The South African activist Ahmed Kathrada (1929–2017) was one of the key figures leading resistance to the apartheid system of racial segregation in his country. The son of Muslim shopkeepers, Kathrada was also the most prominent activist of Indian descent.
Ahmed Kathrada was a close associate of African National Congress leader and eventual South African president Nelson Mandela, and the two were imprisoned together at the country's notorious Robben Island detention facility. After the end of apartheid and the inauguration of true multiracial democracy in South Africa in the early 1990s, Kathrada served in the country's parliament and became an advisor to Mandela. He was notable for the long program of education he pursued while in prison and for writing in detail about his experiences there; these writings became important testimony in documenting the practices employed by South Africa's white minority government while enforcing the apartheid system. In helping to smuggle Mandela's writings beyond prison walls, Kathrada became a popular writer and lecturer who freely shared his experiences of apartheid's worst horrors.
The fourth of six children, Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada was born on August 21, 1929, in Schweizer-Reneke in South Africa's North West province. His Muslim parents, immigrants from India, worked as shopkeepers. During his early childhood, Kathrada—nicknamed Kathy by a teacher—was scarcely conscious of race: the most severe apartheid restrictions had not yet come into effect, and in small-town Schweizer-Reneke, the races mixed. “With the innocence of children we were oblivious of any differences between Ahmed and Seretse, and Hendrik,” he explained, according to South African's Mercury newspaper. “And without questioning why, I simply accepted the fact that Mr. David Mtshali (principal of the African school) was coming to our house in the afternoons to teach me ABC, and 1, 2, 3.”
Life changed for Kathrada when his parents decided that he should pursue his education beyond elementary school and sent him to a school for Indian South Africans located in Johannesburg. Beginning at age eight, he lived in the city with an aunt while broadening his knowledge, and he was introduced to politics by Yusuf Dadoo, a South African Muslim involved with the country's Communist Party. Kathrada joined the Young Communist League at age 12, attracted by the party's multiracial membership. “One of the similarities between my childhood years and the Communist League was that it, too, consisted of white, black and Indian children together,” he recalled, as was quoted by Cynthia Billhartz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It was very similar to home, and I felt very comfortable there. That's how political consciousness gradually entered my life.”
Enrolling at the University of the Witwatersrand, Kathrada traveled in 1951 to visit the World War II–era Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the site of nearly 1,000,000 Jewish deaths. The horror of the experience strengthened his activist convictions; he reasoned that what he saw at Auschwitz was the logical extension of the racist governing principles that were now developing in South Africa. The Nazi-era concentration camp was still in the early stage of its metamorphosis into a memorial and tourist site, and as Kathrada told the Mercury, “there were fragments of human bones strewn on the street adjoining the incinerator. In retrospect, it was an error of judgment, but I picked up a few bones which I brought back home, to show the extremities of racism.” Guards at the Nazi site casually told him that these bones were probably just those of Jews.
Returning to South Africa, Kathrada reconnected with Mandela and activist Walter Sisulu. The three, under the joint aegis of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress, organized the 1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws, the first large-scale street demonstrations against apartheid. Arrested, Kathrada went to trial and was given a suspended sentence, although he was also barred from political activity. He ignored the restrictions and between 1952 and 1963 was arrested 18 more times. Kathrada was charged with high treason in 1956 along with 155 other apartheid leaders; after a fouryear trial, the defendants were all acquitted but the ANC was banned. Kathrada was placed under house arrest in 1962, but once again he ignored orders and continued his anti-apartheid activities.
In July of 1963, Kathrada met with leaders of the ANC's militant Umknonto we Sizwe wing at a farmhouse in Rivonia on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The group's members were arrested and indicted on charges of conspiring to overthrow the South African government. Mandela, already in prison, was also charged, and the so-called Rivonia Trial began in April of 1964. The trial became famous in South Africa because of a stirring three-hour speech given by Mandela in his own defense, proclaiming that he was prepared to die for the ideal of a free South African society in which all had equal opportunity. Kathrada expected a death sentence, but he, along with seven other defendants, was convicted and sentenced on June 11, 1964, to life in prison at hard labor.
Kathrada spent the next 26 years in prison, the first 18 of them at Robben Island. His fellow prisoners made him head of their communications committee, which was responsible for getting communications to the outside world. To accomplish his task, Kathrada was aided by a girlfriend, Sylvia Neame, who sewed a pencil lead into a banana she sent him. He used the pencil to write notes on toilet paper and then sew them into his pajamas; the notes were retrieved by another associate and passed to Neame when his clothes were sent out for cleaning. Kathrada was Sisulu's cellmate, and the two often discussed strategy for the continuing struggle against apartheid.
In his memoirs, Kathrada detailed the particularly difficult conditions faced by black inmates at Robben Island. While these men were forced to work outdoors in shorts even in winter, Kathrada, as an Indian, received somewhat better treatment. During his time in prison, he was allowed to enroll in formal studies and he eventually completed degrees in history, criminology, library science, and African politics. Kathrada and most of the other Rivonia group were transferred to Pollsmor Prison in Cape Town in 1982.
Kathrada served only one term in South Africa's Parliament, stepping down in 1999 to devote time to writing. He also accepted a post as chairperson of the Robben Island Council, in which capacity he gave tours of the prison to such foreign luminaries as Barack Obama, who visited on two separate occasions. His prison memoir, Letters from Robben Island, was released in the United States by Michigan State University Press, and his Memoirs were published in 2004, with a foreword by Mandela; a U.S. edition appeared in 2011. In later years, Kathrada emerged as a strong critic of the government of South African president Jacob Zuma, alleging corrupt practices and calling for Zuma to step down.
Kathrada received the ANC's Isithwalandwe Award, marking his long service to the organization. He was also awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Massachusetts (2000), the University of Durban–Westville (2002), the University of Missouri (2004), and Michigan State University (2005). In March of 2017, Kathrada underwent brain surgery to remove a blood clot and subsequently developed pneumonia. He died in Johannesburg on March 28, 2017, survived by his wife.
Kathrada, Ahmed, Memoirs, Zebra, 2004.
Al Jazeera America, March 31, 2017, “Remembering the Anti-Apartheid Activist Ahmed Kathrada.”
Mercury (South Africa), March 29, 2017, “A Lifetime Fighting Racism,” p. 1.
New York Times, March 29, 2017, Sewell Chan, “Ahmed Kathrada, Anti-Apartheid Activist in South Africa, Dies at 87,” p. B16.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 11, 2006, “Activist against Apartheid Indian South African Spent 18 Years in Prison alongside Nelson Mandela,” p. E1.
Times (London, England), March 30, 2017, “Ahmed Kathrada; Resolute Opponent of Apartheid and Ally of Mandela Who Spent 26 Years in Jail and Later Clashed with President Zuma over Corruption,” p. 42.
Washington Post, March 28, 2017, Harrison Smith, “Ahmed Kathrada, Unflinching Opponent of Apartheid in South Africa, Dies at 87.”□