Nelson Mandela, my friend and cellmate - CNBC Africa

Nelson Mandela, my friend and cellmate


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High wide view of Robben island in the foreground and Table Mountain and Cape Town as background. The island is today a World Heritage Site. PHOTO: Getty Images

Ahmed Kathrada did not think he would reach 84, let alone be free in 2013.

Imprisoned at the age of 35 he served nearly three decades behind bars along with one of the most famous prisoners in the world, Nelson Mandela.

They didn’t see it coming; they had all gone undercover in northern Johannesburg, each on the run from police.

Kathrada, who grew up in the small town of Schweitzer-Reneke, in the North West Province of South Africa, had been a political activist since he was 12. He joined the Young Communist League and graduated to the South African Communist Party.

“At the age of eight I was taken away from my family, to come to Johannesburg where I could attend school.”

Back in the North West he could enrol in neither the white school nor the black one.

Under apartheid law, the Group Areas Act required races to live and be educated in their designated areas, discouraging racial integration. The term apartheid means apartness, and it permeated South African life from schools to the cells.

“You know under apartheid, different laws apply to different groups. There were laws that applied only to Indians, and nobody else. For instance; in 1955 I came to Bloemfontein for some political work, and instead of doing my political work I went to jail. When the policeman took me to the police station, he said to me in Afrikaans ‘For the first time in my life I am seeing an Indian. Now where do I lock you up? Do I lock you up with the Blankes (whites) or with the Bantus (Africans), because I’ve got no cell for Indians.’”

His volunteer work for the Communist Party led him being put under house arrest, which sent him underground, to a then remote farmhouse in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, called Liliesleaf. Police raided the farm in July 1963 and rounded up the entire leadership of the South African underground.    

“The first words the policemen said when they arrested us were, ‘All you people are going to die.’”

This was the prelude to what would be one of the world’s most historic trials—the Rivonia Trial in Pretoria. The eight men captured at Liliesleaf that went on trial were charged with sabotage in a case that was to sway world opinion in their favor.

They escaped the death penalty by a whisker and were sentenced to imprisonment on the infamous Robben Island off the coast near Cape Town, where most political prisoners served their sentence, including South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma and its deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Kathrada recalls how the indignities of apartheid followed him into incarceration.   

“[Upon arrival at Robben Island] the first thing we had to do was change into prison clothes. I was the youngest in my group (he was 34) and all my elders, because they were African, had to wear short trousers with no socks. Indians and coloreds were treated differently, so we got long trousers and socks. Then came the food, I got a little more than Mandela but less than Dennis Goldberg. I got a quarter loaf of bread, Mandela did not get any. It was humiliating and you instinctively wanted to reject that, but Madiba said ‘You never give up what you’ve got. [Instead] you fight for something on an equal level.’”

There followed 18 years locked away on an island and eight years and three months in Pollsmoor prison, but Kathrada, like his fellow comrades, bears few no grudges.

“We fought so that you could have the chance to make your own choices.”

Kathrada is still a member of the ANC and chooses not to comment about South Africa’s political scene, but has words about the African continent.

“There is a tendency to call it a dark continent. Africa is not all backward, they are making progress and that’s unstoppable. And in some fields they are beating us.”

The veteran campaigner, with BlackBerry in hand, works at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He lives quietly in the Johannesburg suburbs with his wife, South Africa’s former Minister of Public Enterprise, Barbara Hogan, another political activist who was the first South African woman to be charged with treason. She was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 1982 and was released in 1990.

In his spare time, Kathrada enjoys something he was denied in prison—television. He is a die-hard fan of the South African soap opera, Isidingo. He loves the show so much that when he is out of the country, he makes sure he receives email updates on what he has missed.

On his 80th birthday, he appeared on the show as himself; a part that was a sharp contrast to the leading role Kathrada played in South Africa’s liberation, alongside his old friend and cellmate, Nelson Mandela.