Rivonia trialist Kathrada on 25 years of freedom

2014-10-17 09:26
Picture: Lauren Mulligan)

Picture: Lauren Mulligan)

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Ahmed Kathrada, one of the two surviving ANC prisoners, who was released in 1989, recalls the excitement of his release and reveals why he is still fighting for others’ freedom.

“Chaps, this is goodbye”, former president Nelson Mandela said to Kathrada in the days leading up to his release. But Kathrada said he couldn’t believe it until it actually happened.

After 26 years in prison, Kathrada returned home as a “curiosity” for his children. “They didn’t know what is prison, and if a prisoner is a different type of person. So they touched my head and were very curious about whether I was an actual human being”, he said in an interview published by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

Kathrada said he was “swept into freedom” on a wave of interviews with the media. The first day was “a blank”, there was no chance to adjust to life as a free man slowly, or to go on a holiday.

“It was only after a week or two, after watching a video that everything came back,” he said.

‘Everything was new’

He does recall that one of the first things he did was visit the grave of Suliman “Babla” Saloojee - who was killed in detention. And that the first person to visit Kathrada’s house, on the morning of his release, was Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba - his jail-mate of 18 years.

“It was the first time I saw ‘Mr L’ after his release. I was very excited to be reunited with him,” said Kathrada.

Kathrada said the excitement of his release slowly gave way to getting used to a new world. He had been imprisoned aged 34, and was not released until he was 60.

“Everything was new, from the fax, to the new roads, streets and road maps,” he said.

Nearing pension age in the fast moving new world of the 1980s, Kathrada stepped out to a changing South Africa.

Yet some things remained the same, he said. “It didn’t take long to realise that we may have been free from prison, but that the country was not free. The struggle still had to continue.”

Free ‘Palestine’s Mandela’

Now 85, Kathrada has marked the 25th anniversary of the end of his struggle by renewing calls for another’s - campaigning for the freedom of the Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti – often referred to as the ‘Palestinian Mandela’.

Kathrada launched his campaign for Barghouthi’s freedom on Robben Island last year. At the time he recalled how the Free Mandela Campaign eventually escalated into a global outcry from the international community, calling for freedom.

“The call here is no different,” he said. “It is a call for the release of Marwan Barghouti and political prisoners, so that a just future could be negotiated out of the ruins devised by the military colonial state of Israel.”

Barghouti was jailed in 2002 after being seized by undercover Israeli security agents and convicted on five counts of murder in an Israeli court two years later - charges which he denies.

Hugely popular across Palestinian divides, he is the favourite to succeed to Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority.

For Kathrada, the stories of Barghouti and his fellow political prisoners bring back “our own memories and we empathise with them”.

He added: “For some, they have it much worse that we did. We had one life sentence, while

Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences.”

Rivonia recordings head to France

Meanwhile, the sound recordings of the Rivonia Trials - on “dictabelts” - were handed over to the

French last week to digitalise and restore.

France has the available equipment and skills needed for the project, and will return the digitised dictabelts to South Africa in 2016 - allowing South Africans to access them for the first time in 50 years.

French President Francois Hollande said the project is “a way for France to keep alive the memory of the struggle against apartheid”.

The recordings contain the iconic last speech made by Nelson Mandela before he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

Mandela delivered a spell-bounding three hour long speech in his defence from the dock, with the defiant closing words: “The ideal of a free and democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities... is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

The speech led to global condemnation of South Africa’s racial policies.

Read more on:    ahmed kathrada  |  johannesburg  |  politics

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