Ahmed Kathrada, the Indian-origin South African politician, who passed away following a brain surgery on March 28, aged 87, at Johannesburg’s Donald Gordon Hospital, had entered the anti-apartheid movement even before Nelson Mandela himself. While Mandela spent 27 years in prison, Kathrada spent 26, both on Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town along with the first president of democratic South Africa and a few others. He is also the only South African to be knighted by the French government for his contributions to society besides Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and author Nadine Gordimer.
Mandela, who is popularly known in his country as Madiba, had called Kathrada one of his two mirrors, the other being Walter Sisulu. In return, Kathrada, who was referred to as Kathy, called Madiba his older brother and Sisulu his father. The trio were lodged in adjacent, narrow cells on Robben Island.
Kathrada, in fact, was one of those who persuaded ‘Madiba’ who had been a flourishing lawyer in the 1940s to join the “liberation struggle” against the brutal regime of the minority Afrikaans-speaking white supremacists in the 1940s. Along with some of the tallest leaders, Kathrada, who was much younger than the others and also the most combative among them, had participated in the major political campaigns of the 1950s and the 1960s – and had to face trials and brief jail sentences in the Trial of Twenty for taking part in the Defence Campaign of 1952, the four-year-long Treason Trial later; and finally the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial that sentenced him, along with Mandela, Sisulu, Govak Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg and a few others to life. The prosecution had sought death, but slim evidence meant they ended up spending the prime of their youth in a limestone quarry on Robben Island, which is now converted into a museum, for close to 20 years of their sentence.
While on a visit to the forlorn island off Cape Town in 2010, a guide with Rastafarian dreadlocks told me that the work in the quarry was an abysmally unproductive one. It was of no use to anyone; the only purpose was to ensure that the prisoners worked hard all day long. Certainly, it was meant to break the spirit of the inmates. Most of those who had worked there would later develop partial blindness (thanks to perforations that the harsh glare from the limestone caused to their eyes).
Kathrada and Mandela would many years later talk about the sunglasses of inferior quality that were provided to them, long after the latter became President of his country and Kathy, a member of Parliament and the head of the information department at Presidency. The book, Conversations with Myself, by Mandela and published by Macmillan has featured long chats between Madiba and Kathy reminiscing about their prison years on Robben Island as well as in Pollsmoor:
Kathrada: At the quarry, we had to buy sunglasses.
Kathrada: They didn’t provide them for us.
Mandela: Well, they did provide cheap ones, you remember, which were...
Kathrada: Which were useless.
(And they both laugh uncontrollably)
In each trial, the white police would use the typical ruse of claiming that the other person had ‘betrayed’ their cause and tipped off the police against his comrades, especially during the Rivonia Trial which took place after the apartheid government suspected that Umkhonto we Sizwe - the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), which spearheaded the nationalist movement - had been hiring a large number of youth, preparing for an armed uprising.
In an interview to me, Kathrada had said that none of them fell for the dirty tricks of the investigators because they had tremendous confidence in each other. “And that came with familiarity and the faith,” he said, his voice surprisingly youthful for his age. South Africa then had a law that detainees were to be kept in complete isolation and no one except the police met them to extract information; they were not even allowed to meet lawyers.
Kathrada also talked to me about being treated with greater privilege than Madiba in jail. The government of the day segregated people based on colour: there were different laws for the white prisoners, different ones for the Indians while the blacks were the worst treated. Kathy was offered trousers to wear in jail while Madiba and Sisulu had to contend with short trousers; they went on a strike demanding full pants.
“The idea was to divide us. Dennis (Goldberg) was not sent to Robben Island because he was considered white... I was given bread while Mandela got his first loaf of bread after 10 years,” Kathy said. All this, despite other inmates Govan Mbeki being 20 years his senior, Sisilu 18 years and Mandela 11 years.
Winter on wind-swept Robben Island, I remember, was harsh even with four layers of warm clothes on. Sunny Singh, one of the liberation struggle veterans I met in Durban who had spent 10 years on Robben Island, away from where Mandela, Kathy and others were detained, said that the jailors, most of them semi-literate Afrikaans-speaking ones trained to hate the prisoners, would break the glasses of a few windows to make them suffer more.
But then, the association between people like Madiba, Kathy and others was deep and in hardship, much deeper. They all went back a long way, and Kathy’s home in Johannesburg was the nerve centre of their clandestine political work. In those years when non-whites needed passes to cross provinces (non-white non-resident visitors had to return by dusk) Mandela had briefly used Kathy’s apartment, Flat 13, on Johannesburg’s Market Street as his office. The frequent visitors there included, besides Mandela, Oliver Thambo and Govan Mbeki. Kathy told me why his home was historical in more ways than one, “That flat had a history. It (had earlier) belonged to IC Meer, the late writer-political activist Fatima Meer's husband, who is credited with cementing the ties between the South African Indian Congress and the African National Congress.” As anyone who knows the history of ANC underground will affirm, he wasn’t exaggerating when he told me that after he shifted in, it became “the centre of political discussions that were destined to change the country, forever”.
I remember having a three-hour-plus chat in 2010 with Essop Pahad, former Indian-origin minister at Presidency when Thabo Mbeki was president, about various subjects that included the use of sport as a weapon against Apartheid police and also about Kathy, whom Pahad worshipped. Pahad, the most powerful brother of the Pahad clan, was at the time editing a newspaper after stepping down following Mbeki’s exit, and he had a lot of time to talk. Kathy had lived with the Pahads and had called Essop’s mother his “Joburg mother”.
For Pahad, who had met Kathy as a teenager, the latter was an outstanding internationalist who believed in breaking free of taboos among Indians abroad such as ban on inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. Both their ancestors had gone to Africa as traders in the late 19th century. Kathy also didn’t want Pahad to call him Uncle Kathy, an act of deference known among Indians. He wanted Pahad, who was close to 10 years his junior, to call him by his name. Pahad also recalled that Kathy had strong opinions and was extremely argumentative. Interestingly, he told me, the very day that Kathy and Madiba met, they got into a serious argument on the street and the former challenged the other into a debate over a trivial issue.
Mandela and Kathy would later laugh about this while they were on Robben Island. Mandela even wrote about it once, “As I have found to my cost, he is a person of strong opinion and sharp insight. But he also has great humour and humanity.” Mandela had also said that it was his company, along with that of Sisulu, that helped him come out from prison “undiminished”.
Following repeated pleas by Mandela to stay on in the grime and dust of politics after the historic 1994 elections that elected the first black president in South Africa, Kathy relented but decided to stay away from the limelight once Madiba stepped down from the post, making way for Mbeki in 1999. Kathy later chose to devote more time at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. Though he remained self-effacing, making comments such as “I am nowhere compared with the Madiba and other close inmates” he was revered even by his seniors for his wit, articulation, selflessness and outspoken behaviour.
When I interviewed him in 2012 and asked him about growing corruption and abject poverty in his country even after it became free, he wasn’t bitter or in the grip of despair that is often the case typical of veterans. He replied in a flash, a style that comes from the ultimate faith only great survivors are known for. “Leaders will come and go (be it Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma), but the system and policies are progressive and pro-people,” he said without a whiff of regret.
In recent years, though, he became a highly vocal critic of President Zuma and even asked him to step down over failures to fight corruption and alleviate people’s suffering. When I asked him about the difference between Apartheid South Africa and the democratic one, he replied, “Freedom certainly means dignity and the right to be treated as an equal being... but poverty offers no dignity.”
Kathrada, who was born in 1929 in Transvaal Province to a Gujarati Bohra household and later shifted base to Johannesburg, was the first to graduate in history and criminology from Robben Island's Maximum Security Prison. He also communicated with people outside, including his white girlfriend at the time of his sentence, Sylvia Neame, through his lawyer Bram Fischer and later by smuggling letters out through several means. Robert D Vassen later compiled them in a book, titled “Letters From Robben Island: A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada’s Prison Correspondence, 1964-1989”, which is a gripping read that captures for posterity man’s cruelty to man, the meanness of people who enjoy absolute power, and the survival of the human spirit.
Kathy, who would go on to win hearts and laurels in free South Africa along with his hero Mandela, was jovial, unassuming and had no complaints whatsoever even about the representation of Indians in free South Africa. In the face of statements that Indians continued to suffer under the Blacks as they did under the Whites, he would simply say, “This is a young nation and it is too early to judge it.”
Kathrada loved India, its enterprise, democratic values and revolutionary spirit. I took the liberty of asking him questions of a more personal nature. One was about him, an avowed communist, going on a Haj pilgrimage. He said he did it to honour the wishes of his mother who had died while he was in prison. I also asked him about his great fascination for women, and of all people, white-skinned. His wife was Barbara Hogan, the former South African cabinet minister of public enterprises. Was that a way of getting back at former oppressors, I asked cheekily and rather preposterously. But Kathy, with his immense sense of humour and intelligence, was frank and exuberant. “To me they are all women, not white. I have been in love with women of all skin types. It is just that the white women I am associated with are famous.”
Kathrada’s departure comes at a time when the country he helped transform into a democracy is passing through one of its biggest tests in unification, beset with mindless crime, ethnic chasms, bigotry and corruption. His death is a two-fold tragedy.
(Ullekh NP is executive editor, Open magazine, and the author of two books, War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology Behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Win (Roli Books, 2015) and The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox (Penguin Viking, 2017). He is fascinated with and has closely studied South Africa’s Liberation Struggle.)