Book Extract: Uncle Kathy and the kids

Conversations with a Gentle Soul by Ahmed Kathrada with Sahm Venter

Picador Africa

256 pages


At home in South Africa, Kathy spends time with children of schoolgoing age as often as he can, delighting in their honest and innocent approach and answering their questions about what it once was like to live in the world. Why did he go to prison? What was it like? One of his favourites is: How old are you?

“Children don’t know colour; they quarrel, they laugh, they play; they don’t fight each other because of colour; that’s why our concentration has to be at the school level,” he says.

In prison, children were not allowed to visit their parents until they reached the age of 16. Not having any children of his own made it impossible for Kathy to have contact with children for most of the 26 years and three months he was imprisoned.

Layers of sound drifted around and into the cells. Peacock calls; “rowdy” seagulls; motor-vehicle engines and rusted exhaust pipes belching into the sea air; the crunching of boots on the stones outside. Keys clanging locks open. And closed.

Even the crashing of waves against the dock in the evenings. But never the laughter of children. The children of guards living in the staff quarters on Robben Island were kept far away from the prisoners lest they glance at one or even hear the voice of a child.

While Kathy’s cell window looked out towards the harbour, it was not in view. When he stood on a pile of blankets he could see out and spent time gazing at wild animals, mainly buck, which approached the prison after hours. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of people walking along the path joining the prison and the harbour. Never children.

Kathy yearned for children, even just to hear one cry. It was only after he was transferred in 1982 from the island to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland that he met his first child in more than 20 years.

“At Pollsmoor we were five political prisoners held together and things were relaxed. So my lawyer, Ramesh Vassen, came to see me on a legal matter, but he came with his daughter, Priya, and she wouldn’t stay in the car. Because things were more relaxed, the warder, I think it may have been Christo Brand...” he says of a prison guard who was kind to him in jail and with whom he still shares a friendship.

“... He said, ‘Let her come in’. And that is when I saw a child for the first time. Sitting on my lap. It was overwhelming, you know.”

His voice breaks. It clearly impacted him deeply.

“First of all, during the interview there was hardly a serious legal discussion because this little kid is sitting on my lap. I’m just stroking her hair and I’m talking to her father, but I think he had to come back for a proper briefing, a legal briefing.

She won’t remember that. She was young then, but I’ve kept in touch; I still am in touch with those kids.”

“How do you feel about not having had your own children?”

“That thought has gone through me often that I didn’t have my own kids. But then all these kids became my own and the more I see them, the more kids I gather. All children became my children.”

He lists the visits he has these days from children and the children he sees playing with each other or walking around with their parents or guardians.

Katlego is not the only child in the apartment block; there are two others, Odirile and Omphemetse, whose father works in the building.

“They are little sharks,” he laughs.

“What do they do?”

“They pop in and give me a big hug. But I know why they pop in, not only will they get sweets, there’s a drawer of mine that’s always got sweets for them. They will also get some cash.”

“Oh, they get cash as well?”

“Yes, they get cash. I never leave them without cash.”

“And sometimes a little toy?”

“A toy, yes. Toys they don’t get always because they do get toys about twice a year.”

From time to time he and Barbara host a party for the children of their building and others who may be visiting. One of the more recent parties was held in their communal gardens adjacent to the apartment block. Cupcakes were carefully chosen, as well as gifts for each child, and sweets, of course. Kathy sat in his garden chair watching and smiling.

Basking in the pure energy and the innocent laughter of the little ones.

“Why do you throw parties for children?”

“Hopefully it will become a permanent thing. We missed last year, so I’m trying to make up. I just told Barbara, ‘Let’s take the kids to the zoo.’ I asked one of them who said they’ve been to the zoo with the school. But it’s different from being special, just two or three of them going with Barbara. And if any of the parents want to come, they can come. Give them a nice treat. I also get, not as much, but I get some pleasure out of it.

“Last week a little girl, Aysha Khan, visited me with her parents,” he announces. “Very bright. She’s written my biography in a very short way, but she’s written down chapters that she still wants to write and very nicely done too. There was minimum prompting from the father except when she forgets to say something the father would remind her, otherwise the parents stayed out most of the time.”

Another type of light switches on inside Kathy when he talks of his experiences with children. The glow of hope.

“It’s nice to see what kids are up to.”

“Remarkable. How old is Aysha?”

“I think she must have just started going to high school
or be on the verge of it. She’s still young,” he says. “Those are things I enjoy most, visits from these kids, and I get all
sorts of kids visiting.”

He also treasured the visit by 13-year-old Karabo Nkoli who had written a book called Whispers of Life.

“Having been deprived of seeing children in prison must highlight even more how precious they are and how they need to be taken care of?”

“Absolutely. I mean in prison you are in a situation where you even want to, long to hear a child cry. Just to hear that voice. Those who were married and had visits from their wives, they were allowed to bring their little babies, but not children, to visits. But I had nothing like that.”

Once, when a niece of his was going to visit him at Pollsmoor Prison, she forewarned him that she would bring her baby. The idea filled him with dread. How do you hold a baby? What if he dropped it?

He had to rehearse with a pillow, guided by the expertise of his cell mate, Walter Sisulu, a father and grandfather. He demonstrated his technique with a pillow standing in for the infant.

“I had never carried a baby before. I knew that I would have to carry this kid, but when that time came I freaked out. With all that experience and learning, so she had to put the kid on my lap.”

“You couldn’t hold her?”

“I couldn’t in case I dropped the kid.”

“So your love for children is why you often say we are not fully free if children go to bed hungry or they can’t go to school.”

“Yes. I had to say that as recently as yesterday in a telephone interview, I ended off more or less with those words. And the fellow, the interviewer, ended off by saying, ‘You’ve made my day.’”

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