When I learned that this humble man of fortitude who was an integral force within the long battle to end apartheid in South Africa died March 28, in Johannesburg, it was a very sad moment for me. He was 87.
His unrelenting commitment to ending oppression and apartheid was equal to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in their struggle against racism and inequality in America.
Last year during my South African visit to cover the Cape Town Jazz Festival, I met an activist in Johannesburg, who upon learning I was a journalist from the United States noted to my friend without hesitation, “He needs to interview Ahmed Kathrada.”
She quickly agreed and within a half-hour an appointment was set up through Kathrada’s assistant for the next day. Being an ignorant American, I was embarrassed that his name was not in my vocabulary like those of the apartheid resistance advocators Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu.
It became quite evident it was going to take a lot of research to get me through this interview. Fortunately, my friend is South African and up on her politics, so she supplied me with crucial details.
The more conversations we had about this great man, the more nervous I became. By morning, insecurity and anxiety had found a new home in my system.
We were met at the door by his assistant, who offered us a seat in his sunny living room. As Kathrada entered the room to greet us, I felt a calm aura surrounding him that released all my anxiety, although some nervousness remained.
Even before his release from prison (Pollsmoor Oct. 15, 1989), Kathrada was one of the significant voices against oppression and apartheid in South Africa. He and his comrade and good friend Nelson Mandela became known throughout the world, as was demonstrated at his recent funeral.
He shook my hand and offered a warm smile as he asked how America and President Obama were doing. In his position as chairman of the Robben Island Museum, he often gave tours to special guests such as Fidel Castro, the Clintons, President Obama and Beyoncé. Since his release he had visited the prison and now museum at least 300 times. President Mandela also appointed him as his adviser.
At age 34, Kathrada was the youngest of the Rivonia Trial defendants that included Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Raymond Mhlaba, who were given a life sentence with hard labor and sent to Robben Island Prison (1964).
In 1946, he joined the passive resistance campaign against the “Ghetto Act” that restricted where Indians could live, trade and own land.
The campaign was organized by the South African Indian Congress and its leading organizer, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo. He was one of Kathrada’s important influences. Under his tutelage Kathrada met and became friends with the emerging African National Congress leaders Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.
He left school at age 17 to work full time in the offices of the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. He was arrested that same year.
He was arrested another 18 times before going to Robben Island. “Fighting for what is right was always most important,” said Kathrada. “Going to jail was a very small price to pay. Sometimes I ask myself if I could have done more. They sacrificed their lives and we have a responsibility for the people that gave their lives.”
Early on during is his incarceration on Robben Island, he was issued long pants for the winter which was only for Indians. Blacks had to wear short pants for the duration. In a show of solidarity, he informed Mandela (affectionally called Madiba by his close friends) that he refused his long pants. “Madiba told me to take the long pants and not to give up what I get,” he recalled.
Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada was born Aug. 21, 1929, in the town of Schweizer-Reneke in what was then the Western Transvaal. His parents were from Gujarat, India. They opened a small store in the town in 1919.
Apartheid had not been officially established, but racism and segregation were in full bloom, eliminating Kathrada’s chance to attend his hometown school. At the age of 8, he was sent to live with his aunt in Fordsburg, Johannesburg to attend the Indian school there.
He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go to school with his Black and white playmates. He became even more upset in Johannesburg when he read signs saying “Non-Europeans and dogs not allowed.”
All of this sparked an early political awakening that prompted an 11-year-old Kathrada to join a nonracial youth group run by the Young Communist League, where he handed out anti-war leaflets.
During the resistance of the 1950s, Kathrada was a bold voice in the Young Communist League and quite able to hold his own in any debate with the fiery Mandela, who was the leader in the ANC Youth League.
Despite their passionate philosophical disagreements, they became the best of friends and comrades until the end. “Madiba was my great friend and bother,” said Kathrada. “We didn’t always agree, but we were always together.”
Kathrada spent 18 years on Robben Island, in a tiny cell with bad food and paper thin blankets. The work of the day was breaking big rocks into small ones. Even among such a hostile environment, Kahrada remained an activist. He was on a committee responsible for political education of ANC members.
He was also the head of the vital communications committee, which was responsible for keeping in touch with prisoners on other parts of the island, as well as getting news from the outside.
Kathrada was the first prisoner on Robben Island to get a BA degree in history and criminology, and three more degrees before he was released. “You know there wasn’t that much to do once we came from the rock pile,” he said with a smile. “Although there was always messages to get out and contacts to be made throughout the prison and getting news from the outside.”
After spending 18 years at Robben Island and another eight in Cape Town at Pollsmoor Prison (26 years and three months total), Kathrada was not bitter or angry at all. He said, “We did what we had to do for our country. If I had to do it over again nothing would change.”
We also spoke of current politics in South Africa. he felt President Jacob Zuma should resign. “He has disrespected South Africa and its people,” he said. It is ironic because at one point Zuma was an active member of the ANC and spent time on Robben Island.
Last year Kathrada wrote in an open letter to President Zuma, “Submit to the people and resign.” The president did not attend Kathrada’s funeral. The government’s national memorial in honor of Kathrada was canceled on short notice, but the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Communist Party decided to have the event. It took place at the Johannesburg City Hall with a live stream at the Cape Town City Hall.
More than 1,000 people attended the memorial in Johannesburg. Speakers included Kathrada’s wife Barbara Hogan, the former Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan (who was abruptly removed from his position just a few days before).
Hogan noted, “Robben Island shouldn’t be a meaning of sadness, but a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil. Today we say we will not be silenced.”
Meeting Kathrada and having an opportunity to speak with him was one of the most significant moments in my life. His wisdom and commitment to the struggle will always be an inspiration to me. He was a humble distinguished hero. His book “Memoirs” (Zebra Press, 2004) is worth reading.
Kathrada is survived by his wife. Hogan was the first woman in South Africa to be found guilty of high treason and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. They met soon after her release in 1990.