South Africa 15.8.2015 12:00 pm

Kathrada launches book, recalls special Robben Island visit

Politician and former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada speaks about a new book launched by the Kathrada Foundation called Triumph of the Human Spirit, Ahmed Kathrada and Robben Island, 13 August 2015, in Lenasia. The book features photographs of Kathrada accompanying various well known visitors to Robben Island, such as Barack Obama, Fidel Castro, Stevie Wonder among others, along with their writings on the experience. Since his release he has visited the island over 300 times. Picture: Michel Bega

Politician and former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada speaks about a new book launched by the Kathrada Foundation called Triumph of the Human Spirit, Ahmed Kathrada and Robben Island, 13 August 2015, in Lenasia. The book features photographs of Kathrada accompanying various well known visitors to Robben Island, such as Barack Obama, Fidel Castro, Stevie Wonder among others, along with their writings on the experience. Since his release he has visited the island over 300 times. Picture: Michel Bega

Struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada may have visited Robben Island more than 300 times, escorting various celebrities and statesmen to the famous prison.

But for the 85-year-old, there is just one special visit which sticks out in his mind.

In launching his book Triumph of the Human Spirit in Johannesburg this week, Kathrada told media at a gathering over coffee in Lenasia that accompanying children to the island were among the visits he found most interesting.

The book gives insight into his visits, escorting various individuals over the years. He spent 18 years alongside former president Nelson Mandela on the island. Another eight years were spent at Pollsmoor Prison.

Speaking about his experiences, he said: “I do the talking… they listen. President (Barack) Obama had to listen.”

But it was 13-year-old Michelle Brits of Secunda who still holds a special place in Kathrada’s heart. She had been struck by leukaemia during Mandela’s presidency. The child had just two wishes, he said. The first was to visit Robben Island, and the second was to meet the president.

“Michelle Brits… was dying of leukaemia… she was aware she was going to die…  How a child of 13 from Secunda had those wishes I can’t answer.”

His next step was to approach Madiba, asking if the child could visit him.

“I said whether I could bring this child to visit him. His response was: ‘We can’t give that trouble to the child. We must rather go to Secunda to visit her,’ and that’s exactly what we did.”

He recalls visiting the family last year and they had shown him videos of Mandela’s visit in 1998.

“The entire town had come to see him.”

The Brits family’s lawn and fencing had been destroyed by all the people clamouring to see Mandela, Kathrada said. But they said they did not mind, he added.

“She (Mrs Brits) was just so overwhelmed that the president was coming.”

After his visit Kathrada accompanied Michelle’s parents to the graveyard where they paid their respects at her final resting place.

“Because she was dying and she knew she was dying, she chose the site where she wanted to be buried.”

Speaking about the book, Kathrada said the experience of each visit to Robben Island depended on the person he had accompanied.

“But the most inspiring thing is when I accompany children. Children have got their own questions, which are very down to earth questions that sometimes adults don’t want to ask. We welcome all visitors but children in their own way are special because they ask different questions.”

He recalls his first visit being a traumatic one and the rest having become routine.

“But one still reacts sometimes…”

He has never rejected an invitation to accompany people to the island. However, the visits do become tiring at times and Kathrada is in talks with officials to buy a house on the island. He hopes to also use it to entertain and offer some hospitality to those he accompanies.

 

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