RAY HARTLEY: The story of the very political funeral of Ahmed Kathrada
It was less a funeral than one last political intervention from beyond the grave by someone whose life never ceased to seek meaning
The funeral service for Ahmed Kathrada began on a sombre enough note. Although he was elderly, the passing of Kathrada had been sudden. He had been in rude health for his age until he underwent surgery.
As so often happens, one thing went wrong and then another.
By Monday evening, Kathrada’s foundation saw fit to warn the public that all was not well, stating that he had pneumonia. His condition had deteriorated and he was being kept comfortable.
While the nation restlessly awaited news of Kathrada’s fate, one man was otherwise preoccupied.
In the Union Buildings, President Jacob Zuma was planning to fire his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas.
He had been forced to appoint Gordhan after three days of market turmoil in December 2015 brought about by his firing of Nhlanhla Nene and he had regretted the decision ever since, railing against it from the podium as a symptom of how the limits of his power had been exposed.
Zuma took an extraordinary step on Monday afternoon: He ordered Gordhan to return to the country from his road show to sell South Africa to UK investors. And he instructed Jonas to cancel a similar trip to the US. Jonas was set to leave on Monday evening.
President Jacob Zuma has instructed the Minister of Finance, Mr Pravin Gordhan and Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas to cancel the international investment promotion roadshow to the United Kingdom and the United States and return to South Africa immediately.The terse one-line statement that exposed Zuma's intentions
Speculation was immediately rife that Zuma would finally go ahead with the firing of Gordhan and Jonas and the markets reacted by hammering the rand, which had been at a 20-month high on Monday morning.
That evening, Zuma met with the ANC’s top six – the structure with which he was obliged to share his cabinet decisions since the disaster of December 2015 - presumably to brief them on his plans.
Engagements were cancelled and Gordhan boarded a plane for South Africa on Monday evening. While he was making his way south somewhere high over central Africa, Kathrada passed away.
By the time Gordhan landed, the political reality of Kathrada’s passing had dawned on Zuma.
Kathrada was no friend of the president. A year before, he had penned a blunt letter over Zuma’s failure to abide by the constitution and other failings, culminating with the sentence: “Today I appeal to our president to submit to the will of the people and resign.”
Kathrada was firmly in the ANC camp that wanted Zuma out.
Zuma knew that there would be a nationally televised funeral, which would turn into a pro-Gordhan rally if he were to proceed with his plan.
So, having summoned Gordhan back to the country urgently, he did nothing and said nothing.
After landing, Gordhan made his way to Luthuli House for a meeting. Exactly who attended this meeting and what transpired has yet to be revealed.
Afterwards he attended a court case brought by himself against Zuma’s business associates, the Gupta family. He had brought the case to establish that he and other members of cabinet were not in a position to intervene in decisions by a range of banks to close Gupta accounts because of dodgy transactions.
Furious at the treatment of his friends, Zuma had formed a ministerial sub-committee to look into the decision by the banks and this committee would have to be disbanded if Gordhan won his case.
Outside the courtroom, Gordhan told reporters he was, as far as he knew, still the finance minister. Asked why he had been recalled, he said he had no idea and referred reporters to Zuma’s office.
As Tuesday dragged on, speculation over Gordhan’s fate continued and the rand was further weakened. South African bonds were battered. By Tuesday evening, it was estimated that the country’s debt had grown by R2,6bn in the day since Zuma’s recall of Gordhan.
As a veteran of the ANC, of which he is president, Zuma expected to play a leading role in Kathrada’s funeral. But he was told by the family that he would not be given an opportunity to speak, a sign of their displeasure with his reign over Kathrada’s beloved party.
On Wednesday morning, Zuma issued a statement. After heaping praise on Kathrada, he concluded by saying that he would not attend the funeral service later that morning “in compliance with the wishes of the family”.
His deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, would represent government, said Zuma.
This was petulant. He was free to attend the funeral, but had been asked not to speak.
As the crowd gathered for the funeral service at Johannesburg’s Westpark Cemetery, it was apparent that Zuma’s fears were to be realised. It was to be a high-powered gathering of his critics and rivals.
Former president Thabo Mbeki, whom he had removed from office, was present, along with former president Kgalema Motlanthe, who had stood against him unsuccessfully at the ANC’s most recent conference.
Also present were Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an outspoken critic of Zuma. Then there was former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa, who had also called on him to quit.
Taking his seat in the front row was Ramaphosa, the man most of Zuma’s critics want to take over from him at the end of the year, when Zuma’s term as ANC president expires.
Mbeki and Ramaphosa had history. The former had sidelined the latter in the race to take over the presidency after Nelson Mandela. Now they sat side by side, perhaps united against a greater common enemy.
Seated in the audience was the Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, author of the scathing Constitutional Court judgment which had led to Kathrada’s intemperate letter.
Zuma has made it plain that he wants his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, recently returned from a bedraggled term as African Union commissioner, to succeed him. She was also present.
In the row behind the dignitaries, Gordhan took his seat.
The master of ceremonies was Derek Hanekom, who had unsuccessfully proposed a motion to the ANC’s national executive committee that Zuma be recalled.
Seated in the front row in a light head scarf was Kathrada's widow, Barbara Hogan, herself a victim of a Zuma cabinet reshuffle.
Hanekom introduced the first speaker, Gauteng premier David Makhura. The Gauteng region was opposed to Zuma and had also questioned his continuation as president, although it had subsequently muted its criticism.
Makhura spoke of Kathrada as “a man whose activism has been a consistent feature in the struggle for liberation”, someone who had lived “a rich life of purpose and sacrifice to humanity”.
Kathrada and other veterans had requested a special consultative conference with the ANC leadership to discuss the state of the organisation and Zuma’s presidency. This had been rebuffed by Zuma.
Now Makhura said: “We as leaders must have the humility to listen to stalwarts and veterans of our struggle. We must be angry if anyone insults our stalwarts and veterans.” There was loud applause.
Dlamini-Zuma has been touted by the Zuma faction of the ANC as a “woman candidate” for the presidency.
Now Hanekom asked the audience to acknowledge “two powerful women”, Madikizela-Mandela and Machel. They, he said, “truly represent the best of women in South Africa”.
The snub was palpable.
Never for a moment understand that you are bigger than the organisationBheki Ntshalintshali
Cosatu’s Bheki Ntshalintshali was the next to speak. He pointed out that he had “never received any invitation to come here” as it was a funeral which anyone who honoured Kathrada was free to attend. It was a point about Zuma’s absence.
“We must separate leaders from organisations. Leaders will come and go but the organisation will remain. Never for a moment understand that you are bigger than the organisation,” he said to applause.
He was followed by Blade Nzimande, who put it more directly.
Kathrada had passed, he said, “at a time when parasitic patronage networks are seeking to capture our movement for their narrow interests. We say no to those intentions and we will continue to say no, no, no!” Again, there was loud applause.
Next to speak was the ANC’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, who seemed strangely muted. He did say of Kathrada that “he was incorruptible, not only in his politics but also in personal life. He was a man you knew could never let you down, never do something behind your back and never deceive you. You always knew where you stood with him.”
Finally, it was time for Motlanthe to deliver the eulogy.
“We should say it like it is. We are pained, gutted, saddened and sorrowful. Each day of the enjoyment of freedom for all of us is the ultimate expression of gratitude to Comrade Kathy,” he said.
Then he changed tack.
“It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failure of politics. In this regard we do not put words into his mouth posthumously.
“He penned a public letter to the president of our country in which he gave vent to his views about the state of the state.”
Then Motlanthe read from the letter.
“I have always maintained the position of not speaking out about any difference I harbour against my leaders and organisation, the ANC.
“The position of president is one that at all times must unite this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today. It is a position that requires the respect of all South Africans.”
Then he read Kathrada’s pleas to Zuma, “that you will choose the correct way that is to consider stepping down”.
Applause erupted and then grew in volume. The mourners stood and cheered.
In the front row, Ramaphosa – effectively representing Zuma – and Mbeki remained seated.
Mantashe folded his arms and lent back, exchanging words with his deputy, Jessie Duarte.
When the applause had subsided, Motlanthe continued:
“Three hundred and forty days ago, Comrade Kathrada wrote this letter. His letter went without any formal reply.”
Kathrada was, he said, protesting sleaze and corruption of the “vilest” proportions.
Motlanthe returned to his seat as the crowd stood and applauded.
Hanekom addressed Mantashe: “Dear secretary general, the constitution of the ANC does not instruct us to unite the ANC, it instructs us to unite all the people of South Africa.
“When we go out of here inspired by our leaders let us unite all the people of South Africa behind these noble goals, behind the vision of Ahmed Kathrada.”
Then there was one final gesture. Pravin Gordhan was asked to stand from his chair in the middle of the hall. The message was clear. He had the backing of those loyal to Kathrada's values.
As the crowd cheered, he wiped the tears from his face.