Today South Africa mourns the loss of political activist and struggle hero, Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada. Asked during a recent SAFM interview how he would like to be remembered, Kathrada replied “as someone who tried to make a contribution. We tried”. Looking at the story of this great man, it is clear that Ahmed Kathrada did a lot more than just try.

Ahmed Kathrada and Molvi Yusuf Cachalia, members of the Transvaal Indian Congress, circa 1950
Ahmed Kathrada and Molvi Yusuf Cachalia, members of the Transvaal Indian Congress, circa 1950

Known popularly as ‘Uncle Kathy’, Kathrada’s strong moral compass was evident from a very young age – at just 12 years old Kathrada joined the Young Communist League of South Africa, helping to distribute pamphlets for the organisation; and in his early teens, during WWII, became involved in the anti-war campaign of the Non-European United Front. Unable to attend school in his hometown of Schweizer Reneke – due to the racial policies of the time, Kathrada could not be admitted to any of the ‘European’ or ‘African’ schools – he traveled to Johannesburg where he enrolled at Johannesburg Indian High School. In Joburg Kathrada came to know various members of the Transvaal Indian Congress and the ANC, including Dr. Yusuf Dadoo,  Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.

Police photo of Ahmed Kathrada at the time of his arrest at Liliesleaf Farm, July 1963
Police photo of Ahmed Kathrada at the time of his arrest at Liliesleaf Farm, July 1963

With his commitment to the struggle growing, Kathrada participated in the Passive Resistance Campaign (1946-1948) which sought to oppose the ‘Ghetto Act’ that restricted occupation and ownership of land by Indians. Kathrada’s involvement in the campaign led to his first arrest at the age of 17, when he was imprisoned in Durban for a month. But this was just the beginning. Over the course of the next two decades Kathrada would be arrested a total of 18 times, including being placed under house arrest where he was not allowed out for 13 hours a day, nor on weekends or public holidays. But despite these restrictions Kathrada continued to work with the ANC, eventually ignoring his banning orders and going underground.

In July 1963, the police raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which was being used by members of the ANC and the Communist Party for clandestine meetings. The raid led to the ‘Rivonia Trial’, in which Kathrada and seven other accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ahmed Kathrada was 34 years old.

Having spent just over 26 years in prison, 18 of which were on Robben Island, Kathrada was finally released on the 15th October 1989, at the age of 60. On his release, he was given a hero’s welcome in Soweto where he addressed a crowd of 5 000 people. Kathrada remarked, “I never dreamed I would be accorded such status”.

West London Anti-Apartheid group petitioning for Kathrada's release, circa 1970
West London Anti-Apartheid group petitioning for Kathrada’s release, circa 1970

Following his release and the unbanning of the ANC, Kathrada was elected onto the National Executive Committee of the ANC at the party’s  first legal conference which took place in Durban in February 1990. Over the next nine years Kathrada held various political posts, including Member of Parliament, and Parliamentary Counsellor in the Office of the President, until his retirement from politics in 1999.

It is notable that in the introduction to the Wikipedia article on Ahmed Kathrada, a site that normally restricts itself purely to facts, that Kathrada is described as an “honourable man”. There are very few men or women in South Africa who have given so much of their lives to the advancement of our country, and our people, and it is with great sadness that we bid farewell to Uncle Kathy.

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