Johannesburg – One of the last remaining Rivonia Trialists has fallen.
Eighty-seven-year-old Ahmed Kathrada, affectionately known as “Kathy” by those close to him, has died after suffering complications from recent surgery for a blood clot.
The stalwart, who spent about 26 years behind bars for trying to overthrow the apartheid regime, will be remembered as an ardent supporter of human rights, a patriot and as someone with a special love for young people.
Whenever he found himself around youngsters, he would always use the opportunity to delve deeper into their lives, find out who they were, what they liked, and what plans they had for the future.
Kathrada was the poster child for what a patriotic South African was meant to be, always keeping in touch with current affairs and offering his wisdom, advice or words of caution where necessary or needed.
Kathrada will be remembered, for the most part, as one of the eight iconic men – including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ray Mhlaba, Dennis Goldberg and Elias Motsoaledi – who were found guilty on charges including conspiracy and sabotage during the famous Rivonia Trial held at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria in 1963.
Kathrada was one of those sentenced to life in prison and hard labour on Robben Island.
At the time, the sentence was welcomed by Kathrada and his fellow co-accused, as the alternative was a death sentence by hanging.
The group was arrested at Liliesleaf, a farm in Rivonia owned by the SA Communist Party, where they were having their last uMkhonto we Sizwe meeting before moving to a new hiding place.
The farm was set up as a front for the underground military wing of the ANC movement.
‘All you people are going to die’
In an interview with Forbes Africa in 2012, Kathrada described how he had noticed a white delivery van pulling up outside the farm on July 11, 1963, the day police swooped in and arrested the men. This was not unusual, as the farm grew and sold vegetables, as part of the front.
However, on that fateful afternoon, not long after noticing the van, he looked out of the window to see uniformed policemen jump out with dogs and batons in hand.
“Sisulu and I, instinctively, without thinking much – we didn’t have time to think – jumped out of the window and we couldn’t go a few metres and the police were there armed with dogs, there was no point in our running forward and we were arrested.
“The first words the policemen said when they arrested us were, ‘All you people are going to die’,” he said.
This was Kathrada’s 18th arrest on political grounds. Although he was then no longer a member of the MK’s Regional Command, he was tried with the others.
In 1964, at the age of 34, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, where he spent the next 18 years with the others in the isolation section, known as B Section, of the Maximum Security Prison. His prisoner number was 468/64.
B Section was the section where those considered by the then-apartheid government as influential leaders or members of banned political organisations were kept. While he was still serving his sentence, the ANC bestowed on him the Isitwalandwe Award, its highest possible accolade.
‘Source of inspiration’
In October 1982, Kathrada was moved to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town to join Mandela, Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni who had been moved there a few months before. He was released on October 15, 1989, at the age of 60. On his release, Kathrada had spent 26 years and 3 months in prison, 18 of which were on Robben Island.
On his release, he was given a hero’s welcome in Soweto where he addressed a crowd of 5 000 people. Kathrada remarked, “I never dreamed I would be accorded such status.”
Walter Sisulu wrote of him, “Kathy was a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old.”
Kathrada was born on August 21, 1929 in the small town of Schweizer-Reneke in the North West province. He was separated from his family at the age of eight and sent to attend an Indian school in Johannesburg because he was not permitted to attend a white or a black school due to the Group Areas act.
While in Johannesburg, he came under the influence of Dr Yusuf Dadoo and the Cachalia brothers, who were leaders of the freedom movement in the former Transvaal, now known as Gauteng.
His political career effectively began when he was merely 12, as a member of the Young Communist League in the Transvaal.
His volunteer work for the SACP led him to meeting ANC leaders Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu in the 1940s.
He enrolled as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1951, but dropped out to pursue his political activism full-time.
In 2012, the institution granted Kathrada an honorary doctoral degree. During his address, his humility shone through.
He thanked the university for “the surprising honour to bestow an honorary doctorate on me”.
“I am ashamed to confess that about 60 years ago I had a brief association with Wits. I spent all of three months of my life as a student. Thereafter, at the age of 22 I succumbed to the attraction of an overseas visit, and I abruptly abandoned my student life to descend into the army of drop-outs. It had to take 19 years to redeem myself,” Kathrada told a hall filled with young and eager graduates.
Very little is known about Kathrada’s private life with his life partner and fellow ANC veteran, Barbara Hogan, who served as Health Minister between 2008 and 2009, and as Public Enterprises Minister between 2008 and 2010.
Hogan was the first white woman to be charged and convicted of treason in October 1982 and sentenced to 10 years in Pretoria Central Prison.
In an interview with Daily Maverick’s Ranjeni Munusamy in 2014, Kathrada said he met Hogan soon after she was released in 1990.
“We struck a relationship and it is still there,” he said at the time.
He noted their common experiences of prison as a binding factor.
Their morning ritual was to have a conversation about what was in the news. Then they would go for a walk around Zoo Lake, if they were staying at their Johannesburg home, or along the promenade if they were in Cape Town at Hogan’s home in Simonstown.
“It is very peaceful there. No unexpected knocks on the door. I can spend the whole day in my pyjamas,” Kathrada said of Simonstown.
The couple was together for decades, and although there are rumours, it is still unclear whether they ever officially got married. They have no children together.
In his later years, Kathrada shied away from commenting on contemporary politics, choosing to only get involved at the branch level.
“I’m quite happy being a branch member. I avoid getting into the controversies as they arise,” he told Munusamy at the time.
Letter to Jacob Zuma
However, this soon changed in 2016 when Kathrada penned a letter to President Jacob Zuma asking him to “submit to the will of the people and resign”.
The letter began with the following words, “Dear Comrade President Zuma. I have agonised for a while before writing this letter to you.
“I have always maintained a position of not speaking out publicly about any differences I may harbour against my leaders and my organisation, the ANC. I would only have done so when I thought that some important organisational matters compel me to raise my concerns.”
He then set out to outline some of the major events that the country had seen, including the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Zuma benefiting unduly on security upgrades made at his Nkandla homestead, former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene being sacked from his job, which sent the rand plummeting, to current Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas publicly announcing that he was approached by members of the Gupta family, who allegedly offered him Nene’s job.
“… Comrade President, are you aware that your outstanding contribution to the liberation struggle stands to be severely tarnished if the remainder of your term as President continues to be dogged by crises and a growing public loss of confidence in the ANC and government as a whole,” Kathrada’s letter read.
“I know that if I were in the President’s shoes, I would step down with immediate effect. I believe that is what would help the country to find its way out of a path that it never imagined it would be on, but one that it must move out of soon.”
In August last year, both Kathrada and Hogan also came out in support of Gordhan during a Hawks investigation against him.
After that, the 87-year-old returned to his private life and made headlines again on March 4, when he was admitted to hospital for dehydration. Doctors later picked up a blood clot on his brain, which they needed to remove.
The Foundation’s Neeshan Balton said Kathrada was stable and recovering well after the operation. Eleven days later, Bolton admitted that Kathrada’s recovery was “going slower” than they had hoped, but by March 20, he was described as being in good spirits.
On March 27, the foundation sent a statement saying Kathrada’s condition had become serious, and by the evening it had deteriorated. The Foundation announced early on March 28 that he had died.