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Posts Tagged ‘Ahmed Kathrada’

 

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

 

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Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu

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.

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Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. Copyright: Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

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.

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The State Funeral of Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg on 29 March 2017. Copyright: BBC.

“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.

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Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela with the Clintons.

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.

 

 

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I first heard of Nelson Mandela in 1983 when, on a five-month long trip to Australia where I was traveling as a Thomas Watson Fellow, I encountered an Australian peace activist who had the audacity, as I then thought, to mention him alongside Gandhi as a heroic figure in the fight against oppression.   There was a time, though the present generation has no awareness of this fact except as an abstraction that concerns them little, when there was no internet; and, in the Australian outback, though I hungered for more information, stunned by my interlocutor’s invocation of Mandela’s now famous speech at Rivonia, I had no recourse to a library.

Several months later, back in India, I was distracted by other thoughts and it was not until I commenced my graduate work at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1984 that Mandela once again came to my attention.  The anti-apartheid movement was then in full swing; on university campuses in the United States, the call for sanctions and divestment from corporations that traded with South Africa’s apartheid regime was loud and clear, though it is my impression that university administrations remained largely indifferent to student-led demands that universities disengage in every respect with the brutal system of apartheid.  At the University of Chicago, the public face of the anti-apartheid movement was an Indian graduate student, Sahotra Sarkar, who now holds a professorship in the philosophy of physics and biology at the University of Texas, Austin.  At the end of every rally, invariably accompanied by shouts of ‘Free Mandela’, the motley crowd of radicals and activists would raise their fists to the chorus of ‘Amandla’, the Zulu word for ‘power’ that had become the rallying cry of the African National Congress (ANC).  On one occasion, sometime around 1986, Sahotra announced a 48-hour hunger-strike in an effort to make the university administration more responsive to student demands.  A handful of supporters, myself included, joined him in a sympathetic fast.  This was my most substantive initiation into activist politics.  It will be for the historians to judge how far thousands of such actions, carried out across the world, contributed to Mandela’s release from prison, the eventual dismantling of apartheid, and the birth of a free South Africa.

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison.  Photograph: AP

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison. Photograph: AP

Mandela is no more; yet, as Obama put it in his public pronouncement hours after Mandela’s death, echoing the words said to have been uttered by Secretary of War Stanton upon being told of Lincoln’s assassination, ‘now he belongs to the ages’.  Still, however apposite this thought, there are many critical questions that linger on, and some are called to mind by the deafening noise with which Mandela’s life is now being celebrated even as the last vestiges of everything he stood for have disappeared from our moral compass.  Mandela himself always recognized, even if the American media with its obsessive addiction to the ‘Great Man of History’ theory is too dim-witted to allow for any such admission, that the movement was much greater than him, and that he alone was not called to sacrifice:  countless others, some named, an equal or greater number unnamed, were lost in the struggle against apartheid and its supporters, among them the so-called leaders of the Western world (nowhere more so than in the US) who continued to offer unstinting support to the white despots of South Africa. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Yusuf Dadoo, Steve Biko, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo: the names—and there are many more—roll off the tongue, one after another, each incessantly engaged in a principled struggle to recover the dignity of human beings.

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Nelson Mandela (left) with Walter Sisulu at Robben Island. Photo: Robben Island Museum

All this was known to me by my own reading of South African history, but I was brought to a visceral awareness of the ugly facts of apartheid—and the repertoire of creative and extraordinarily responses to such forms of dehumanization—by a chance meeting with the artist Ronald Harrison on my only visit to South Africa in 2006.  Harrison recognized Albert Luthuli, the greatest exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance in South African history, as his political and spiritual mentor.  Harrison, who passed away virtually unheralded in 2011, has related in his memoirs that he was struck by an epiphany shortly after he embarked upon his career as an artist:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by recalling the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ”?  And so came about Harrison’s painting, ‘The Black Christ’:  unable to recognize the living Christs in their midst, apartheid’s ideologues and assassins, who had already claimed the great Luthuli as one of their victims, staging his death as an ‘accident’ on the railway tracks close to his home, would go on to imprison and torture Harrison.  For thirty-five years, Harrison’s painting, which the apartheid state’s censors would not permit to be exhibited, languished in a London basement home.  Yet, when I met Harrison for the first time in 2006, he held no grudge against his oppressors:  much like Mandela, he worried that we might become akin to those we despise.  As he was to write movingly in The Black ChristA Journey to Freedom (2006), “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”

Ronald Harrison, "The Black Christ," oil on canvas, 1962.  Copyright: Ronald Harrison

Ronald Harrison, “The Black Christ,” oil on canvas, 1962. Copyright: Ronald Harrison

It is, of course, these very qualities of generosity, forgiveness, and compassion that have endeared Mandela to people around the world.  It is also precisely these qualities that were never even remotely on display among the political leaders and elites of the West, when the African National Congress called for a worldwide resistance to the apartheid regime, who are now outdoing each other in their craven attempt to be viewed as being on the right side of history.  If this is the time to remember what Mandela stood for, it is also the time to remember that the United States, France, and Britain insistently, repeatedly, and unfailingly vetoed mandatory United Nations resolutions in the Security Council calling for sanctions against South Africa under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  Many will suggest that such ‘hypocrisy’ is indisputably a part of the game of politics, but why then celebrate Mandela’s life at all?  The African National Congress was, of course, closely allied to the South African Communist Party, and Mandela remained keenly aware, to the end of his life, of the immense price paid by Dadoo, Slovo, and others stalwarts of South African communism.  It is to Mandela’s credit that he never disowned those friends and supporters who stood by him during his difficult years, among them the much reviled Fidel Castro and even Muammar Gaddafi.

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Nelson Mandela with Muammar Gaddafi in 1997. Photo: AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images

There are, for those interested in Mandela’s life and even more so the history of the long struggle against apartheid, many questions that remain to be asked.  While Chief Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Peace (though this is commonly forgotten), and the principal architect of the ANC’s policy of boycott in 1959, offered nothing but unwavering support to Mandela, notwithstanding his own principled conviction in the power of nonviolent resistance, Mandela’s own part in having contributed to the partial evisceration of Luthuli’s legacy and even the public memory of Luthuli will no doubt be investigated in years to come.  One could also probe whether Mandela’s three-decade long term in prison had, in various ways, the effect of obfuscating his understanding of globalization. But these considerations, and many more, pale before the most pressing question that should be present to those living in the US, Britain, and France, among other countries in the global North.  Why did not these countries do more to offer support to the African National Congress and the movement of resistance to oppression?  Whatever damage apartheid did to Mandela, it surely also caused irreparable damage to the West.  There is perhaps no more glaring evidence of this than the fact that growing inequality strikes at the very root of these societies.  To take cognizance of Mandela’s life is to acknowledge that various forms of apartheid have crept into what are ostensibly free societies.

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