SOUTH African liberation movement paid tribute to veteran leader Ahmed Kathrada who died on March 28, aged 87 after a long illness. Kathrada was one of the 11 original defendants at the 1963-64 Rivonia trial alongside ANC president Nelson Mandela and general secretary Walter Sisulu. He was imprisoned for 26 years on the notorious Robben Island prison off Cape Town alongside scores of ANC leaders. He later dedicated himself to the cause of Palestinian freedom and Palestinian prisoners detained in Israeli prisons.
Kathrada was born in the small Transvaal town of Schweizer-Reneke in a family of Muslim emigrants from Surat. He shifted to Johannesburg for studying in an Indian school. At the age of 12, he joined the Young Communist League and took part in passive resistance campaigns against the apartheid regime. He left the Indian high school at 17, to work for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council, in its struggle against the ‘ghetto act’ that restricted Asian land ownership. He was arrested during the course of his struggle and sent to a month in jail in Durban. This was the first of his many jail sentences.
After his release, Kathrada once again immersed himself in the resistance movement. Disillusioned with the passive resistance movement, Kathrada joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s military wing and went underground. Kathrada played an important role in planning and executing the journey of Mandela across the South African border to attend a meeting of African leaders in Ethiopia.
Uncle Kathy, as he was known, was arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, in north Johannesburg, headquarters of the African National Congress’s armed struggle, and was charged with plotting the overthrow of the government. The raid on the headquarters and subsequent arrests dealt a severe blow to the armed struggle. Mandela, who was already arrested and jailed on Robben Island, was flown in to join the arrested men on trial. The conduct of Kathrada along with Mandela and Walter Sisulu, during the course of the trial, played an important role in exposing the brutality of the apartheid regime.
Kathrada, given an opportunity to appeal for a reduction in his sentence, refused and spent more than 25 years in prison. In prison, Kathrada obtained four degrees through correspondence courses. Though studies were banned subsequently when a copy of Mandela’s autobiography was dug up in the prison yard, Robben Island itself became an informal university as the inmates would discuss history and politics, working in the limestone quarry.
Kathrada was freed in October 1989 at the age of 60. Kathrada was given the ANC’s highest award in 1992 “for his selfless dedication to the struggle for a free democratic non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.”
He was a member of the South African Communist Party till 1992. In its tributes, SACP stated: “Comrade Kathrada hated injustice in every aspect it reared its ugly head.” Kathrada was laid to rest at Johannesburg’s West Park Cemetery, followed by a memorial service led by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.