In emulating Kathrada, his legacy will live on

2017-04-02 16:29

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My dearest Uncle Kathy,     

In December 2013, I sat with you as you stoically did interview after interview following the death of your ‘elder brother’ and comrade, Nelson Mandela. I watched as your impassive face refused to give way to the overwhelming grief.

At the time, it did not strike me, that today, I would be taking calls from the media relating to your own passing. Little did I know that I would sit with those who regard you as their ‘elder brother’, watching their expressions as they come to terms with your loss.  

Dealing with death comes with two extremes, both of which are encapsulated in poetry.

The first poem is by Dylan Thomas. His words “Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light” encourages the soul to “not go gentle into that good night”. Thomas’s poem sees death as an end, an eventuality that severs one’s impact on the world.

The second, to which I lean, is that by the Sufi poet, Jalalulddin Rumi. He said, “On the day I die, when I'm being carried toward the grave, don't weep. Don't say, He's gone! He's gone. Death has nothing to do with going away. The sun sets and the moon sets, but they're not gone.”

Despite the immense comfort in these words, I must weep. For despite the generational gap between you and I, and the few years that I have worked with you, I have come to know you as more than just the ‘icon’.

For me, you were as much the liberation hero, as you were the kind ‘uncle’ who once gave me a box of jelly beans when I was little, and the digital ‘synonym finder’ gadget, when I started studying journalism.

Working for a Foundation established in your name, made you the public figure whose media engagements I had to manage.

At the same time though, you were the good natured old man, who I could share lunch with on your sunny balcony, after briefing you about the steady stream of media requests.

You were the stalwart with countless accolades, but also the elderly person whose room sometimes smelled of ‘Winter Green’ ointment.

You were the author of several books, but also the writer of quirky emails, and the ‘editor’, who would make hand written amendments and notes along the edges of the pages I printed out for you.

You were the gentleman whom random people would stop in public places to shake hands with, but you were also the simple individual, who would not complain about sitting in my old, run-down, dusty car - getting lost on the streets of Johannesburg as we made our way to and from interviews.

You would often say that Mandela had the art of dealing with every person as an equal – be they royalty or peasantry. I saw in you similar respect, as you often asked me - a young person - my thoughts, encouraging me to be critical of the way in which you had conducted your interviews.

I would watch you engaging with people from all strata of society: the old, the young, professional and unqualified, the wealthy and poor, male and female, black and white; all with the same degree of attention and interest.

I marvelled at the way in which you engaged the media, patiently, honestly and with a great sense of warmth and hospitality.

An advocate for media freedom both in South Africa and abroad, you always had time for journalists, making yourself and your home accessible.

The media were always free to rearrange your furniture, and you wouldn’t mind taking off your glasses if the camera people so wished.

And while you often joked that I was a ‘mini-dictator’, who simply wanted to give you work to do, you understood the value of telling stories, especially your first-hand accounts of history.

There are many young people, whose lives you have influenced over the years, but there are few who have had the privilege of interacting with you so often over both historical and contemporary issues.

I am immensely humbled and deeply honoured to have been granted the privilege of spending time with someone as committed to struggle as you were. You, after all, had refused to apply for bail after being sentenced in the Rivonia Trial.

You refused to be someone who was only there to “speak on platforms”, but disappeared when the ‘going got tough’.

You felt that as the only Indian amongst the eight Rivonia Trialists, you would not ‘break ranks’ and in effect, impact on the very foundations of African/ Indian relations carefully nurtured from the 1940s.

So, in the interest of the ‘collective good’, you resolutely endured a life imprisonment sentence.  

You were to me, my very own university. I could call you up and ask about you about anything, from an analysis of the 1946 Passive Resistance campaign, to your thoughts about #FeesMustFall.

Sitting in on countless interviews on Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Madiba and many more struggle activists, has left me with a deep appreciation for our country’s liberation history.

When you spoke, your words would drift along the canvas of my mind, painting pictures of a past that today in South Africa, is sometimes so easily forgotten.

There are so many places tinged with your memory: an informal settlement in Kliptown, a street in Killarney, a studio in Johannesburg, a community hall in Mangaung, a school in Lenasia…

Most of all, if I were to visit Robben Island again, I would almost expect to see you rounding a corner, or shuffling down the corridor.

I have been to Robben Island four times, and on each occasion, you were present. Working on your book, Triumph of the Human Spirit, recording the some 300 visits you undertook to your former prison, allowed me to see Robben Island through your eyes.

I can still ‘hear’ that empowering moment, the click of the key, as you opened Mandela’s cell for our non-racial group of young people to go inside – the oppressed now the victor – developing new memories for a new generation.

Together with my media team, and the staff of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, there is so much that we did with you – everything from campaigns for the freedom of Palestine, to youth and anti-racism work. Your activism, which stretched over seven decades, added wisdom and depth to our own, often newfound, eagerness and energy.

Yet in retrospect, there is so much more that we could have done. We had taken you to see the outside of the Johannesburg library, where during apartheid, you and your fellow comrades, known as the Picasso Club, had spray-painted anti-apartheid graffiti.

We were still planning to take you to Willow Park, where thousands in Lenasia spontaneously gathered to meet you following your release from prison, and to Kholvad House, where you stayed as a young man.

As your condition deteriorated, all that I would hope for was ‘just one more photograph’ or ‘one more interview about some historical event or the other’. But, it was not to be.

As the news of your passing flows through my every vein, I am somewhat paralysed by the thought of your absence. Uncle Kathy, you have become an indelible part of who I am.

As I got used to the way you spoke and wrote, I would often draft some of your messages and opinion pieces, guided by your narration of events and reflections.

Through you, I gained not only the skill of putting myself ‘in another person’s thoughts’, but also an inner ‘voice’ of strength and commitment to a cause, which I did not know I had.

To write for you, I had to adopt your own passion for human rights, activism, volunteerism, non-racialism, youth development, poverty alleviation and Constitutionalism. To understand you, I had to ground myself in this country’s history and its future.

As the earth envelopes your generation, I hope that my generation will use your roots as its foundation. Your legacy, your wisdom, your bravery in the face of oppression should inspire us to continue striving for a South Africa, and a world, that is free of inequality, racism, oppression and all other characteristics that demean human dignity and subvert justice.

You often recalled a poem by Jan Cilliers which you had once recited to a brutish apartheid officer: “Ek hou van ‘n man wat sy man kan staan, ek hou van ‘n arm wat ‘n slag kan slaan, ‘n oog wat nie wyk, wat ‘n bars kan kyk en ‘n wil wat so vas soos ‘n klipsteen staan!”

Translated it means, “I like a man that stands as a man; I like an arm that can strike a blow; an eye that never shies away, that can pierce a rock; and will that stands as steadfast as a rock.”

You embodied the courage encapsulated in this description, and I know that this is the resolution required of young people today as they fight for a better world.

In following the trajectory carved out by your values, I am convinced that although the “sun” and” moon” of your life, has set, its inspiration lives on.

Your sacrifice is the red of our dawn, and your story is the guiding moonlight as we navigate the past, present and future.

* Zaakirah Vadi is the communications officer at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

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