An Iconic Leader & South Africa’s Liberation Hero – Ahmed Kathrada

Uncle Kathy remains a symbolic leader of our troubled past, present and bright future that lies ahead.

ahmed kathrada foundation

The roots of inhumane racism in South Africa (SA) can be traced back to the eightieth century Dutch settlers on the country’s land, subsequent colonisation and the rise to power of the National Party in the mid-1900s which openly and savagely campaigned ‘Put the Kaffirs (Blacks) and Bushmen (Coloureds) in their place and the Coolies (Indians) out of the land’.

Leaders such as Hendrik Verwoerd carefully crafted intended separation and racial indoctrination was harshly introduced into every sphere of social life (schools, the workplace, restaurants) and legislated ‘apartheid’ led to the unimaginable oppression of non-whites who resided in the country.

Anti-apartheid activist, Ahmed Kathrada succinctly states in his book ‘Memoirs’ that:

Apartheid was not just a separation but also a systemic process where we are being destroyed.

It has been over two decades since a new democracy dawned on the southernmost tip of the African continent, accompanied by a world-renowned constitution and a new hard-won freedom. Yet this beautiful country continues to be marked and on a tipping point linked to deep racial tensions, corruption and poor leadership.

Ahmed Kathrada

Legislatively, apartheid may have come to an end, though in our minds/ thoughts, everyday relations and social interaction the effects of apartheid still remain and will be hard to break out of, though possible. There is no doubt that racism continues to persist, its consequences continue to be felt, and we are still being destroyed for as long as it is allowed to supersede our thoughts, actions and remain humiliated and affected by it.

Though progressive steps and the ongoing work of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation (AKF) through its youth programme as well as the launch of an annual anti-racism week by a wide network of civil society organisations is certainly a step in the right direction. In light of an iconic hero’s passing, it would be even more important for his legacy to be continued our current generation to draw on SA’s Nobel Peace-Prize winners and even more so, to focus on the life and times of struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada, more fondly known as a mentor to young SA who we also refer to as our beloved Uncle Kathy.

‘The youth must not take our freedom for granted’

Ahmed Kathrada

At a number of gatherings I’ve heard Uncle Kathy emphasise that ‘freedom did not fall from the sky’. A recent read of the book ‘Memoirs’ generated a deep sense of appreciation of Uncle Kathy’s struggles as well as every recognised and unrecognised struggle heroes and heroines’ profound contribution to SA’s path to democracy. Memoirs touches on the harsh experiences of female prisoner Thenjiwe Mthintso under a brutal SA government (it is recommend you pause, read, re-read and reflect on this before ever taking our freedom for granted):

Women had to strip naked in front of police officers… Fallopian tubes were filled with water until they burst and rats were inserted into female body parts.

Deeply cruel and severe torture conditions extended to many political prisoners fighting for our freedom, a vast number electrocuted and even brutally murdered- it really does leave one cold. Uncle Kathy’s life alone is an epitome of fear, perseverance, sacrifice and foresight, qualities that are hard to come by in today’s context not just nationally but beyond our borders as well. His admirably early start to political life (at just 12 years of age), later followed by an elected position in the Young Communist League (YCL) saw him harmed by what seemed to be a purposeful motorbike accident before leaving for his first international opportunity to Prague.

While he described the Rivonia Trial that eventually led to life-imprisonment on Robben Island as being amusingly ‘boring’, his courage during the trial and perseverance to continue fighting, places him in a league of rare and extraordinary leadership.

Prison conditions were anything but easy, even food was allocated differently; white prisoners received bread and white sugar, while black prisoners received no bread, Uncle Kathy often terms this as ‘No bread for Mandela’.

Watch as Uncle Kathy talks us through the conditions in prison

Inhumane prison conditions included cold showers in frosty weather, no towels provided, given insufficient clothing for the cold Cape winters, complete and extreme isolation or loneliness, long days and even longer nights, medical doctors not treating prisoners correctly/ refusing treatment, no contact with family/ friends/ loved ones.

I was deeply touched when reading how Walter Sisulu was saddened when routinely paging through a family album or how Uncle Kathy felt on the passing of his parents given the little time he had spent with them due to apartheids’ schooling policies- to continue his education he moved to a school in Johannesburg instead of being schooled in his hometown.

On an annual basis, AKF provides an opportunity for the youth to spend time in prisons such as Robben Island. Having been on the trip, one realises that the tiny space, simple mat; cold Atlantic air was all these prisoners had for close to eighteen long years, we simply cannot comprehend the unbearable hardship endured. In ‘Memoirs’ prison Uncle Kathy- describes life

If a single word described Robben Island it would be ‘cold’. Cold food, cold showers, cold winters, cold cells…

Lessons, which should never be forgotten

The African National Congress (ANC) during the mid-1900s was not keen to be affiliated to non-black organisations, moreover it was only much later that Indians despite their sacrifices were able to become members or fully participate in the organisations activities- a condition which hurt Uncle Kathy until progress was made.

However the transition and alignment of organisations eventually dubbed as the ‘Congress Movement’ including the ANC transitioned to having a non-racial and democratic SA. The struggle truly embodied a non-racial nature, with a diversity of individuals in terms of race, age, and religion contributing to our newfound democracy. It is pivotal that we are also cognisant of the role of African states, Soviet Russia, India, China, poverty-stricken Sierra Leone and many other countries in exerting international pressure on the apartheid government and hosting the exile of anti-apartheid activists. These actions were indeed critical in the triumph over apartheid.

Presently, there has been shunning of other races in the country and of our African counterparts through xenophobia as we battle to deal with the remnants of apartheid especially on our economy. It is essential that we never forget this contribution and the foresight of why non-racialism is important in moulding our society instead of tearing it apart- a unity Uncle Kathy outlines (in Memoirs) as being crucial to take the new SA forward.

A legacy of non-racialism will undoubtedly be continued

With the on-going fight against racism, there is much to be learnt from SA’s most beloved icon- Ahmed Kathrada, viewed as one of the most active, accessible and approachable leaders of our time. There are very few leadership programmes, which put youth at a centre as the AKF programme does. It instils the values of the esteemed generation which pursued a legacy of non-racialism in young leaders and which each of us hope to emulate to move SA forward. Uncle Kathy at over eighty years old used to still interact with a vast array of young people through his foundations programme on a regular basis, i.e. we find him pretty hip and happening with the many selfies he grants us though (which we know he also used to secretly love). His zest for life, humility, modest life-style, warmth and kindness teaches us the level of maturity essential for leadership. Many youth are deeply inspired by Uncle Kathy’s life, values and struggle and have pledged to carry out his legacy under his continued leadership and support.

Uncle Kathy remains a symbolic leader of our troubled past, present and bright future that lies ahead. For racism is just one stumbling block, which as illustrated with effective leadership, honesty and unity (and most importantly drawing on lessons of SA’s rich and remarkable history) will undoubtedly be addressed through his legacy and teachings! Long live the spirit of a gentle giant, mentor and extraordinary human being, I for one have been shaped and inspired by you.

Shakira Choonara is a PhD Fellow (Wits, Centre for Health Policy), Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Youth Leader


About Ahmed Kathrada

Deepening non racialism, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation aims to promote a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

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