Ahmed Kathrada: South Africa’s Anti-apartheid Veteran Dies

Veteran South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada has died aged 87, his foun­da­tion says. It says Mr Kathrada passed away peace­ful­ly in a Johannesburg hos­pi­tal “after a short peri­od of ill­ness, fol­low­ing surgery to the brain”.

Along with Nelson Mandela, Mr Kathrada was among eight African National Congress activists sen­tenced to life impris­on­ment in 1964. They were con­vict­ed of try­ing to top­ple the white minor­i­ty government.

He is due to be buried on Wednesday at a pri­vate cer­e­mo­ny, but President Jacob Zuma has said that flags should fly at half mast in his hon­our and that pub­lic memo­r­i­al ser­vice will also be held. Mr Kathrada, affec­tion­ate­ly known as Kathy, was not only one of Mr Mandela’s clos­est friends, but also a human rights activist in his own right who had a long his­to­ry in the strug­gle against dis­crim­i­na­tion and apartheid, says the BBC’s Milton Nkosi.

The death of Ahmed Kathrada empha­sis­es that a gold­en gen­er­a­tion of anti-apartheid heroes has near­ly gone.

Along with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, he was part of a group untaint­ed by cor­rup­tion, act­ing as a moral com­pass for the nation. His gen­er­a­tion lit­er­al­ly gave up most of their adult lives to fight to lib­er­ate black peo­ple from the yoke of white minor­i­ty rule. “Uncle Kathy” stayed rel­e­vant to the strug­gle of the down­trod­den till the end.

He was crit­i­cal of the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion, ask­ing President Zuma to resign fol­low­ing a damn­ing court judge­ment against the pres­i­dent. His sig­nif­i­cance in the anti-apartheid strug­gle was also to dera­cialise it.He proved that the fight was not just left for black Africans to wage on their own, and that is how I will remem­ber him.

What was apartheid?

Apartheid was a legalised sys­tem of dis­crim­i­na­tion against non-white peo­ple intro­duced in South Africa in 1948. But laws that dis­crim­i­nat­ed against non-whites exist­ed pri­or to that. Born into a fam­i­ly of Indian ori­gin in 1929, Mr Kathrada was affect­ed by those laws.

Why was he jailed?

Mr Kathrada spent more than 26 years in prison, 18 of which were on the noto­ri­ous Robben Island, where Mr Mandela was also jailed. He was arrest­ed in 1963, along with sev­er­al oth­ers, at a farm in the Johannesburg sub­urb of Rivonia. They had been meet­ing there in secret to plan the armed strug­gle against the apartheid government.

The fol­low­ing year Mr Kathrada was found guilty of con­spir­ing to com­mit acts of vio­lence. Seven oth­er defen­dants, includ­ing Mr Mandela, were also con­vict­ed of con­spir­a­cy and three oth­er charges.

They all received life sen­tences and most went on to spend the major­i­ty of their time in jail on Robben Island.

Under apartheid, even pris­on­ers were treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on their racial ori­gin: White pris­on­ers got the most priv­i­leges, fol­lowed by those of Indian ori­gin, while black peo­ple got the least.

Mr Kathadra refused to accept his priv­i­leges unless they were also extend­ed to his black comrades.

Ahmed Kathrada and President ObamaImage copy­rightEPA
Image cap­tionAhmed Kathrada showed President Barack Obama around Robben Island in 2013

In 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor prison on the main­land, from where he was freed in 1989.

After South Africa’s first demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions in 1994, President Mandela per­suad­ed Mr Kathrada to join him in gov­ern­ment as his polit­i­cal adviser.

Mr Kathrada left par­lia­ment in 1999, but remained active in politics,

He went on to chair the Robben Island Museum Council, set up to pre­serve the prison as part of South Africa’s heritage.

A life of struggle

Ahmed Kathrada. Photo: December 2013Image copy­rightEPA

He was the fourth of six chil­dren born in the North West Province, pre­vi­ous­ly known as Western Transvaal.

Mr Kathrada was a cam­paign­er from a young age and joined the Young Communist League at the age of 12.

He lat­er became a mem­ber of the Transvaal Indian Congress, which spear­head­ed cam­paigns against laws that dis­crim­i­nat­ed against Indians, and joined their protests at 17.

In 1952, he received a sus­pend­ed sen­tence for help­ing to organ­ise an anti-apartheid defi­ance cam­paign, with black activists includ­ing Mr Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

Four years lat­er he was charged with high trea­son, but was acquit­ted after a long trial.

In 1962 he was placed under house arrest and then took his activ­i­ties under­ground to work with the mil­i­tary wing of the African National Congress.

Pain ‘same as Mandela’

Fellow anti-apartheid cam­paign­er Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has been reflect­ing on the news of Mr Kathrada’s death. “I’m expe­ri­enc­ing the same pain I was expe­ri­enc­ing at the death of Madiba [ex-hus­band Nelson Mandela]. When Madiba passed on, part of his soul was left in Kathy, he was just an exten­sion of our family.

So, the pain is the same, and some­how it feels like a clo­sure of a chap­ter in history.

A very painful chap­ter, of men and women who ded­i­cat­ed them­selves to this coun­try, who fought for their val­ues and prin­ci­ples they thought we’d instil in our society.”

South Africa’s Nobel Peace lau­re­ate Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also added his voice:

Ahmed Kathrada was one of those lead­ers. A man of remark­able gen­tle­ness, mod­esty and steadfastness.

He once wrote to the pres­i­dent to argue that he did not deem him­self impor­tant enough to be award­ed a high honour.”

What happened to the Rivionia defendants?

A composite showing all those found guilty at the Rivonia trialImage copy­rightREUTERS
Image cap­tionThe eight men found guilty at the Rivonia tri­al were (clock­wise from the top left) Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi

After Mr Kathrada’s death, there are only two sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the group who were con­vict­ed at the Rivonia tri­al in 1964.

Denis Goldberg, 83, con­tin­ues to speak out on South African pol­i­tics. He told the BBC that “Kathy” was “much more than a friend. [He was] a com­rade. We faced the prospect of the gal­lows together”.

Andrew Mlangeni, 91, is also still alive. He served as an MP in the coun­try’s first demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed par­lia­ment from 1994 to 1999.

Nelson Mandela died in 2013 at the age of 95. He became South Africa’s first demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent in 1994.

Walter Sisulu died in 2003 at the age of 90. He was deputy pres­i­dent of the ANC from 1991 to 1994.

Govan Mbeki died in 2001 at the age of 91. He served in the upper house of South Africa’s par­lia­ment from 1994 to 1999. His son Thabo suc­ceed­ed Mr Mandela as president.

Raymond Mhlaba died in 2005 at the age of 85. He served as the nation­al chair­per­son of the South African Communist Party, he also was the coun­try’s high com­mis­sion­er in Rwanda and Uganda.

Elias Motsoaledi died in 1994 at the age of 69 the day before Mr Mandela was inau­gu­rat­ed as pres­i­dent. Story orig­i­nat­ed here.