Well-known anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada passed away last week at the age of 87. The legendary activist, more affectionately known as Uncle Kathy, was one of the most influential political figures in South Africa. Kathrada, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment during the Rivonia Trial for acts of sabotage. He spent a total of 26 years in prison for which he served 18 years on Robben Island before he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. At the age of 60 he was officially released. Ahmed Kathrada became politically active at a young age and spent most of his life as a steadfast political activist.

As a teenager, Kathrada became involved in the Youth Communist League and Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. At the age of 17, he and approximately 2 000 others were arrested for taking part in acts of civil disobedience to oppose the “Ghetto Act”. This act sought to curtail political representation and land ownership of Indians in Natal.

In 1951, Kathrada attended a Congress of the International Union Students in Warsaw. While there, he was able to visit the concentration camps at Auschwitz. As a result of this experience, he was reinvigorated to end the situation in South Africa.

In 1952, the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress launched the “Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws”, which sought to oppose laws that included the Pass Laws and the Group Areas Act. Kathrada, as one of the main organisers of the campaign, and 20 others were charged and given a suspended sentence of nine months for their roles in the campaign.

He helped to organise the multi-racial “Congress of the People” in 1955 at which the Freedom Charter was adopted. In 1961, he was arrested again for serving on a strike committee that opposed Verwoerd’s plan to turn South Africa into a Republic. A year later, he was forced into 13 hours of house arrest each day. However, this did not stop him and he continued attending meetings at the secret underground headquarters of the ANC in Rivonia. It was here that he was arrested and eventually given a life sentence at the age of 34. In an interview with Al Jazeera titled “Ahmed Kathrada: The Robben Island Diaries”, he spoke of the unequal treatment different races received in prison. Mixed race prisoners were given long trousers and socks while black prisoners were forced to wear shorts without socks. He and the other prisoners “had to continue to fight for equality in everything” and therefore he never sought preferential treatment. Along with others, he would go on hunger strikes to resist unequal treatment within the prison.

While in prison, Kathrada obtained four degrees – one in History and Criminology, the other in Library Science and African Politics, and two honours degrees in African Politics and History from the University of South Africa.

He was released in 1989 and from 1994 to 1999 he served as a parliamentary counsellor to then-President Mandela.

Dr Thula Simpon, History lecturer and South African liberation struggle researcher at the University of Pretoria, said that Kathrada played a pivotal part in the evolution of resistance movements. In the 1940s the ANC Youth League viewed themselves as Africanist, but by the 1950s they considered themselves multi-racialists. Dr Simpson said that this was due to the fusion of groups like the Indian Congress and the Coloured Peoples Congress with the ANC. However, the friendship between Kathrada and Mandela “was pivotal with regards to forming that non-racial unity.”

Kathrada remained politically active for the rest of his life. He was notably outspoken about the situation between Palestine and Israel, and about President Jacob Zuma. In a letter to Zuma in 2015 he pleaded for the President to resign. He wrote, “There comes a time in the life of every nation when it must choose to submit or fight. Today I appeal to our President to submit to the will of the people and resign.” Dr Simpson adds that Kathrada was highly concerned about the state of the ANC and the direction that they were taking and “died feeling that there was work to be done.”

Kathrada was also an ardent supporter of finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. In 2016, while Gordhan was under investigation by the Hawks, Kathrada and his wife reaffirmed their support for Gordhan by sending out the following press release: “Dear Pravin, we recall your courageous and consistent struggle record as a freedom fighter and later as minister. Try as they may; no mischievous elements will succeed in their nefarious efforts to dent your contribution.”

He is survived by his wife, former Cabinet Minister, Barbara Hogan.

Image: Shaun Sproule

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