Ahmed Kathrada has been immortalized in a new book titled ‘Conversations with a Gentle Soul’ that which takes us on a journey of his life and personal experience during the struggle era of South Africa.
The following extract is from the book that was launched this past Saturday and will hit bookstores this week at a recommended retail price of R175.
We live in a democracy in South Africa now, largely thanks to the sacrifices of Kathy and his comrades and many others through the decades and centuries. We have human rights enshrined in our Constitution. Our law allows us to stand up today without fear. We have the right to protest.
Back in Kathy’s day you needed real courage to oppose apartheid. Detainees and prisoners needed to be very brave.
Buoyed by increased powers, by the 1960s police would stop at nothing to get their prisoners to talk. To get them to implicate themselves and others. There was torture. There was murder. Just the threat of harm against themselves or their loved ones caused some to break down and talk.
Like Mandela, Kathy doesn’t regard himself as a particularly courageous person. But he stood up at a time when human rights were wholly absent in South Africa.
The honour of being known as brave or heroic is for others. Kathy prefers to remain in the background. Raise with him the concept of courage and he quickly turns to those who
were said not to be courageous under duress. He comes to their defence.
This is where his empathy and compassion really emerge. He makes it crystal clear that he himself was never tortured. He cannot imagine how he would have survived it, what a human being would do to come out alive.
‘We don’t hold it against people who broke down under torture. I don’t know what I would have done under torture. I can never say. As brave as I can talk today, I can’t guarantee it. I’d say with the vast majority of people very few weakened and did something that they should not have done but by and large people stuck to their principles.’
Kathy’s ‘more than a brother’ is Laloo Chiba. He visits him in Lenasia every Wednesday for breakfast, if circumstances permit. They speak on the phone virtually every day.
They spent eighteen years together in Robben Island Maximum Security Prison. Before Laloo got there he was severely tortured by police in the run-up to his own court case, the ‘Little Rivonia Trial’. Despite the fact that they were together in jail for nearly two decades, the first Kathy had
heard of the detail of the assaults was when Chiba testified at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the1990s and took him along for moral support.
‘We had to persuade him to testify. Laloo ended off by asking the commissioners whether he can just say something and they allowed him. At the end of his evidence he said, “I want to apologise to the public that under torture I screamed”.’
Kathy’s voice cracks. ‘That’s Laloo. He must have thought it was unrevolutionary to scream.’
It’s people like Laloo Chiba that Kathy holds up to adulation when he is asked to talk about courage and other noble characteristics.
‘One of our comrades broke down in custody without having been given even a smack. They just told him, “If you don’t talk we’re arresting your wife”. He broke down.
‘He gave information. But, in fairness to him, he smuggled a message out. He said, “Look, comrades, I broke down. These are the names I’ve disclosed”.’
‘But you were courageous too. You still are.’
‘I think courage is also instinctive, depending on the situation.
I can’t say I’ve got courage. I can’t go into a fight now easily. I don’t think I’ve got the courage.’
‘Madiba himself spoke about courage; he said it’s not a matter of not being afraid, it’s appearing to not be afraid.’
‘That’s also true; it may apply to me, I’m sure. I wasn’t exempt from that. I must have been scared of something but I have said publicly that I cannot say even today that I won’t
break down under torture.’
‘Courage is not something you switch on and off.’
Listening to this soft-spoken man, this anti-hero, I realise that courage simply came with the territory. Step by step, as he and his comrades went on, driven by their ideals, they had
to be brave. It was not an independent quality they had to cultivate.
‘Courage is tested under challenging situations,’ Kathy says.
‘You meet a situation and you adjust to it.’
‘One of your most challenging situations was when you were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in July 1963, and detained under the Ninety Day Detention Act, right? How did you handle that?’
‘Well, one thing I can claim is that I never felt so depressed as to give up, as to even think of giving up.’
‘How was it? It’s difficult to imagine really what it is to be arrested and find that you can be kept for ninety days without anyone knowing where you are.’
‘I’ll never forget that, because you’ve got no books, you’ve got no newspapers, you’ve got no visitors, no lawyers, nothing. You can’t even speak to your colleagues. You’re alone. The
only visitors you get are the police. Right from the moment of detention their intention was to crush our morale. They didn’t succeed, of course.’
‘What happens to you? Do you feel you might go crazy?’
‘In that Ninety Day thing I spent days and days just walking up and down in my cell and trying to remember things.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘That is the time I call “the explosion of memory”, when these things come back. This policeman called Swanepoel came to interrogate me and I quoted this Afrikaans poem.’
‘How does it go?’
‘I admire a man who stands by his fellow. “Ek hou van ’n man wat sy man kan staan”. It’s a poem I had learned from childhood and it still sticks.’
He continues: ‘“Ek hou van ’n arm wat ’n slag kan slaan”. I like an arm that can strike.’
‘So you quoted from that Jan Celliers’ poem to him? Because he was trying to get you to betray your people?’
‘That’s right. When Swanepoel came and said to me, “Look, I just want two bits of information from you. We will ensure that you get out. We’ll take you to the border and we’ll give you the money because your comrades are going to kill you if they find out, so we’ll see to your safety”. That’s when I recited this to him in Afrikaans. I said, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself when Jan Celliers, your famous poet, taught us this?”’
‘How did he react?’
‘I like to believe that he felt ashamed but I don’t know. That’s what I like to believe because he didn’t react. I went on to say, “If this is what your poet has written, how can you then ask me to betray my comrades?”’
‘Did he stop asking you after that?’
‘Well, he did persist. I don’t know if this poem made the impact I hoped it would, because I continued to refuse to co-operate.