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Obituary: Kathrada, a humble and stoic revolutionary till the end

28th Apr 2017
Obituary: Kathrada, a humble and stoic revolutionary till the end

Ismail Vadi (left) and the late Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada – August 21, 1929 – March 28 2017

Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada loved ice cream, samoosas and a curry made of mince and methi bhajee, an Indian grown spinach. He enjoyed his jelly bean sweets, which he shared with you only if he was in a jolly mood; and then too, you’ll get only one.

He lived in a simple flat, dressed non-ostentatiously and did not own a fancy car. Since his release from prison in October 1989, he never drove on his own saying that the freeways and busy roads made him feel uneasy.

During the ten years that he served as an MP, I would occasionally drive him and his lifelong friend, comrade and fellow MP, Laloo “Isu” Chiba, from Lenasia to Cape Town, a fifteen-hour trip. These were my most cherished moments as we would have many hours of uninterrupted conversations, often in the expressive Gujarati language, of their lives and experiences in the struggle for freedom.

At face value, Kathy appeared to be an ordinary person, similar to an ageing man living next door. Yet, he was an extraordinary being, leader and revolutionary, who spent his entire life steadfastly in the struggle against colonial domination, economic exploitation, patriarchy and racial oppression based on the policies of the National Party – the party that governed apartheid, South Africa.

Personally, he was genial and gentle, loving and lovable, soft-spoken and compassionate. His remarkable sense of humour at times had a touch of acerbity. Anyone who met him for the first time would have found him charmingly sociable, engaging and endearing.

Politically, he was disciplined, humble, honest, principled, mature, respectful, transparent, frank, courageous and fearless. He never courted controversy; always being a reconciler and unifier in the broader liberation movement. Yet, when it mattered most, he was thoughtful and bold in speaking his mind.

Kathy never hid the fact that he was born into a Muslim family. He was neither overtly religious nor was he anti-religious. In fact, he displayed a high degree of tolerance for the beliefs and practices of people of all faiths.

Emulating his mentor Dr Yusuf Dadoo, shortly after his release from prison we performed the Hajj. Ultimately, he insisted that he be laid to rest according to Islamic prescripts.

Organisationally, he was an activist and senior leader in the Transvaal Indian Congress, the clandestine South African Communist Party, the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the ANC. He served for a while in the Johannesburg regional structure of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). His loyalty to the broader liberation movement was unwavering and he remained a member of the ANC until the last day of his life.

After the historic democratic elections in 1994, he served as Parliamentary Counsellor to former President Nelson Mandela, the Chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council and was the fountainhead of the Kathrada Foundation.

Kathy was a revolutionary intellectual who never displayed any semblance of intellectual arrogance and conceit. When he spoke he had an astounding ability to simplify complex political questions so that even the youngest recruit in his local ANC branch was able to understand the issue at hand.

He was a walking library on liberation history of our country and was often called upon by fellow comrades wishing to publish their biographies, to write the foreword to their books and to check the correctness or otherwise of historical information. They knew he was a stickler for detail and on the historical accuracy of publicly available information on the liberation movement. He was an avid reader, starting daily with all the available newspapers, both in Afrikaans and English.

He was passionate in his support for the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination and lobbied internationally for the release of Marwan Barghouthi and other political prisoners, some of who are being held in Israeli prisons for periods longer than the 26 years and three months that he had been incarcerated. It’s when he spoke about their plight after his visit to occupied Palestine that some traces of his personal anguish of prison life would become manifest.

Confronted by painful difficulties of any kind, Kathy would grow silent and display a steely stoicism. This was poignantly demonstrated when he was denied permission by the cold-hearted Robben Island prison authorities from attending his loving mother’s funeral.

In his letter to his siblings two days later, he said: “It is not possible to condition oneself fully for death. Deep in the recesses of the mind there always flickers a hope that somehow this spectre will be kept away from one’s near and dear ones. One has reasoned and convinced oneself that one day it has to come, yet when the blow strikes the faculties are numbed and one reacts with all the emotion that is normal to human beings.” Oh, haven’t we all felt the same way in the last few days?

He went on to write that “yet we realise that the procession of life moves on. While we honour, remember and always commemorate the dead, we have to think of the present and the future – of the living, especially the young ones.”

In the fitting tributes to this great revolutionary, his funeral on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, was more a political commentary of the present, and possibly the future, than his past. Kathy would have wanted it to be this way.

He was intensely disturbed and concerned about recent developments in the ANC. He stood principally opposed to the ugly forms of factional politics; to corruptive and corroding practices in public life, and to the willful wasting of public resources by some in Government in the face of abject poverty, growing inequality and social deprivation in communities.

What irked him most was the resurfacing of overt expressions of racism in schools, other public spaces and social media. Combating racism was his lifelong mission. When he was asked what should be the defining slogan of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, he almost instinctively blurted out: “Deepening non-racialism, that’s what I stood for all my life!”

He never yielded to any racist attack on his dignity and consistently called on the Foundation to intensify its educational and advocacy work in promoting a non-racial ethos in society.

He compelled many of us to focus on the youth and students in schools, colleges and universities, believing that they are the future generation that will take South Africa forward.

Kathy intimately mentored several thousand young leaders. They drew inspiration from his vast reservoir of knowledge, deep wisdom and noble character. Conversely, he drew inspiration from their youthful energy; their free spirit, and their sense of political daring.

He was clear that the struggle had never really ended with his release from prison or the democratic elections of 1994. As an early recruit to Marxism, he was clear that social contradictions, and consequent struggles, will emerge even as the transition to a democratic order unfolds, resulting in new contradictions and new forms of struggle, only to be resolved by succeeding generations.

He placed his hopes on the youth of our country. He was unequivocal in his support for the recent student struggles at universities and campuses, believing that the youth should shape their own destinies and chart their own course in history. Concomitantly, he was clear that this is not a license to destroy educational infrastructure and permanently damage the culture of learning and teaching at any educational institution.

In the faith that he placed in the youth, his modesty and humility stand out. He never saw himself as a great leader. Until the very end, he regarded himself simply as an activist for change.

In paying tribute to this humble revolutionary and a father figure to me, let me recall the words of Ulysses:

“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves, will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were? How bravely we fought? How fiercely we loved? If they ever live to tell my story, let them say I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die!”

Ismail Vadi

Ismail Vadi is the MEC for Transport in Gauteng Province, South Africa, a Board Member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and a long-time friend of Kathrada.

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