“Prison is a state of mind, you practise patience and tolerance.” Ahmed Kathrada speaks of his 26-year incarceration as if it were a seminar, not a callous sentence for committing his life to the fight for human dignity. He is a calm, calculated man, speaking in the humble tone of a backroom academic. But that’s no surprise; Kathrada earned four degrees while in prison. An institution he calls “university” with a half-turned smile. Understated he may be, but it was his courageous action as an ANC dissident that marked him as a prime threat to the foundations of apartheid. They ‘locked him up for good’. Ironically, some of Kathrada’s greatest contributions to the struggle were cemented within his prison walls.
Kathrada made a career out being the fall guy, the one who never got away. His first arrest came at age 17. Influenced by leaders of the Transvaal Indian Congress, he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa at the early age of 12. The young Kathrada handed out leaflets and volunteered in the ‘individual passive resistance against the Pegging Act’ in 1941. Imagine your child politicised before his pimpled teens.
By age 17, he was working full-time for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council in the fight against the ‘Ghetto Act’, legislation that denied Indians areas in which to live, trade and own land. Kathrada, naturally, was one of the volunteers imprisoned in the wake of the campaign. But instead of extinguishing the boy’s fire for civil disobedience the arrest set a blaze of protests against the social injustices of the time.
In 1952, he helped organise the ‘Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws’, targeted at six unjust apartheid laws, including the pass law. The growing cooperation between the African and Indian Congresses in the 1950s led Kathrada into contact with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. Never settling for just a handshake, he got stuck in with the ANC and braced against the arrests blotting his rap sheet. Kathrada was one of 156 accused in a four-year treason trial. In 1961 all of the accused were found not guilty. A year later Kathrada was under house arrest. It was time to go underground. He didn’t dig too deep.
Kathrada was arrested at the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. This eighteenth arrest on political grounds carried the fearsome charge of treason. Kathrada, now 34, was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others. For the accused the sentence was a relief. “The expectation was a death sentence,” Kathrada says. “The fact that we got life was a bonus, now we had to make an adjustment to prison life.” Perhaps it is the immense passing of time that allows the man to be so candid about that moment.
Kathrada responded by decorating his prison cell – a dainty abode was not the image his colleagues wanted to portray to the masses. They were political prisoners after all. “What if the warders took photographs? Do you want the world to know how nice a prison cell is?” Truth be told, inmates were not permitted to dress their grey cells. But Kathrada got around this by asking for colourful textbook wrapping paper and taping it to his locker. “Let them show the world,” he told his fellow cadres. “This is my home now.” Kathrada’s former cellmates will confirm it for you… he’s a funny guy.
His father died at age 14, sending Kathrada to look to Walter Sisulu as a paternal figure. This bond deepened in prison. Kathrada’s regret is that he didn’t write the man’s biography while incarcerated, but his pen did contribute to establishing a syllabus on the history of the ANC. “Nobody knew the history of our struggle better than Sisulu,” he says. Information gleaned from the man was passed on to any inmate moving through their section of the prison. It was an induction into the true background and purpose of the struggle. The information was soon smuggled to other sections. It was men like Kathrada who encouraged resistance to wriggle from the thumb of authority.
Kathrada was also responsible for another critical piece of struggle literature, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela would write at night and pass his notes to Kathrada and Sisulu for review. “He called us the ‘editorial board’,” Kathrada smiles. The final 600-page manuscript was handed to Kathrada and Sisulu; their task was to reduce the text to less than 50 pages. On completion, Kathrada buried the original work in the prison garden.
Mac Maharaj was released and his job was to smuggle the document, penned on rice paper, to London. Mission accomplished, Maharaj sent word to destroy the originals. At the same time the prison staff commissioned the building of a new wall, the foundations of which exposed the hidden manuscript displaying the handwriting of Mandela, Sisulu and Kathrada. The men received a four-year ban on studies. In short, the men were denied access to a pen and paper for that period.
For Kathrada, incarceration was not only an academic opportunity; it was a study in relationships. “When you’re locked up for that many years you learn about human behaviour,” he smiles. When asked if Mandela had displayed any behaviour that required tolerance Kathrada laughs. “He jogged on the spot before dawn. It was noisy and annoying. But what are you going to do about it? We were all in single cells.”
There was no prior notification of imminent release from prison. On the night before their release the inmates were told that a fax had been received and that they would be released on the following day. The men didn’t know what a fax was, it was technology that bypassed prison life. Imagine the news of impending release after 26 years via an alien technology… surreal. The crew may have suffered material ignorance, but the camaraderie and relationships forged over the years proved to be the foundation for the leadership of the future.
“Look, in prison, we never lost confidence,” Kathrada says. “We knew we were going to win one day. But we never imagined that Mandela was going to be president. That I was going to be a member of parliament walking into his office. If any of us felt that way we never talked about it. But it happened. I mean in what country has anyone gone from prison, to parliament, to president inside of three years?”
After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, Kathrada served on the leadership committees of the ANC and was later elected to the National Executive Committee. After the 1994 elections he was appointed as a member of parliament and later as the political adviser to President Mandela. In 1999 Kathrada stepped down from party politics to write his memoir and struggle-based works.
A passage on the sleeve of one of these works sums up the contribution, dignity and depth of camaraderie this icon of the struggle attained – a reference by Nelson Mandela. “Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something. Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.”