One of the last survivors of the rebels who faced death with Nelson Mandela was a genial, gentle, soul with resolve of iron.
Ahmed Kathrada (87) who died on Tuesday was one of the great worker bees of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid in the 1950s and early 1960s; at Liliesleaf farm, in the middle class Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia that was used as a hideout for the underground movement, Kathrada, wrote, worked and photocopied pamphlets tirelessly. When the struggle called on him to pose as a white man – he dyed his hair, put on make-up and pretended to be a Portuguese man called Pedro. It was a disguise that fooled people; despite this, he never felt comfortable going in to restaurants and the like where a non-white like himself was not allowed to go under apartheid.
This is the kind of gentle soul Kathrada was. Iron resolve, always, when it came to principle, but never arrogant or full of bravado. He admitted to me once, in an interview for CNBC Africa, that he feared he could have broken if he had been tortured by the special branch after his arrest. His heart was always tender and 26 years in prison left few callouses. Once, on national radio, I heard Kathrada break down when a caller reminded him of a comrade who had been tortured to death more than half a century before.
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If the scars were deep, Kathrada’s spirit maintained a salving sense of humour that often saw the absurdities of the struggle and the brutal system they were fighting. With a laugh he told me how Govan Mbeki – the father of South Africa’s former president – used to sell the eggs he coaxed from the Liliesleaf chickens to his fellow activists despite their protestations. He also told me how the underground activists of Liliesleaf used to sell the vegetables they used to grow.
“Our best customer was the Rivonia Police!” he chuckled as it was the police of Rivonia who raided Liliesleaf with dogs, in July 1964 and sent Kathrada, in chains, to prison for life on Robben Island.
“We subsequently found out that life was to mean life,” he said with irony and his trademark smile.
When Kathrada emerged from a lifetime in prison in 1989, apartheid had taken a lot more from him than his youth; it had also taken his birthplace. The place where he grew up in Schweizer-Reneke, in South Africa’s North West province, had been bulldozed by the authorities in the cause of keeping the races apart.
Incarceration had taken much more. Computers, hotel room cards instead of keys, and the clutter modern world were a mystery to him. He tried driving on the motorways that he had never seen, once, but found it too stressful and confusing. Even a harmless ATM was a mission as Kathrada found out when he went to get some money with fellow Robben Island prisoner Laloo Chiba one Sunday morning.
“He put in his card and it was swallowed, then I put my card in and pressed a few buttons and it was also swallowed. We had to phone the bank and they came to open up the ATM and get our cards out. Now Barbara gets my money for me,” he told me.
Politician Barbara Hogan was Kathrada’s loving partner in later life and they appeared kindred spirits. It was compensation for a prison sentence that robbed Kathrada of being able to raise a family. The prison guards used of Robben Island used to cruelly keep children out of sight for all prisoners; Kathrada told me of the pain of two decades of never hearing that most natural sound, the carefree laughter of a child. Hogan was the nearest to family Kathrada ever knew upon his release.
“When I phone home from overseas my first question is: ‘What happened in Isidingo ( A TV soap opera) my second question is about whether the country has been overthrown!” Kathrada said in his own dry way.
One or two people in the African National Congress would whisper to you that Kathrada was a bit star struck when it came to big names and would drop everything to be with them. It was Kathrada who accompanied the then rising United States senator Barack Obama to Robben Island on his visit to South Africa.
When it came to integrity, there was never a waver or whiff of scandal around Kathrada. I shall remember him for six words he shot back to me in the studio all those years ago. I ventured that there was a rising generation of young people who didn’t know, nor care, about the causes and sacrifices of the struggle generation.
“That is what we fought for.”
The principled and upstanding way of Ahmed Kathrada; sadly many of those principles he fought from were ignored by a generation old enough to know better.