Remembering Ahmed Kathrada: Indian-Origin Anti-Apartheid Warrior

Ahmed Kathrada used to call Nelson Mandela his older brother.

Ahmed Kathrada, an Indian-origin South African anti-apartheid activist, who was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Nelson Mandela and went on to be an open critic of President Jacob Zuma, died on Tuesday aged 87.

Affectionately known as "Uncle Kathy", the liberation struggle stalwart who spent 26 years in prison under the apartheid government, was hospitalised in Johannesburg this month after surgery to relieve blood clotting on the brain.

Kathrada's foundation said his condition had deteriorated rapidly with pneumonia affecting both lungs.

Who Is Kathrada?

Ahmed Kathrada was born to immigrant Bohra Indian parents Mohamed and Hawa Kathrada in the small town of Schweizer-Reneke in the North West province just before the Great Depression in 1929. His father was a shopkeeper. He was the fourth of six children born to the family which was originally from Surat, Gujarat.

He was not allowed to attend the local primary schools as he was of Indian-origin and instead lived with his aunt Fatima in Fordsburg, Johannesburg to attend an Indian school.

He was influenced by the Transvaal Indian Congress and became involved in politics at the age of 12 when he distributed leaflets for the Young Communist League of South Africa.

Kathrada joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s and, as general-secretary of the Transvaal Indian Congress, was instrumental in linking it to the African National Congress (ANC). He later became a member of the ANC military wing's high command.

He was acquitted in the 1956-61 mass treason trial but was placed under house arrest in 1962. He went underground a few months before being swept up in the arrests of anti-apartheid activists at Liliesleaf Farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg in 1963. Kathrada and Mandela were part of a group sentenced to life imprisonment after the historic Rivonia trial in 1964, in which anti-Apartheid leaders where charged with planning violent revolution.

Kathrada denied all charges against him and was convicted on only one count, sabotage.

Jailed at the age of 34, Kathrada spent the next 18 years at the maximum security section on apartheid's most notorious prison, Robben Island, a few miles offshore from Cape Town.

He was moved to Pollsmoor prison in 1982 and was released from jail on 15 October 1989 at the age of 60, having spent just over 26 years in jail.

In prison, because Kathrada was a non-African Asian, he was allowed to wear long trousers and socks with shoes, unlike the black prisoners who were made to wear shorts and sandals with no socks, according to The Guardian. Even their meals were different, as the mixed race prisoners, including Kathrada, received European-style food while the Africans’ received mainly samp, which is made of dried corn kernels.

In 2005, Kathrada was presented with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, India’s highest honour for foreign nationals of Indian-origin.

Kathrada and Mandela

He was released from prison in 1989, just months before Mandela himself walked free. In 1994 as Mandela was elected president, Kathrada was chosen as the first all-race parliament for the ANC.

Later in life, Kathrada would recall his friend Mandela's "abundant reserves" of love, patience and tolerance during their long years in prison on Robben Island. He said it was painful when he saw Mandela for the last time in his hospital bed.

"He tightly held my hand, it was profoundly heartbreaking," Kathrada said in 2013.

How I wish I never had to confront what I saw. I first met him 67 years ago, and I recall the tall, healthy strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel when we couldn’t do so.

Mandela had called Kathrada one of his two ‘mirrors’ along with Walter Sisulu. Kathrada referred to Mandela as his older brother and Sisulu as his father.

Staunch Critic of President Zuma

Kathrada was also one of the most senior ANC leaders to criticise Zuma as allegations of government corruption mounted.

Last year, Kathrada wrote an open letter calling on Zuma to resign after a series of scandals, from using taxpayers’ money to upgrade his rural home to destabilising financial markets by flip-flopping on cabinet appointments.

I am not a political analyst, but I am now driven to ask: Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your continued stay as president will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?

Kathrada had also pleaded with Zuma to not attend his funeral, according to the Mail and Guardian newspaper.

"I can imagine how pained he was that he left at this point in time," said Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who wept at Kathrada's memorial and had supported his call last year for Zuma's departure.

It is a tragedy that he did live and saw what is happening today.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said Kathrada helped inspire the world's confidence in South Africa's long battle against white-minority rule.

"May Ahmed rest in peace and rise in glory," Tutu said in a statement. "May he rejoice in many heavenly cups of hot chocolate with his old friends and comrades."

(With inputs from Reuters, AP, NPR, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, PTI)