Ahmed Kathrada. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES AND BUSINESS DAY
Ahmed Kathrada. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES AND BUSINESS DAY

The death of much-loved freedom fighter Ahmed Kathrada at a time when SA’s politics are in turmoil — his organisation the ANC, which he served with integrity and courage, rent apart by greed and corruption — is a sad and poignant moment.

SA has lost a man whose life embodied love and sacrifice for others; a man who stood up against evil and who spoke out against injustices, both in the days of apartheid and after. These are qualities that are rare among political leaders in any country and at any point in history. They are qualities that are rare among human beings.

Like Nelson Mandela, his close friend and comrade, it is tempting to view Kathrada as saintly, so outstanding was his commitment to humanity and to justice. Unlike Mandela, however, Kathrada’s greatness came less from brilliance and rather from his ordinariness: his compassion for ordinary people and our shared humaneness.

These are great gifts that we have received as a nation and that can be imparted to future generations.

Of all the Rivonia Triallists and ANC stalwarts, Kathrada is singularly identified with the philosophy of nonracialism. In the 1950s, ANC Youth League firebrands Mandela and Anton Lembede famously broke up meetings of the ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress (of which Kathrada was part) and white communists. Kathrada, who has tirelessly recounted the story for the rest of us, describes Mandela’s politics at that time as "exclusivist".

But after the incredible success of the "co-operation" — the event was a strike over the Suppression of Communism Act — Kathrada says that Mandela was persuaded to see the power and pragmatism of nonracialism. From there, nonracialism as a principle grew and strengthened with the Defiance Campaign of
1952 in which leaders of the racially separate liberation organisations together publicly defied apartheid laws and were arrested, and the Congress of the People in 1955 that declared "South Africa belongs to all who live in it".

Today, nonracialism and the legacy of Kathrada and Mandela is under threat.

On the one hand, there is disillusionment with the failure of the transition to democracy to deliver equality and prosperity across the racial divide.

Society at large, especially the wealthy and those who have prospered, needs to take on the responsibility of dealing with this reality, in the interests of a peaceful and fairer future.

On the other hand, there is a toxic racial chauvinism that is increasingly evident in our politics. With parasitic elements and interests having attached themselves to the ANC, racial chauvinism is beginning to out-compete the nonracial philosophy within the ANC.

In the interests of its own vibrancy, this is a problem the ANC needs to confront. If it fails, it will surrender the space to the opposition, which increasingly provides a more compelling case to take over this mantle.

Kathrada was also, after democracy, worried about corruption. In a letter to Zuma in 2016, Kathrada appealed to him to step down, turning the famous Umkhonto we Sizwe slogan of "Submit or fight" on its head, to say: "Please submit to the will of the people and resign."

Sadly, his plea was not, and is not likely to be, heeded. Instead, as Kathrada took his last breath, the country was on a knife-edge as Zuma contemplated, once again, the firing of the finance minister.

This is a reckless act that will damage the economy and plunge the country into a political crisis. The outcome is highly uncertain, more for the ANC and its great nonracial tradition than anyone else.

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