[Marxism] Ahmed Kathrada, Anti-Apartheid Activist in South Africa, Dies at 87
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 29 08:34:34 MDT 2017
NY Times, Mar. 30 2017
Ahmed Kathrada, Anti-Apartheid Activist in South Africa, Dies at 87
By SEWELL CHAN
Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison, many of them alongside his
close friend Nelson Mandela, for resisting the apartheid system of white
minority rule in South Africa, died on Tuesday in Johannesburg. He was 87.
The death was announced by Mr. Kathrada’s foundation. He had been
hospitalized this month with a blood clot in his brain.
President Jacob Zuma ordered flags to be displayed at half-staff and
said that Mr. Kathrada would receive a “special official funeral.” Mr.
Zuma’s office called Mr. Kathrada a “stalwart of the liberation struggle
for a free and democratic South Africa.”
Born to an Indian Muslim family, Mr. Kathrada was the most prominent
Asian South African in the movement to end apartheid, the system of
racial segregation and white domination.
Active in leftist politics since his teenage years, he came to
prominence in July 1963, when he was arrested with other anti-apartheid
activists in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, where the South
African Communist Party and the armed wing of the outlawed African
National Congress had purchased an isolated farm to use as a meeting
place. Among the others arrested was Walter Sisulu, secretary general of
That October, Mr. Kathrada was indicted on charges of trying to
overthrow the government, start a guerrilla war and open the door to
invasion by foreign powers. Mr. Sisulu was also indicted, as was Mr.
Mandela, who had been in prison since 1962, but who faced new charges
after the authorities found documents at the Rivonia farm linking him to
the A.N.C.’s armed wing.
The Rivonia trial, which began in April 1964, became a signature moment
in the struggle against apartheid. A high point came when Mr. Mandela,
in a three-hour speech, told the judge that he was “prepared to die” for
“the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live
together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
Eight defendants — including Mr. Mandela, Mr. Sisulu and Mr. Kathrada —
were convicted on June 11, 1964, of plotting a “violent revolution.”
They were sentenced to life in prison, at hard labor.
Mr. Kathrada spent 26 years and 3 months behind bars, 18 of them on
Robben Island, the apartheid regime’s most notorious prison.
Confinement was something of an education: he and his fellow prisoners
deepened their conviction that only continued pressure, at home and
abroad, would help bring about an end to apartheid.
Mr. Kathrada guided President Barack Obama on a tour of Robben Island in
2013. “They did everything to crush our morale,” Mr. Kathrada said about
the treatment of prisoners during his incarceration. Credit Madelene
Cronje/Mail and Guardian, via European Pressphoto Agency
“It really confirmed our belief that the South African authorities do
not suddenly undergo a change of heart,” Mr. Kathrada said in 1989.
He and his compatriots had suspected that they would be arrested, he
said, and had prepared psychologically. They understood, he said, that
the isolation of Robben Island — in cold, shark-infested Atlantic waters
off Cape Town — was intended to break them.
“From the security police to the prison authorities, they tried to
instill into our minds that we would be forgotten in a few years’ time,”
Mr. Kathrada said. “They did everything to crush our morale.”
For the first six months, he said, the prisoners were put to work
breaking stones with hammers. Then they were sent to work in the
prison’s lime quarry for more than a decade. At one point, he said, Mr.
Mandela and Mr. Sisulu were put on a meager ration of rice gruel as
punishment for supposedly not working hard enough.
Mr. Kathrada said that on arriving at the prison he and the mixed-race
convicts were issued long trousers, while black convicts like Mr.
Mandela and Mr. Sisulu had to wear shorts without socks. Even sugar,
coffee, soup and other foods were apportioned to inmates according to
lines of racial hierarchy.
Mixed-race convicts were also spared the brutality that was inflicted on
less prominent prisoners, Mr. Kathrada said, though they were hardly
exempt from mistreatment.
He recalled one night when the guards, “many of them very drunk,”
awakened the convicts, stripped them and forced them against a wall for
a rough search. One inmate, Govan Mbeki, nearly suffered a heart attack,
he said. (Mr. Mbeki was released in 1987.)
The guards’ attempt to humiliate them only stiffened their defiance, Mr.
“Because we were so close to the oppressor, it helped to keep us
united,” he said. They went on hunger strikes to force concessions.
They tried to keep up with events outside by talking to new prisoners,
reading smuggled letters and “begging, stealing and bribing” to procure
“Political prisoners give top priority to keeping themselves informed,”
Mr. Kathrada said, but they sometimes went without news for several
months. They communicated sporadically with the A.N.C. through messages
passed among other inmates.
“In prison, the best comes out and the worst comes out as well, because
of the deprivation and suffering,” he said.
In 1982, Mr. Kathrada, Mr. Mandela, Mr. Sisulu and two fellow activists
were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai.
While in prison, Mr. Kathrada obtained four university degrees, two in
history and two in African politics.
He was 60 when he was freed, in October 1989.
On his release, he left no doubt that his dedication to the African
National Congress had not waned. “We will carry out whatever the A.N.C.
wants us to do,” he said at the time.
Mr. Kathrada later became a member of Parliament. He wrote several
books. He gave tours of Robben Island, to Margaret Thatcher, Fidel
Castro, Jane Fonda, Beyoncé and, twice, to Barack Obama — in 2006, when
he was a senator and again in 2013, during Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Though Mr. Kathrada remained loyal to the A.N.C. — he served on the
party’s National Executive Committee and ran its public relations
department — in recent years he criticized the scandal-plagued Mr. Zuma,
who has been in office since 2009.
Last April, Mr. Kathrada called on Mr. Zuma to resign, after the
country’s highest court found that the South African president had
violated his oath of office by refusing to pay back public money spent
on renovations to his rural home.
Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada was born on Aug. 21, 1929, in Schweizer-Reneke, a
small town in northern South Africa, the son of Muslim emigrants from
Gujarat in western India. He was introduced to politics when, as a
child, he joined a club run by the Youth Communist League. At 17 he took
part in what was called a “passive resistance campaign” organized by the
South African Indian Congress, and was one of 2,000 people arrested on
the charge of defying a law that discriminated against Indians.
Shortly afterward, he quit school. Selected to visit East Berlin in 1951
for a youth festival, he toured Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration
camp in Poland, before returning to South Africa. In the 1950s he was
arrested several times and monitored by the authorities for his
Mr. Kathrada, who once said that his being denied the ability to have
children was “the greatest deprivation” he endured in prison, is
survived by his longtime partner, Barbara Hogan, a white anti-apartheid
activist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1982 for treason.
She became a government minister after the fall of apartheid in the
In a 2013 interview, Mr. Kathrada said that he and his fellow prisoners
had had it better than those on the outside.
“No policeman could come to Robben Island and start shooting at us,” he
said. “In the Soweto uprising of 1976, we are told, 600 kids were
killed. Others, people we knew closely, tortured to death, shot,
assassinated. We were safe.”
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