African National Congress stalwart and Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada, or Kathy – as he is more affectionately known – shared with festival goers some rare insights during his days fighting apartheid. Renowned for his remarkable memory, Kathrada rolled back the years with relative ease ticking off the names of friend, foe and other who played significant roles in his life decades ago. His talk at Thinkfest co-incides with a personal exhibition entitled, Kathy – the man behind the public figure.
Kathy was born in Schweizer-Reneke, a small rural town in South Africa’s North West province. When he was 8 years old, he was sent to Johannesburg, and described the circumstances surrounding his relocation, “the African school did not want me, the white school refused to take me, and as there was no Indian school, I had to leave.”
Kathrada was “banned” and placed under house arrest many times, and told the gathering how he once defied the apartheid authorities to “visit” his mother and sister in a car outside his flat in Johannesburg in 1962. In a sombre tone he recalled that “it was the last time I saw my mother as she died while I was in prison.”
Asked to describe the feelings when released in 1986, Kathrada replied, “it was all a blur, very overwhelming, we were still trying to terms with dealing with things like fax machines, electric car winders and highways.” He said it came back to him when he saw the photos days later. He said that during his time in prison, “one misses many things, but what I missed most was children, the sound of children, a child crying… I saw and held a child after twenty years.”
I asked him how he came to be known as Kathy. He explained, “ one of my teachers, a certain Mr du Preez could not, or did not bother, to pronounce my name and decided to call me Kathy which has stuck till this day.”
He also talked about his relationship with Nelson Mandela, and recounted one of their “discussions” as he put it, “which was the one and only time Madiba and I disagreed.” Kathrada spoke about his visit to the Auschwitz Concentration camp in 1951, which he said left a “lasting impression” on him and also reinforced his opposition to racism.
Aluta Continua! – The struggle continues
Kathrada said that while South Africa’s watershed election in 1994 ushered in a new era of dignity for all South Africans , a lot still needed to be done. He has established the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, with the core objective of deepening non racialism. The foundation hopes to achieve this through a Research and Documentation centre and plans to make the material available for academic and scholarly research.
At his exhibition at Grahamstown’s Observatory Museum, a visitor from the United said, “It is so easy think about apartheid in black and white terms , Ahmed Kathtrada is important because he expands the discourse to what was done to Indians and Coloureds as well, and he represents the true scope of the rainbow nation.” Others described him as “an enduring soul”, “a father figure”, “an inspiration”, ”a leader”.
Now 83, Kathrada shows no sign of letting up. He had about 140 public engagements in the first 180 days of 2012, and still finds time to watch his favourite television programme, Isidingo. “I never miss it,” he said.