Ahmed Kathrada at Nelson Mandela's funeral

Ahmed Kathrada: Anti-Apartheid Stalwart Dies At Age 87

In the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, March 28, one of South Africa’s finest citizens departed this earth to join his fellow struggle heroes in the hereafter. Ahmed Kathrada was 87-years-old and had been suffering from ill health for some time. Kathrada, a prominent anti-Apartheid activist, had recently undergone brain surgery to remove a blood clot. Kathrada developed post-surgery pneumonia which severely weakened his health and ultimately led to his death.

Ahmed Kathrada reading in the cell he was kept in on Robben Island
Ahmed Kathrada reads from a just-published book of his prison correspondence in the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island. [Image by Denis Farrell/AP Images, File]

Ahmed Kathrada, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Kathy,’ was born on August 21, 1929, in the small South African town of Schweizer-Reneke to parents that had emigrated from India. Kathrada spent a great deal of his childhood in Fordsburg, a cultural epicenter for Indians living in Johannesburg.

From a very early age, Kathrada was active in political activism, having been inspired by the fellow activist, Yusuf Dadoo’s resistance against the Apartheid government’s restrictions on the trading rights of Indians. At age twelve, Kathrada began a life-long struggle against the injustices of the oppressive Apartheid regime, and actively advocated for a system on non-racialism with the ultimate goal of democracy in South Africa.

It was during the 1940’s, while he was a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, that Kathrada met Walter Sisulu, Ismail Chota Meer and future President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The start of the African National Congress’s (ANC) civil disobedience campaign was inspired by Ahmed’s resistance to the 1913 Natives Land Act that sought to possess the land of all but white South Africans. Notably, it was this protest that led to Kathrada’s first arrest of what would eventually total more than eighteen arrests on political grounds.

After an alliance – known as the Congress Alliance – between the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and the ANC had been formed in 1947, Kathrada’s political activities became deeply rooted within the Youth League of the ANC which was led at the time by Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela.

In 1952 the Defiance Campaign was launched. The ANC and SAIC led the Defiance Campaign, which was a prodigious non-violent resistance to Apartheid’s brutal and unjust segregation laws. Interestingly, the campaign came two years before the start of the African-American Civil Rights movement in the United States.

A total of 156 members of the Congress Alliance were arrested and tried for high treason in 1956 – a trial that lasted until 1961. During the six-year-long trial many notable events occurred, including the State of Emergency precipitated by the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 black protestors were killed by the South African Police. All 156 defendants were acquitted in 1961.

In 1962, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated transportation facilities – interstate and intrastate – was unconstitutional, Ahmed Kathrada was placed under house arrest. In open defiance he escaped and joined the militaristic armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, that was formed in response to the Sharpeville Massacre. From 1961 many of the Congress Alliance’s leaders were hosted in a safe-house at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, owned by Arthur Goldreich. It was here that Nelson Mandela assumed an alias and pretended to work as a landscaper, while in reality furthering the plans of the resistance.

On July 11, 1963 – the same year Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech – Liliesleaf Farm was raided by the South African Police who had approached the safe-house in a delivery van to prevent suspicion. Ahmed Kathrada was arrested, along with the other members who would become the defendants in the infamous Rivonia Trial. Kathrada recounted this fateful event in a Forbes Africa Magazine interview.

“Sisulu and I, instinctively, without thinking much – we didn’t have time to think – jumped out of the window, and we couldn’t go a few metres and the police were there armed with dogs, there was no point in our running forward and we were arrested. The first words the policemen said when they arrested us were, ‘All you people are going to die.'”

The subsequent Rivonia Trial took place from October 1963 to June 1964, in the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. Apart from Ahmed Kathrada, the list of defendants included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni, and Elias Motsoaledi. All the defendants received a sentence of life imprisonment. In 1964, Kathrada, who was 34-years-old at the time, was sent to Robben Island along with his co-accused. At the time, African-American protestors were facing brutal injustices such as the infamous Bloody Tuesday event. On Robben Island, Kathrada was kept in isolation in the B Section of the Maximum Security Prison for eighteen years. In his memoirs, Kathrada wrote about life in prison.

“The real picture of prison life is a picture of great warmth, fellowship, friendship, humor, and laughter; of strong convictions, of a generosity of spirit, of compassion, solidarity and care. It is a picture of continuous learning, of getting to know and live with your fellow beings, their strengths as well as their idiosyncrasies; but more important, where one comes to know oneself, one’s weaknesses, inadequacies and one’s potentials. Unbelievably, it is a very positive, confident, determined – yes, even a happy community.”

In 1982 Kathrada and his fellow Rivonia Trialists were transferred to Polsmoor Prison in Cape Town where they were kept until their release in October 1989. The period that followed was mainly occupied by the tense but game-changing Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations which paved the way for the ANC’s 1994 political victory in South Africa’s first democratic election.

From 1994 to 2006, Kathrada was mainly involved in the Robben Island Museum Council (RIMC), but also served for a time as President Nelson Mandela’s political advisor. Following his retirement from the RIMC in 2006, Ahmed continued his activism and fought for the advancement of human rights by establishing the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

Through his Foundation, he became highly critical of the current ANC Executive branch by expressing concern about large-scale corruption and inadequacy in the Jacob Zuma administration. Most notably, Kathrada penned an open letter to President Zuma, calling on him to resign to protect the integrity of the party. Kathrada also advocated for an investigation into the allegations of inappropriate political interference by the influential Gupta family.

Ahmed Kathrada with Michelle and Barack Obama
Former U.S. President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, tour Robben Island with Ahmed Kathrada [Image by Evan Vucci/AP Images]

Those who remained close to Kathrada will remember him as a kind and gentle soul, known for taking a keen interest in the lives of young people who he believed would shape the future of South Africa. On the other hand, Kathrada was also known for being lionhearted and brutal in his assessments of socio-political conditions, promotion of non-racialism and his support for the Palestinian struggle.

The reaction to Kathrada’s death has been expansive and impassioned. Neeshan Balton, director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, said: “This is great loss to the ANC, the broader liberation movement and South Africa as a whole…’Kathy’ was an inspiration to millions in different parts of the world.”

Denis Goldberg, the youngest remaining Rivonia Trialist, said “You know if you had been through a trial together and you faced death together there’s a bond. Even if you don’t see each other often, there is a bond of a shared experience.”

Twitter has also been ablaze with impassioned tributes to Ahmed Kathrada.

Kathrada is survived by his wife, Barbara Hogan, who was also an anti-Apartheid activist and served two terms as the Minster of Public Health and the Minister of Public Enterprises.

[Featured image by Odd Andersen/AP Images]