13: Lucky number for SA

2009-08-22 00:00

FLAT 13, Kholvad House, in Market Street, Johannesburg stands out as a landmark of the South African liberation struggle. It was not only the home of Robben Island prisoner Ahmed Kathrada for more than 16 years, but the place where Nelson Mandela once said that “the first seeds of non-racialism were sown and a wider concept of the nation came into being”. Could South Africa’s path to liberation have taken a different turn if it weren’t for Flat 13? This is a question analysts may well ponder in years to come.

Kholvad House itself has an unusual history. It was built in 1942 by a group of Indians who came to South Africa from the peasant community of Kolvad. The flats were built as a means of raising funds to educate poor children back in their home village and here in South Africa. In his memoirs, Kathrada said that the five-storey building was designed by “a talented young architect called Rusty Bernstein, who was later arrested with me at Rivonia”.

Shortly after the flats were built, Ismail Meer moved into Flat 13. He had arrived from Durban with friend and fellow student Jaydew Nasib “JN” Singh, to study law at Wits University. They became firm friends with Mandela. In his own memoir, entitled A Fortunate Man, Meer wrote about leaving the flat after he graduated: “I was loath to leave my flat. I thought of the many parties and the intense discussions that I had with Bajee [the Reverend Michael Scott], Kathy [Kathrada] and Nelson, who had filled the flat with their intelligence, wit and laughter; my neighbours who never complained; the housewives who sent me delicacies to enjoy. There was consolation in the fact that Kathy took over the flat and its history would continue with him.”

In 1946, Singh and Meer were key participants and organisors of a Passive Resistance Campaign in response to the Asiatic Land Tenure Act, passed by the Smuts government. It became commonly known as the “Ghetto Act” because it restricted the residence of Indians to certain areas. In the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha “non-violent” philosophy, resistors freely went to jail. Mandela was fully aware of his friend’s activities in the protest action. This campaign became the model for the 1952 defiance campaign organised jointly by the ANC and the Indian Congress and the Congress of Democrats. More than 10 000 people took part in the campaign to protest the country’s discriminatory laws and more than 8 000 were arrested.

Kathrada was living in Flat 13 at this time and much of the work for the 1952 campaign took place in it. The apartment also continued as a haven of non-racial social mixing and the hub of intense political debate, a tradition started by Meer. In 1960, when Mandela and Oliver Tambo’s law firm was forced to close down due to the state of emergency, Mandela continued seeing clients at Kathrada’s flat.

Flat 13’s unique history is captured by first-time filmmaker, Zarina Maharaj, wife of struggle stalwart Mac Maharaj, in a documentary to be screened on e. tv tomorrow at 3 pm. There is some fascinating archival material and poignant interviews with past visitors to the flat, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu’s children, who saw the flat as a second home and Kathrada as a surrogate father. Maharaj looks at the hopes and aspirations of activists, journalists, musicians, artists and ordinary men and women who frequented the flat. Their defiance and friendship in a time of division and oppression helped shape our democracy today.


Zarina Maharaj’s documentary Flat 13 The film has its flaws, but this does not detract from the powerful subject matter. The re-enactments come across as amateurish. Perhaps having a younger narrator would have been a better idea, especially as the documentary was made for young South Africans to get to know their history. It becomes clear through the narration that Maharaj also wants to highlight the role of the Indian community in the struggle. She does tend to labour the point: she would have left far more of an impact on her audience if she had let the material speak for itself. The story of Flat 13 is an important one to tell and Maharaj must be commended for taking the initiative. The film is also a potent reminder of how much of South Africa’s liberation history remains to be told.

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