Ahmed Kathrada, an untiring political activist with a deep sense of social justice

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, popular known as “Kathy”, is one of the last giants of South African political scene, who had lived through the horrors of apartheid to the setting up of a multiracial democracy. He was an indefatigable political activist and was always moved by his deep sense of social justice. He passed away at the age of 87 on the 28 March 2017 at Donald Gordon Hospital in Johannesburg after a short illness following brain surgery. His funeral was held according to Islamic rites on 29 March.
 He was the son of a dukanwallah, who had emigrated from the industrial town of Kathor in Gujarat, India, c.1920 to South Africa. His father opened a general store in the small provincial town of Schweizer-Reneke in the then West-Transvaal, where he was born in 1929. The population of this town was made up mostly of Africaners and on the outskirts the Blacks lived in the township. Hemmed in between these two communities, Ahmed understood very early the social injustice and its political implications which prevailed. At the age of 12 he was distributing leaflets about the racial oppression. He moved to Johannesburg to further his schooling and he joined the Indian Congress of Natal in Transvaal. He thus came under the influence of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, the leading anti-apartheid activist of the time. He befriended the likes of Mandela and Walter Sisulu. He was a passionate activist with a fiery character and as such his initial relationship with Mandela was at times quite tense. They fought each other in a public debate.
In 1946, he was imprisoned during the Passive Resistance Campaign against segregation. In 1951, he went to Hungary to attend a World Youth Conference. He stayed for almost a year. He visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz, in Poland, and this experience was going to have a deep influence on him. On his return, he played a prominent role in the Defiance Campaign of 1952, which protested against apartheid segregation laws. In 1955, he was active in organizing the mega meeting where the “Freedom Charter” was adopted. This Charter laid partially the foundation of the political philosophy of a “non-racial” ANC. Subsequently, he was one of the 156 people across South Africa who were arrested for treason. The iconic treason Trial lasted until acquittal in 1961.
In 1963, he was at Liliesleaf Farm, a farm in the area of Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, where the armed branch of ANC-Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK ,’the pointed end of the arrow” ) was clandestinely headquartered. Ahmed Kathrada had by now joined the Communist Party of South Africa (SACP), which was present at the farm; when the Police swooped in. MK was about to launch its onslaught. This was a major blow to the organization.
At the famous “Rivonia Trial”, the 8 accused persons including Mandela and Kathy were found guilty of committing sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kathrada, who was 34 at the time, spent 26 years and 3 months in prison, 18 of which on Robben Island. The island itself used to be a leprosarium where conditions were very harsh. These detainees through their resilience turned this place into a “university”. Kathrada was the first to obtain his diplomas. They turned their prison into a political laboratory and etched out a political and social agenda for a post-apartheid era.
At the end of the 1980s, the apartheid system was dismantled and Ahmed Kathrada was among the first to be released from the prison of Pollsmoor on October 1989, where he had been transferred.
When the ANC was unbanned, he was elected onto its National Executive Committee and appointed head of its public relations. In 1994 he was elected to Parliament and served as President Mandela’s Parliamentary  Counsellor. He  was also on Robben Island Museum Council and later was to guide President Obama on his visit to the museum. He retired from political life in 1999 at the same time as President Mandela.
He did find time in 1992 to go on pilgrimage to Mecca on hajj. Most importantly he set up a foundation as a culmination of a life’s work dedicated to working for the underpriviledged. And in the meantime he had settled with Barbara Hogan, a White activist of the ANC. He dedicated his energy towards his Ahmed Kathrada Foundation as racism seemed to be still rampant and xenophobia tended to rear its ugly head with attacks on foreign-born African workers. Today we find that these trends have not abated. The Foundation’s aim is to teach young South Africans that non-racialism is an ideal that they need to continue to strive for.
In a letter from prison, dated 2 July 1988, to Zuleika Mayat, Kathrada wrote what probably sums up the values by which he lived:
“There is no secret or complex formula for the maintenance of harmony, good fellowship. It is basically a question of having mutual respect for one another; the relinquishing of misconceptions about cultural traits, customs and practices that are different from one’s own, and the willingness to learn about them; the absolute avoidance of any suggestion that one particular culture is superior – or inferior – to others. I could add a few other do’s and don’t, but they are superfluous. To put it simply: all that is needed is one to behave naturally; it will be found that the basic values and behaviour patterns learnt in the course of upbringing are universal, and are sufficient to transcend all barriers in the path of friendship and understanding.”
Ahmed Kathrada received numerous accolades, both nationally and internationally, in South Africa, India, USA and other countries.
Kathrada’s veteran friends from the struggle against apartheid lauded his many qualities. He was described as respectfully outspoken, resourceful and kind. Many of the giants of the liberation struggle, like Nobel Peace Prize winner, Chief Albert Luthuli, and J B Marks of the Communist Party allowed him into their company though he was much younger. He always spoke out when he saw wrong. Last year, he wrote a letter to President Jacob Zuma, who was accused of corruption. An extract as follows:
“The position of president is one that must at all times unite this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today for all South Africans. It is a position that requires the respect of all South Africans, which of course must be earned at all times… To paraphrase the famous MK slogan of the time, ’there comes a time in the life of a nation when it chose to submit or fight’. Today I appeal to our president to submit to the will of the people and resign”.
Kgalema Motlanthe, former president of South Africa, eulogized Ahmed Kathrada at the funeral service: “His legacy finds voluble expression in the centrality of the idea that his life radiated; the idea that we have the ability to create a new form of life anchored in a human-centred consciousness, whose defining tenets are unity, democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism and justice.”
I will like to thank Professor Goolam Vahed of Natal University for his notes.
Obituaries from the Times, The Independent, Le Monde and South African  newspapers were consulted.