Newsmaker: From captivity to freedom

2012-08-25 17:07

83-year-old struggle hero and Rivonia Trialist Kathrada does not see himself as an A-team figure, but City of Joburg does.

Ahmed Kathrada did not want the freedom of the City of Joburg.

Not because the struggle stalwart and former Robben Island prisoner thought it insignificant, but because he was concerned about how he measured up to those who went before him.

“I resisted it. If you take the previous recipients – (Nelson) Mandela, (Walter) Sisulu, Beyers Naudé and Joe Slovo – I am not in that A-group, that A-team,” he said on Friday.

What eventually made him agree was learning that the entire city council – opposition parties and all – voted unanimously for him to receive the honour.

“If only one party, no matter how big or small, voted against it, I would not have accepted it. Because that would have been a source of controversy.”

From his modest parquet-floor apartment in an old block of flats in Killarney, north of Johannesburg, which he shares with his life partner, fellow struggle veteran Barbara Hogan, Kathrada has a good view of the city which honoured him this week.

He moved to Johannesburg at the age of eight because there was no school for Indians in the then-Western Transvaal (now North West) town of Schweizer-Reneke where he was born.

He lived in Johannesburg for 25 years before he went to Robben Island following the Rivonia Trial in 1963.

After his release in 1990, he returned. His flat at 27 Market Street, which he had asked a friend to keep for him when he joined the political underground, was kept available for him by his friend’s children who had continued to pay the rent.

There is a lot about the city that he loves.

“There’s quite a vibrancy here that other cities don’t have. It’s much more cosmopolitan,” he said.

“I always compare it to what it was in terms of race relations. It was not really safe in Johannesburg to be on the street with a white lady, or even someone who looks white.

“Pretoria was worse of course – in Pretoria you would have been inviting assault. But Johannesburg was not as bad.”

Kathrada wasn’t surprised when, after democracy, Johannesburg integrated faster than elsewhere.

However, there are aspects of the city he doesn’t like. “Crime,” he said immediately. And poverty.

“I am not in the blame game, but the other day in my speech I mentioned that prior to my arrest, I used to be in and out of Soweto. Now the Soweto I knew had no electric lights, had no tarred roads, had no greenery, had toilets outside the houses,” he said.

The Soweto of today has many of those things.

“I pointed out that we were meeting in Kliptown, which to all intents and purposes is part of Soweto, and the conditions there are terrible.

Not only was the Congress of the People held there, but it is called Sisulu Square,” he said.

“I pointed out that just outside that hall (Sisulu Square), there were people living in extreme poverty. So my wish would have been that as Soweto was developed, that this part was not neglected. Because of its history, they could have paid more attention to Kliptown.”

Kathrada is quick to point out that, as “just a rank-and-file member of the ANC”, he should be “very careful not to make many definite statements”. “The most I can do is wish.”

But he will speak about what is “totally wrong” in this nation – like the state of education and the lack of libraries and laboratories.
He is not thrilled about the state of the nation.

“We have achieved, but one can only be happy if we are satisfied that every child goes to bed with a full stomach, gets up in the morning ... is well dressed, happily goes to a nearby school with proper transport and (a school) which is properly kitted out with a laboratory and computers, and comes back from school safely. That is the wish,” he said.

There are “a lot of other things”, including the tragic shooting at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, which are also gravely wrong.

“We would like a country where such a thing never could have happened,” he said.

“And corruption, which is on the increase at all levels. There is not a day that you do not open a newspaper and there is not something about corruption.”

His “primary wish”, however, remains for “more attention to be paid to the children”.

Is it because he did not see children in jail?

“I suppose so,” he responded, recalling the first time he saw a child after 20 years. Priya, his lawyer’s three-year-old daughter, had refused to stay in the car and Pollsmoor Prison warders allowed her inside.

He has written of his regret at not having children of his own in his book A Simple Freedom which he will be speaking about at this weekend’s Midlands Literary Festival in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal.

Today, he will be speaking about his close friend Mandela, of whom there is a large portrait in his lounge. In it, the elder statesman’s hand is affectionately placed on Kathrada’s knee.

He never tires of speaking of Mandela, or of visiting Robben Island.

It has become easier after the “traumatic” first trip.

“I could not imagine how I could have lived in that little cell. I was there for 18 years.”

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