Guest Column

The life and times of Uncle Kathy

2017-04-02 07:49
ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada and Mandla Mandela at the Former South African President Nelson Mandela's house in Houghton, Johannesburg. Photo: GCIS

ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada and Mandla Mandela at the Former South African President Nelson Mandela's house in Houghton, Johannesburg. Photo: GCIS

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Ryland Fisher

Ahmed Kathrada: August 21 1929 – March 28 2017

Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison, most of them alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, didn’t consider his fellow Rivonia Trialist as a friend.

“I think it is a bit arrogant to describe him
as a friend. According to custom, he was my older brother, and Walter Sisulu was my father. I resisted calling him my friend as he was always my older brother, and comrade, of course,” Kathrada said when interviewed for a book on Mandela, which is due to be published next year.

The Rivonia Trialists were eight men who were sentenced to life in prison after the Rivonia Trial in 1964. They are Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi.

The relationship between Mandela and Kathrada began in 1945, when Kathrada was a 17-year-old high school pupil and Mandela was at Wits University.

“I met him [Mandela] through his fellow students, Ismail Meer and JN Singh, who were studying law with him. Ismail had a flat that I inherited after he left. They used to come to the flat after lectures. He had this ability to relate to me – a high school kid – almost as an equal, wanting to know what my interests were and what I wanted to do. I could go back and boast to my classmates that I was with this man who was a university student and he treated me like a friend. That was the first impact.”

In the 1960s, when the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress were banned, Oliver Tambo had been asked to leave the country and Mandela and Tambo’s law firm closed.

“Mandela was still dealing with the treason trial and used my flat as his office. After the trial, he continued to use my flat as his office. Our interaction was very close and it continued even after his release.”

Kathrada said that, at the time of the Rivonia Trial, he did not believe that South Africa would one day become a democracy.

“At the time of the trial, the predominant thought in our minds was death. This was emphasised to us during the 90-day detention period, when our only visitors were police who came to interrogate us. They would come with one message: ‘If you do not give this information, you are going to die.’ When the 90-day period was over and we saw our lawyers for the first time, they told us to prepare for the worst. During the whole trial, we expected death.

“We had four of the most senior leaders of the ANC among the eight of us: Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and Mhlaba. Collectively, they told us how we should be conducting this trial – as a political trial, not as a criminal trial.

“We had made a collective decision that if we received the death sentence, there would be no appeal. Until the very last day, our expectation, and that of our lawyers, was that we would get the death penalty.”

Kathrada said the other trialists had made input into Mandela’s famous speech at the trial.

“He made his speech at the beginning of the defence case. The prosecution expected him to go into the witness box to be open to cross examination, but we had made a decision collectively to have political impact. All of us had gone through every bit of the speech and had all agreed. The implications were clear – even one of the lawyers asked us if we were aware that we were asking for the death sentence. But this was a collective political decision and our lawyers were mostly political people who agreed with our approach.”

The sentence

Kathrada said he did not hear the judge sentencing them to life because he spoke very softly.

“It was only when Denis Goldberg shouted ‘life’ across to the people in the gallery that most of us realised that it was life and not death. There was a collective sigh of relief among us that we were not going to die.”

Seven of the eight trialists were sent to Robben Island. Goldberg, who is white, was sent to Pretoria Central Prison.

“I was the only Indian and the youngest in our group. I was not the youngest on Robben Island because there were even 15-year-olds there.

“As the Indian among the seven, I was given preferential treatment. I had trousers and my comrades who were older than me had to wear shorts. Govan Mbeki was 20 years my senior, Sisulu was 18 years my senior and Madiba was 11 years my senior. The attitude of whites, generally, was that all Africans were children and children wore short pants.

“We had the same food – porridge, soup and coffee – but I would get more sugar than Mandela did. Not that mine was too much, but it was more than Mandela and less than Denis Goldberg. I would get a quarter loaf of bread. Indians and coloureds got bread, but Mandela got bread for the first time only after 10 years.

“One’s instinct was to reject that, but Madiba said: ‘No. Politically, you don’t give up what you have.’ One coloured prisoner protested about the discrimination and, as Madiba had predicted, the response was that ‘you must complain in writing and we will reclassify you from coloured to black. You will then have the same food.’ After three years, we managed to equalise the clothing, but food took 10 years.

“There were about 25 of us completely isolated, including about a dozen who were either Indian or coloured. When things relaxed, we put a lot of food together so that, at least among the 25 of us, we had the same food. That obviously could not be the case among the hundreds of other prisoners in communal cells.”

Kathrada said that the prisoners placed a lot of emphasis on studying, but encountered many problems.

“Instead of encouraging us to study, the authorities discouraged us. They said those who wanted to study formally with a college or university had to have money, and that money had to come from their immediate family and not from lawyers or the church. The Red Cross would send money, but it was sent back.

“Even books were sent back. That disqualified the vast majority from formally studying, so there was an emphasis on informal studies. In our section, Neville Alexander started an organisation called Rita [Robben Island Teachers Association] and their main job was to teach us.

“I owe whatever I did personally to Neville. He was such a brilliant chap. I did library science – not because I was interested, but we had ulterior motives for everything. Neville took my books and guided me so that I got through my degree.

“There were illiterate people, mostly in the communal section, but there were three who were completely illiterate in our section. Neville concentrated on them with the help of Govan Mbeki and Fikile Bam because he didn’t speak isiXhosa.

“It was the same in the communal cells. We can boast that no prisoner left Robben Island illiterate. I can give you two examples: One was a young chap who came there at the age of 15. He was sentenced to 10 years and, in that time, he did his matric. His parents had money, so he did his BA as well as his B Juris. He completed his law studies outside and today he is the [retired] Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Judge Dikgang Moseneke.

“Another example is a young person who came from a really poor family and he had no money to study formally. He wasn’t illiterate; he didn’t complete primary school, but he could at least read and write. He came out of prison after 10 years without a certificate, but he was an educated man: that’s President [Jacob] Zuma.”


Following Mandela’s footsteps

Kathrada said he followed Madiba’s lead when he refused to be released conditionally in 1982.

“In 1977, after 13 years in jail, he was offered release provided he went to the Transkei. He refused, saying all of South Africa belonged to blacks and whites. I followed his example when I was offered release in 1982. The conditions were that I wouldn’t take part in politics. I told them it was a weighty issue and I had to consult my lawyer. Dullah Omar and I wanted to see each other, so this gave us an opportunity and I told him to write a letter saying I wasn’t interested.”

Kathrada said the leadership led by example on Robben Island.

“When it came to hard work, people such as Madiba could have easily asked for exemption, but he refused and he was with us. When it came to hunger strikes, some of us who were younger agreed that our elders, who may not be too well, should be exempted, but they refused and they went through all hunger strikes, except those who had medical issues.

“The approach of the leadership was no preferential treatment except for those under doctor’s orders. That’s how they conducted themselves. You would see Madiba polishing the floor. They did everything that we did.

“I discovered something recently and it hit me hard. During the day when we were working, we were together, but at night there was no communication because we were in single cells. Madiba, Sisulu and their families had a lot of trouble outside, such as detention, exile and punishment, which they never showed us. Their first duty was to the fellow prisoners. When I read Winnie’s [Madikizela-Mandela] book, I found out what he managed to hide from us. He hid the inner feelings that he would not show during the day when he wrote [letters]. I saw that letter for the first time in Winnie’s book.

“During and after prison, Sisulu was like a father to me. I had lost my father in 1944 when I came to Johannesburg. We were together in Pollsmoor Prison for the last seven years of our detention. The two of us were in one cell and the other two, Mlangeni and Mhlaba, were in a different cell. Madiba was, of course, not with us.

“During the day, they didn’t let us see how much anxiety they had about their families – it was when the two of us were alone that I experienced it. There was one very cold night that I’ll never forget. I was fast asleep, but I woke up for some reason. By that time, after 15 years, we had beds and I saw Walter with a photo album of his family. His eyesight was bad and he was going through the photos page by page. I didn’t make it known that I was watching. I noticed that it was a regular thing on a Saturday night to connect with his family. They never showed the measure of their concern for their family. Their concern was always for fellow prisoners.”

Kathrada was released in 1989 along with the remaining Rivonia Trialists. Govan Mbeki was released in 1987 and Denis Goldberg was released in 1985.

“When Madiba started talking to the other side, he was in isolation. After 18 years on Robben Island, five of us were transferred to Pollsmoor and, after three years at Pollsmoor, he was further isolated from us. That’s when he started talking to the other side.

“His aim, which was consistent with ANC policy, was to use a combination of pressure. We had the mass struggle by Cosatu and the United Democratic Front, combined with the armed struggle by the underground ANC and international solidarity. A combination of those forces was used to force the enemy to the negotiation table, which was ANC policy.

“When he came back from hospital and was told he was no longer going to be with us – he was going to be on his own – instinctively, we wanted to protest, but he said: ‘Cool it, something good might come out of this.’

“In retrospect, there was the necessity to talk to the other side already in his mind, and that is what he did.

“He made one thing clear – he was not negotiating, because prisoners cannot negotiate. He was trying to persuade the other side to talk to the ANC through Oliver Tambo, but to facilitate the talks, they had to meet certain conditions: release all political prisoners; unban all political organisations; and allow the exiles to come back. When that happens, we can start talking.

“That’s how we got released. We were the first to be released as a group in 1989. Of course, Govan Mbeki and Denis were already released. They had demanded that all the elderly should be released, but Mandela refused. They allowed Mbeki out, then Mandela asked about Sisulu. I was told that the response from [former president FW] de Klerk was: ‘If we release Sisulu, we’ll lose the elections.’ It was coming up to election time. They had already made up their minds to release him, but they kept him away from us until we were all released together on October 15 1989.”

Kathrada said the remaining four trialists who were held at Pollsmoor Prison were with Mandela at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl when they learnt about their release.

“We were taken regularly to see him at Victor Verster. By that time, he could report to us about the talks. On Tuesday October 10 1989, we went to see him and he said: ‘Chaps, this is goodbye.’ That night, they didn’t bring us immediately back to Pollsmoor as they usually did. They said we were going to eat at Victor Verster. There we were, so-called terrorists, having supper with the top brass in the prison service – brigadiers and others.

“We also had television by that time. That night, they kept us and waited for the 8pm news. Then De Klerk announced that eight people were going to be released. My name was the eighth called out, but he didn’t say when. That was on a Tuesday night. Before Friday, they told us to pack up. Christo Brand, who still works on Robben Island – a very decent chap – told me: ‘Look, you people are going to be transferred. We don’t know about the release or anything, but pack up whatever you want to pack.’”


Going home

“I packed up my prison uniform and prison dish. Then we were transferred to Johannesburg on Friday. On the Saturday, night they came to tell us: ‘We have just received a fax from prison headquarters. You are going to be released tomorrow.’ Just like that. The first question was: ‘What is a fax?’ We had heard of this thing by that time because we had newspapers and television, but we couldn’t conceptualise how it worked.

“That release came so suddenly. Tuesday was the announcement and, on Sunday, all the remaining Rivonia Trial people were at home.”

When Mandela became president, he appointed Kathrada as the counsellor in the president’s office.

“I made it very clear that ‘counsellor’ was a very fancy name and didn’t mean that I was the only adviser. I was also in the Cabinet for two days until he sacked me. I must still ask for my pension for that.”

Kathrada was appointed as minister of correctional services, even though he had told the ANC leadership that he was not interested.

“Fortunately, the Inkatha Freedom Party agreed to join the government and wanted one of the four security positions: either intelligence, defence, police or correctional services. Correctional services was the least difficult, so it was easy for Madiba to take my position and give it to them. It made me very happy because I was never interested in Cabinet. He then made me his counsellor.”

Kathrada said the difference between leaders of his generation and now is a question of style.

“Basically, they are all carrying out the same policy. Individuals come and go, but I would be very worried if there’s a change in policy. If there would be any danger, it would be changing the basic policy that is reaffirmed at every ANC conference.”

Kathrada retired from the ANC’s national executive committee in 1997 and from Parliament in 1999.

“I retired voluntarily, but my colleagues said I must do something. They started the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and its basic aim is to deepen nonracialism.”

In his small flat in Gardens in Cape Town, there is a photo of him with Nelson Mandela, taken in 2001. It says: “To Madala, you must now retire.” It is signed by Mandela.

“That was the type of relationship we enjoyed, teasing each other. He started calling me ‘madala’ and I reciprocated. We’ve been calling each other madala since then. At meetings, we addressed each other as ‘comrade’ or ‘Mr President’, but that’s how close our relationship was.”

Fisher is an independent media professional

Read more on:    ahmed kathrada
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