Revered: A night vigil held for Kathrada during his illness. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/MUJAHID SAFODIEN
Revered: A night vigil held for Kathrada during his illness. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

There cannot be many leaders in the world, regardless of the sector they serve in, who are as adored and revered as Ahmed Kathrada was — a fact made all the more remarkable, as this came despite his determination to remain beneath the radar.

Uncle Kathy’s leadership was styled through a rare combination of presence, awareness and listening, and being an example to many. He was a man never moved by status or material possessions.

High-profile positions did not matter to Uncle Kathy. If one were to trawl through his 87-year history, 75 of which were spent in
the service of humankind, one would be amazed at how few positions of leadership authority he held.

The quarry: The Rivonia triallists revisit Robben Island: Kathrada is seen to the right of Nelson Mandela. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CORBIS/LOUISE GUBB
The quarry: The Rivonia triallists revisit Robben Island: Kathrada is seen to the right of Nelson Mandela. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CORBIS/LOUISE GUBB

As a young activist, a detainee, an accused in the Rivonia Trial, a prisoner, and in the 27 years since his release, he was constant in his style.

An essential element of this was a self-deprecating humour. For example, he told with relish the story that he had served as a cabinet minister for a shorter period than David Des van Rooyen did!

Granted, the circumstances were quite different. Back in 1994, a brand new president, Nelson Mandela, announced Uncle Kathy as minister of correctional services. However, when comrade Mandela realised he had to lure the IFP into government, he knew that he could call on comrade Kathy to give up his seat, and the position was given to the IFP’s Sipho Mzimela instead.

Still, Kathrada remained in parliament as Mandela’s parliamentary counsellor for the five-year term, before leaving parliament without any remorse for serving as a minister for only a few days ...

Kathrada was also awarded the highest order in the ANC, the Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe back in 1991. There is a story there too: when Joe Slovo was dying and was to be awarded the Isithwalandwe, the ANC did not have a medal to honour the award. Predictably, it was Uncle Kathy who gave up his medal so that Slovo would have the award made in his lifetime. I am still not sure that he was ever given the "replacement" medal.

There are so many elements to this great individual that need
to be fully explored. One of them was his view of Robben Island, a place where he spent 18 years, from 1964 to 1982, before being moved to Pollsmoor and finally released in 1989.

Uncle Kathy’s leadership was styled through a rare combination of presence, awareness and listening

Since then, he visited Robben Island more than 300 times with a number of interested groups that would be regaled with meaningful stories about life on the island.

Just recently, Uncle Kathy said he wanted to accompany both EFF leader Julius Malema and DA leader Mmusi Maimane on a visit to the island because he thought that their ways of seeing the world could be enhanced by such an experience.

He was also keen to visit Bonginkosi Khanyile, while the #FeesMustFall activist was detained in Westville Prison, as he believed that what had happened to Khanyile was a denial of justice.

There are so many similar stories of how he made contact with people or children in distress and, while he was able to, had Mandela visit and demonstrate support and care to those who needed it.

Nonpartisan and principled

You’ll note that with all of the examples I’ve cited, party political loyalties did not enter the matter at all. That was how he lived.

Uncle Kathy’s great love since his release from prison was children. He explained that the thing that he missed most during his prison years was the laughter of children. So he made up for
this by indulging children in his latter years.

He was a resolute upholder of values and principles. In 1990 he motivated the ANC to change its logo from the four spokes, which represented the "four nations theory", to the one that has eight spokes, a graphic without any meaning attached to the number.

On March 31 2016, he wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, a move he described as "breaking with tradition" because he understood the need for criticism in the public domain. He concluded that letter as follows: "To paraphrase the famous MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe] slogan of the time, ‘there comes a time in the life of every nation when it must choose to submit or fight.’

"Today I appeal to our president to submit to the will of the people and resign."

My first contact with Uncle Kathy occurred in late 1985, when I was held in solitary confinement in Pollsmoor Prison.

One morning this older gentleman, dressed in prison garb, arrived at the grille to my cell. He addressed me as "Comrade Trevor", told me that he was Kathrada, and told me to be strong. Even then, he said that he’d followed my life as an activist.

The following morning, an envelope was shoved under my cell door. It was addressed to me and contained a card in which was written — in what I came to know as Uncle Kathy’s small, neat handwriting, which developed as a consequence of him being the prison scribe — the words of the poem, Say not the Struggle Naught Availeth. The card was signed by the six Rivonia Triallists.

For me, this marked a new trajectory in my path — one in which all of the leadership was close, but Uncle Kathy was the closest.

I wish that I possessed his confidence to be as good a listener, and as strong a persuader as he was. Long may the spirit of Ahmed Kathrada continue to guide us.

* Manuel is a former minister in the SA presidency and finance minister

The courtyard: Kathrada regaled visitors with meaningful stories about life on the island. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SYGMA/BERNARD BISSON
The courtyard: Kathrada regaled visitors with meaningful stories about life on the island. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SYGMA/BERNARD BISSON

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