly Laloo Chiba, with whom he was in daily contact.
His most recent interventions endeared him to the #FeesMustFall generation, whose struggle he supported by appearing at protest sites, notably at the Union Buildings. People disturbed by the state capture debacle also found an ally in Kathrada.
After Nenegate, it appeared the Kathrada of old was back. On March 31 2016, he wrote a letter to President Jacob Zuma, setting out his involvement with the ANC from his earliest days, as if he needed to supply his credentials. He did this in that self-effacing manner that was his hallmark, but the humility here was double-edged.
He explained that he had not spoken out against the Nkandla saga and other disturbing developments because he thought the ANC NEC “would have dealt with this as the collective leadership” – implying they hadn’t.
He set out a list of what he thought had gone wrong under Zuma’s leadership – the Guptas playing cabinet makers, Nhlanhla Nene’s dismissal, the Constitutional Court ruling against the way Nkandla had been handled, and Zuma’s failure to uphold the constitution.
He concluded his letter by asking: “Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your continued stay as President will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?”
“Today I appeal to our President to submit to the will of the people and resign.”
When in October last year 101 ANC stalwarts expressed concern at the manner in which Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was being targeted by prosecuting authorities, the first name on the petition was Ahmed Kathrada’s.
From his earliest days Kathrada displayed enormous courage, and later wisdom, not only in the face of state repression, but even when opposing his own comrades. He played a crucial role in turning Madiba into an advocate of nonracialism, a move that had vast consequences for the ANC and for SA.
If that was his only achievement, it would have been enough.