Ahmed Kathrada’s death is a blow to our troubled nation. But as we process his passing, our responsibility is not so much to mourn or praise him, but to seek to emulate his example.
Ahmed Kathrada breathed his last breath just before 4am on Tuesday 28 March 2017. The youngest of the Rivonia treason trialists passed away after a short illness.
Nine of the group of 11 originally charged– Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Bob Hepple, Elias Motsoaledi, James Kantor, Rusty Bernstein, and now, Kathrada – have departed from this world. Andrew Mlangeni and Dennis Goldberg are the last two remaining Rivonia trialists. Eight of the group was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
In every corner of South Africa and in many parts of the world, individuals and groups are expressing their sadness and fond remembrance of a true patriot, revolutionary and visionary.
A lot of column width and social media spaces are being filled with tributes to a giant of our struggle who was disarmingly humble, lived simply and devoted his entire life to social justice for all. A man who could justifiably be referred to as qhawe lamaqhawe, a hero among heroes.
Citizens are recording anecdotes of their encounters with him and sharing photographs of themselves with him or in the presence of the ANC veteran.
Given the state of our nation, we are required to do a lot more than sing his praises, make an appearance at one or other memorial service or bask in reflected glory.
If you are a racist, sexist or classist, then you stand for everything that the late veteran abhorred. Uncle Kathy, as he was commonly known, treated everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of race, colour or creed.
If you pursue material wealth at the expense of the poor, or defend colonialism or are a driver of financial collusion or practise corruption in different forms or are guilty of xenophobia, then it is an insult for you to try and associate yourself with leaders of this calibre.
If you are party to moving poor people out of the cities or preventing them from returning there, then you are directly undermining Kathrada’s belief that all people shall enjoy houses, security and comfort.
Kathrada devoted his life to ending the oppression and exploitation of all people, here and elsewhere and passionately believed that South Africa belonged to all who live in it.
He did not simply use the rhetoric of Umntu, Ngumtu, Ngabantu (which refers to our common humanity), but lived it in his daily life.
Effusive praises of the man and gatherings at huge memorial services are not enough at this time.
For us to genuinely pay tribute to Kathrada and move our country forward, we simply have to emulate his example.
And say from today that We Are Kathrada!
Ahmed Kathrada: A life well lived
1929: Ahmed Mohamed “Kathy” Kathrada is born on 21 August, to Indian Muslim immigrant parents from Surat, Mohamed Kathrada and his wife Hawa. They live in Schweizer-Reneke in the North West Province, which was then known as the Western Transvaal. He is the fourth of six children.
1939: Kathrada, aged eight, could not attend any of the “European” or “African” schools in Schweizer-Reneke and so his parents decide to send him to Johannesburg to stay with a relative in Fordsburg. He attends Newtown Primary School.
1941: Kathrada, aged 12 joins the Young Communist League of South Africa and distributes leaflets at street corners for the League. During the Second World War Kathrada was involved in the anti-war campaign of the Non-European United Front. Kathrada is elected to the Young Communist League’s Johannesburg District Committee at the age of 14. He is appointed editor of the school publication, The Historian. The Principal of the school halted the distribution of the very first issue due to its ‘political content’
1946: At 17, Kathrada left school to work for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council to oppose the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act. During this time he met African National Congress (ANC) leaders Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, J.N. Singh and I.C. Meer and participated in the Passive Resistance Campaign of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). Kathrada was one of 2 000 volunteers arrested and imprisoned for a month, along with Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, Dr Goonam and Cissie Gool among others. This was the first time he was imprisoned for civil disobedience. He is released in January 1947.
1951: Kathrada registers as a student at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) and joins the Students Liberation Association. He travels to Berlin and visits the concentration camps in Auschwitz, which further entrenches his belief that racism in South Africa must be ended.
1952: The ANC and the SAIC launch the Defiance Campaign which targets six unjust laws, he is one of 20 including Mandela and Sisulu sentenced to nine months in prison with hard labour.
1954: Kathrada is served with banning orders prohibiting him from attending any gatherings. But this does not stop him from attending meetings or participating in campaigns.
1956: He is one of 156 Congress activists and leaders charged for High Treason. The trial lasts for four years. Kathrada, Sisulu and Mandela are among the last to be acquitted.
1957: Kathrada is issued with a banning order, limiting him to the Johannesburg area.
1960: The ANC is banned.
1961: Kathrada is arrested at a roadblock and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. He spends six weeks in detention and when released is placed under house arrest. He goes underground and continues to attend ANC meetings.
1962: Kathrada is recruited by Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK), the military wing of the ANC.
1963: Police raid Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia which leads to the Rivonia Trial in which eight accused including Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni are sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour on Robben Island. Kathrada spends 26 years and 3 months in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island. In prison he completes Bachelor’s degrees in History and Criminology, a Bachelor of Bibliography degree and a BA Honours in History and African Politics through the University of South Africa.
1989: Kathrada is released in October 1989, at the age of 60 and the ANC is unbanned.
1991: Kathrada is elected to the NEC of the ANC.
1994: He is elected a Member of Parliament following South Africa’s first democratic election. He is also appointed parliamentary counsellor in President Nelson Mandela’s office.
1997: He is elected as Chairperson of the Robben Island Council, and steps down from the NEC.
1999: President Nelson Mandela awards him the Presidential Award of the Order for Meritorious Service Class 1. In June he takes leave of parliamentary politics.
2002-2004: Kathrada is awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Massachusetts, the University of Durban-Westville and the University of Missouri.
2008: The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation is launched.
2016: Kathrada writes an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, calling for him to resign. Kathrada remained a committed member of the ANC, and campaigned for the party in the last local government elections in 2016.
Images courtesy of The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and Lihlumelo Toyana