South Africa 10.11.2014 04:25 pm

Kathrada – a life moulded to free us all

Ahmed Kathrada Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Ahmed Kathrada Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

We all remember struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada’s speech at late President Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

How could the world forget? It was enough to move even the most stone-hearted.

Now, Uncle Kathy as he is affectionately called by many, has offered a brief insight into his 85-years of existence, 25 years of his freedom and his spirited bond with late President Nelson Mandela.

We meet Uncle Kathy at his flat in Killarney – it is not modern, but it is appealing. The walls are not graced with a great number of pictures of his role in the struggle.

There are however two frames, and behind the glass are pictures of Mandela and Kathrada, smiling so widely, you are certain that it was a good day when the pictures were taken.

Gifts from Nelson Mandela to Ahmed Kathrada are pictured during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014.  Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Gifts from Nelson Mandela to Ahmed Kathrada are pictured during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

And when Uncle Kathy enters the room, he immediately exudes wisdom.

The respect he speaks of for his own elders would take centre stage later in the conversation.

He is dressed neatly, in a buttoned up collared shirt and trousers.

His shoes were shining.

Uncle Kathy still takes pride in the neatness of his dressing. He is a part of a league of gentlemen that no longer exists.

Ahmed Kathrada poses for a picture during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014.  Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Ahmed Kathrada poses for a picture during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

After taking his seat, he begins relating his journey from a young boy who was first home schooled – through to the days of his political endeavours.

Politely and pleasantly, he goes beyond in offering an insight into this.

There is no sense of wanting recognition, and that is proven in the nature of how he words his sentences.

Kathrada, played his role when apartheid reared its ugly head –and that is plainly put.

But, 26 years of incarceration isn’t something we call light.

He still ends off his showers with cold water – something he habituated through his time behind bars for wanting a free and indiscriminate South Africa.

A “baptism of cold showers”, he labels it.

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Ahmed Kathrada poses for a picture during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Back then despite being custom to warm water — unlike his comrades, who only had cold water in the townships – he did not cave.

“That was where you take your first decision to protect your dignity, because you are not going to give in now. So that was a good lesson.”

He remembers being questioned by police prior to the infamous Rivonia Trial, which 50-years ago resulted in Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, being sentenced to life imprisonment.

“All they came to do was get information on yourself or on your comrades – or, you going to die.”

“It was difficult, you were alone, and not able to talk to your comrades. The only thought in your mind is death so you thought, do I talk or don’t I talk?”

He didn’t, and remembers a common trend amongst his comrades at the time: “You don’t apologise and you don’t ask for mercy.”

His brave decision resulted in him being convicted and spending 18-years on Robben Island and the rest at Pollsmoor Prison.

“The expectations until the very last day (of the trial) was death. And there was a sigh of relief when the judge said ‘life’.”

That very night they awoke, and were in handcuffs and leg irons.

“They put us on the plane and the next morning, we were on Robben Island. We landed there on a very cold day.”

At age 34, he was the youngest of the seven. His number on the island, was 46864.

Ahmed Kathrada poses for a picture during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014.  Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Ahmed Kathrada poses for a picture during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

“All my colleagues wore short trousers because Africans were regarded as ‘boys’. I was given long trousers and instantly wanted to reject them, but Madiba said‘no, don’t give up what you have got’.”

His food consisted of porridge, soup and coffee for breakfast.

“I got a more sugar than Madiba, but less than Dennis Goldberg who was imprisoned in Pretoria.

“A dozen of us were indian or coloured so when we had a chance would pool all the food.

“That was apartheid in prison,” he says.

I have watched Uncle Kathy relate his story before, but this time, there seemed to have been intensity in the way he speaks.

“It was difficult but you had to be bold.”

Kathrada then moves onto his experiences with Madiba.

“What I remember from the first meeting with Madiba was his ability to relate to me as an equal. That was his quality which he maintained throughout his life. No matter if you are a schoolboy, peasant or aristocrat.”

He fondly recalls a visit to Mandela along with his partner Barbara Hogan which is an illustration of this.

“One morning he invited Barb and myself for breakfast. He was on the phone, and he ended off by saying ‘Ok, goodbye Elizabeth’.

“I then asked him, now who’s this Elizabeth?

“He said the Queen. And I said, but how can you call the Queen ‘Elizabeth’? So he said well; ‘She calls me Nelson so I call her Elizabeth,” he says with a good chuckle.

Gifts from Nelson Mandela to Ahmed Kathrada are pictured during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014.  Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Gifts from Nelson Mandela to Ahmed Kathrada are pictured during an interview at his home in Killarney, Johannesburg, 30 September 2014. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

“At that time we knew each other so well that we used to tease each other – as you can see there.”

He points to the picture on the wall, where both Madiba and Uncle Kathy had been sharing a good laugh.

The laugh then suddenly stops — and he speaks with a slight crack in his voice.

“I never regarded him as a friend. It would have been arrogant of me to say he was my friend. He was eleven years my senior. To me he was my elder brother and Mr Sisulu was my father.”

Having just five minutes left of my allocated time — and one more question to choose from — I quickly move back to that of food.

But Uncle Kathy responds by smiling, again.

“You see when I was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, the late Dullah Omar was my lawyer. Soon his second visit, he came through with two packs of samoosas.”

Omar then told the warder: “Menneer, my wife sent this for you,”says Uncle Kathy.

“Now we know everyone likes samoosas,” he giggles.

Once the samoosa’s were accepted by the warder, Omar then asked if the second pack could be handed to Uncle Kathy.

“What I am really getting at is that at Pollsmoor, I tasted every food you can think of – breyani’s the lot.”

Today, his favourite “food is food”.

But there are certain dishes which stick out.

“I love fish curry, the sour kind, and Tamil trotters. Breyani isn’t my favourite because it’s too rich and you can’t have enough of it. The simpler foods are my favourites.”

Uncle Kathy recalls casting his vote in 1994 – for the first time.

Nelson Mandela takes the oath 10 May 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria. Picture: AFP

Nelson Mandela takes the oath 10 May 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria. Picture: AFP

“I remember voting in Lenasia and there was a huge queue. There was a story of a bomb scare but not a single person in the queue was prepared to leave.

It was the first time in our lives that we voted. It’s something one will always remember. I mean we didn’t know what ballots or ballots boxes looked like.”

On his Education

Kathrada remembers his family wanting him to study medicine.

“When it came to university it was not possible for people who are not white to do medicine. (non-white) Doctors only graduated in India or Edinburgh, It was later that people who were not white could get into medical school.”

While the expectations in Kathrada’s case was still there, in mid matric, 1946 he became involved in the Indian Congress which implied the law of passive resistance.

“So in 1946 and with the foolishness of youth I gave up matric, and in December of that year I went to prison for the first time.”

 

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