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Posts Tagged ‘Nelson Mandela’

In an earlier essay about three weeks ago, I wrote in part on the increasing inability, as it seems to me, of people in our times to live with themselves and with their thoughts. Other commentators have spoken of this age as one of ‘instant gratification’, but I would underscore the word ‘instant’.  Even ‘thoughts’ must be shared instantly.  That essay was prompted by some reflections on the news that the British government had effectively appointed a “minister of loneliness”. Those who are not afflicted by cancer, diabetes, obesity, or a heart condition may nevertheless be overcome by loneliness.  I distinguished between solitude, the virtues of which have been extolled by writers across generations and cultures, and loneliness—the latter a largely modern-day pathology.  Loneliness is not singular either: there is the loneliness that one experiences when one arrives in a large city, knowing no one and feeling somewhat adrift; there is also the loneliness one sometimes feels amidst a very large crowd of people, even a crowd of well-wishers or fellow travelers; and then there is the loneliness in moments of intimacy.  Perhaps some moments of loneliness are also critical for self-realization:  it is, I suspect, only when loneliness becomes the norm that it starts to take on the characteristics of a pathology.

Solitude may perhaps be similarly parsed, but my subject at present is the prison cell and the education that the Reverend James M. Lawson, who turns 90 tomorrow, derived from his time after his first prison term following his arrest and conviction for resistance to the draft in 1950.  I do not speak here of solitary confinement, which in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries alike is nothing but barbarism, but of the prison as a site of reflection, education, contemplation, quietude, as much as a site where revolutionaries have often been made.  The movie industry, to the contrary, has largely feasted on the idea of the prison as a place where criminals are hardened, the will of political prisoners is broken, men are sodomized and women raped, and sadistic prison guards rule like little kings.  In what follows, in two parts, I relay the conversation that transpired between Rev. Lawson and myself, first around Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, and then on the circumstances that led to Lawson’s own confinement to Mill Point Federal Prison in West Virginia.  Our very first conversation took place a few days after the passing of Nelson Mandela in early December 2012; it has been only slightly edited:

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Nelson Mandela, on his return to his cell at Robben Island in 1994, after being elected as the first President of a free South Africa.  Photo:  Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

VL:  I just want to go back to Mandela for a moment.  I think whatever one might say about Mandela and the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the African National Congress], and his decision to embrace violence alongside nonviolence—Mandela was very clear that nonviolence would not be given up entirely—so, whatever one might say about all of that, I think to most people the Mandela that comes to mind is the man who walked out of prison after an eternity in there.  Those years in Robben Island—those become the heroic years.  There are, very often, two kinds of outcomes when people have spent many years in jail, the better part of their lives behinds bars.  One is, they come out really bitter.  And, very often, we know that this has been one of the critiques of the prison system… I mean, other than the kind of argument, which I think you and I are familiar with, and we need not enter into at the present moment, and that’s about the so-called prison industrial complex, about the fact that the prison construction industry is one of the largest revenue earners for the state of California—the whole relationship between the prison complex and capitalism and so on… And I think that those are very important and interesting questions. But, here we are interested in the other outcome, something that may be seen from the life of Mandela.  He came out of prison not just, in a manner of speaking, ‘intact’, however reservedly one might use that word; he came out of it, remarkably, with a more enhanced sense of the need for inclusiveness in a new South Africa.

JL: Stronger in his character and his visions…

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VL: And I daresay this is where his generosity is most palpable…  You know, the way in which he decides to handle certain problems, the way in which he decides to look at the whole issue of, well, what are we going to do with the Afrikaners now, what will be the place of white people in this society?… And this is where, as I said, his sense of inclusiveness is really very palpable. Much the same can be said for people like Gandhi, King, Nehru, and many others who spent [time in jail].

JL: Also, Castro.

VL: Castro… I hadn’t quite thought of him in this regard, but you may be right, when we think of the two years to which he was confined to jail by Bautista.  But many people who served fairly long prison terms, they actually –in the case of Gandhi, I am quite certain of that because I’ve looked  at his life in very great detail, I think that he almost welcomed prison terms because . . .

JL: He did.

VL: . . . it helped him to renew his sense of life, it energized him, it also gave him solitude; he was far from the maddening crowds, it gave him time for deep introspection and reflection.  And I think that this is what happens in Mandela’s life, too.  Now, here perhaps Mandela had far too much time for introspection, so to speak, because I have the distinct feeling that one of the things that happened is that Mandela really was no longer in contact with what was happening in the wider world outside; he no longer had the full pulse of the nation he would later have guide through the first flush of freedom.

JL: But, but, he turns Robben Island into what they called at one point the University.

VL:  Absolutely.

JL:  The prisoners, sharing what they did know, really engaged in long conversations about their situation, about their country, about their philosophy.  And that, of course, he may have learned from Gandhi.  I learned it from Gandhi. And that is very clear in Gandhi’s life.  I’ll never forget the first time I was arrested in Nashville, in 1960.  I was physically exhausted, though very intellectually and spiritually alive.  And I welcomed the knowledge that the police issued a warrant for me. And we arranged for us to do it jointly. And I went to First Baptist Church, and I was arrested out of First Baptist Church; but I had an armful of books with me that my wife had brought to me from home, and she came to the church.  And as I got arrested, there was a great sigh of relief, and I had these books… and when I hit the jail, my first impulse was, first of all, to sleep through the night, get up in the morning, and begin over with the books. And I’ve read that in Gandhi as well. I’ve read that about Gandhi on two or three occasions.  He welcomed jail in the Champaran campaign. He came to the court ready to go to jail because he knew it was going to be a time for him to do reflection and the rest of it… rejuvenate himself there in the isolation that he would have.

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Yerwada Central Jai, Pune, where Gandhi was confined more than once.

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VL: And he’d had that experience already in South Africa.

JL: That’s right. Exactly.

VL: You’re right by the way about the prison yard at Robben Island being turned into a university.  There’s an Indian sociologist in South Africa by the name of Ashwin Desai, a good friend of mine, who published a book very recently last year [2011], called “Reading Revolution:  Shakespeare on Robben Island”.

JL:  Oh, really!  My goodness!

VL:   And this whole book is really a study of how people like Mandela and Tambo and Ahmad Kathrada and many others, how they actually read Shakespeare and discussed Shakespeare and each person marked their favorite passage.  Because, of course, to read Shakespeare is also to enter into discussions of ethics, political rebellions, and the whole idea of—we were talking about it earlier—assassinations, as an example.  So, I think that what you are saying is absolutely on the mark.  Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions that have to be entertained, such as Mandela’s views on globalization–what did he really understand by globalization? Because I think, to some extent, Mandela was not sufficiently aware of the manner in which the world has changed in the long years that he was actually confined to prison. When you look at Mandela’s economic policies, what I would call something of a capitulation to free-market policies takes place rather quickly.

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The Robben Island Shakespeare was wrapped in a cover with images of Hindu deities.

(to be continued)

 

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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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