Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something, even if only through a brief foreword. Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.
- Nelson Mandela, Foreword to the Memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada
One afternoon around 12-13 years ago, I received a call from the office of the Dean of International Studies at UCLA inquiring if I had any interest in meeting Ahmed Kathrada. I jumped at this rare opportunity. I don’t now recall what had brought Kathrada to Los Angeles, but he was in town on a short visit and the Dean’s office was desperately trying to find someone who could meet with him. There seemed to be little awareness of Kathrada’s stature or the extraordinary place that he occupied in history. But someone in the Dean’s office knew of my interest in the Indian diaspora and its variegated histories; perhaps some also knew of my long-standing interest in anti-colonial movements. And so the privilege of taking Ahmed Kathrada to lunch was all mine.
The man whom I met was of gentle disposition, modest, and extremely well-spoken. Many times after that meeting with him, I wish I had taken a tape recorder and sought his permission to record our conversation; but, then, at other times I have thought to myself that I did the right thing in just treasuring that moment. How often Kathrada must have been recorded and surely many times he must have wished that he could speak without the slightest let or hindrance? Ahmed Kathrada was ‘Kathy’ to his friends—and what friends they were: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, and many others who were among those convicted in the great Rivonia Trial and still others who had the privilege of being at the helm of leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). Kathy, or “Uncle Kathy” as he came to be known later in life to his countrymen and women who adored him, was Witness Number 3 at the Rivonia Trial, following Witness Number 1 Nelson Mandela and Witness Number 2 Walter Sisulu. Convicted like the others of organizing a “revolution” and “of the crime of conspiracy”, which Judge de Wet described as being “in essence one of high treason”, Kathrada was similarly sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with hard labor. He would spend over 26 years behind bars, nearly 18 of them in the company of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island.
Born in 1929 on August 21 of Gujarati Muslim parents in Schweizer-Renke, a small town in northern South Africa, Kathrada moved to Johannesburg as a small child with his parents and entered political life in his late teens. A fellow Gujarati by the name of Mohandas Gandhi had already left his mark on South African politics; but Gandhi, though he spent some twenty odd years in South Africa, eventually made his way back to India. Kathrada was first and always a South African, deeply committed to the fundamental idea expressed in the Freedom Charter, namely that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”. Kathrada served out his first prison sentence when he got picked up for his participation in the “Passive Campaign” organized by the South African Indian Congress in 1946 and for his opposition to legislation that restricted Asian land ownership. In the early 1960s, after some in the ANC including Mandela had renounced their allegiance to nonviolence, Kathrada went underground and became part of the ANC’s armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, or “MK”). It is at Lilliesleaf, a ‘safe home’ in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, that Kathrada along with several others would be apprehended and indicated on charges of trying to overthrow the government.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” These are the famous words with which Nelson Mandela commenced his ‘speech from the dock’ at the Rivonia Trial, which opened in April 1964. They could easily have been said by Kathrada. Much in that historic trial has been eclipsed by Mandela’s justly famous address; but Kathrada’s exchange with Dr. Percy Yutar, the lead prosecutor for the state, is no less compelling, not just as an illustration of court theatricals but also as a statement of the astuteness and moral courage of an auto-didact. Time and again, Yutar sought to drive a wedge between Kathrada, an “Indian”, and his black comrades; but Kathrada dealt with him summarily, with an admirable firmness and probity of purpose. Here is one exchange:
Yutar: Were there any traitors among your own people, the Indian people?
AMK: I suppose there are. There are traitors among all people, Indians, Jews, South Africans, Afrikaners, the lot.
Yutar: And what are you going to do with the traitors, let’s deal just with your people, the Indian people?
AMK: My Lord, when it comes to traitors, they are traitors. Whatever colour they are, they are traitors. I hope they will all be dealt with similarly.
And, on another occasion, when asked if he knew George Naicker and if he was a “co-religionist”, Kathrada replied: “Co-religionist? He’s a Hindu and I’m a Moslem.” And so followed this exchange: “Oh yes, but an Indian?” “Yes. Two different religions.” “Billy Nair?” “I know Mr Billy Nair.” “Also an Indian?” “Also an Indian.” “Yes, and?” “And a human being.” “If you’re trying to be smart with me, I’m prepared to take it.” “I don’t know why you keep on saying co-religionist and Indian.”
Kathrada was far more than what Yutar, for all his legal expertise, could handle. He was intent on establishing, with “evidence, documents and otherwise”, that Kathrada was “nothing else but a communist agitator”. To this, Kathrada issued a scathing and yet matter-of-fact riposte:
AMK: That’s your opinion. I don’t know what you mean by a communist agitator.
Yutar: That you are a member of the Communist Party and that your job is to agitate people to make them believe that they are oppressed and trying to incite them!
AMK: My Lord, I thought we had solved this problem already. We don’t have to make any non-Europeans believe that they are oppressed. They know they are oppressed.
Much has been said in the obituaries that have been written of Kathrada of the last twenty-five years of his life that he spent as a free man in the continued service of South Africa. He served as Counselor to President Nelson Mandela and took charge of the Robben Island Trust, escorting world leaders, among them Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, as much as school children to this prison that its famous inhabitants lovingly characterized as a University. Shakespeare, as Ashwin Desai has shown in his remarkable book, flourished on Robben Island. What, however, struck me most when I met Kathrada was the complete lack of rancor, the absence of the slightest note of bitterness at having been robbed of the best years of his life. I suspect that this graciousness and magnanimous attitude derived from a set of circumstances, among them his long years of friendship and fellowship with the likes of Mandela and Sisulu, the example of Gandhi, and his adherence to Islam. Kathrada remained resolutely secular to the end; but, though is something that secularists have a hard time comprehending, he derived his very secularism from his faith as a Muslim.
It is very likely, too, that in years to come Kathrada’s name will resonate as a striking example of what Indians and Africans working together in a spirit of fellowship can achieve. Even as this is being written, I am ashamed to say, African students in India’s capital have been set upon by unruly groups of young men. The conduct of most urban Indians towards Africans can only be described as execrable. In Africa itself, the legacy of the Indian presence has been mixed at best; but all this is the subject for other commentaries. In South Africa, at least, it cannot be doubted that Indians partook of the freedom struggle in equal measure as black people, even as the apartheid regime insistently and insidiously attempted to divide the population. Kathrada unfailingly resisted these attempts and remained to the very end a resolute advocate of the idea of a multi-racial South Africa. For this alone, he should be remembered as a colossus of both the struggle against apartheid and the effort to achieve a truly democratic South Africa.