Why Did Nelson Mandela’s Closest Comrade End up as a Tour Guide?

In Ahmed Kathrada's death in Johannesburg at age 87, students of South African history have lost a precious resource person with a unique perspective on one of the world's great national liberation movements – how it peaked, then lost its fizz.

On February 11 1990, I was among the willing throng of the world's journalists waiting outside Victor Verster prison near Cape Town, waiting for history's most iconic political prisoner to walk free after 27 years in the apartheid regime's captivity. It is difficult to communicate the heady excitement of the moment.

Mourners carry a casket during the funeral of Ahmed Kathrada, who was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Nelson Mandela, at the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa on 29 March. (Photo: Reuters)

It might interest anti-meat enthusiasts in India that the first meal out of prison Mandela asked for was “Indian curry and rice”. His host for the night, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, tossed in a few more items to make it more decorative. That is when I first met Kathrada, or 'Kathy' as everyone, including Mandela, affectionately called him. Out of prison, Mandela seemed to constantly require by his side a transistor radio set to one frequency, BBC's Africa Calling, and, if possible, Kathy.

Mandela's dependence on Kathy manifested itself when he occupied the President's office in Pretoria. Kathy was given the adjacent room as his adviser. Although he had become the second-most powerful man in South Africa, he was so modest in his mannerisms that he almost looked embarrassed holding high office.

Kathy had spent almost as many years as Mandela in jail, most of it in the same prison, Robben Island, a turbulent boat ride away from Cape Town, a more vicious version of Alcatraz near San Francisco.

It was in the yard of the prison where the plot was hatched to smuggle out chapters of Long March to Freedom. In this project, Kathy became the lynchpin.

In 50 years of journalism, it has remained one of my most cherished stories for a singular reason: Mandela confided in me all the details (they became common later) in his Johannesburg bungalow after he had handed over the Presidency to his successor, Thabo Mbeki.

Mandela confided in the author all the details in his Johannesburg bungalow after he had handed over the Presidency to his successor, Thabo Mbeki (right). (Photo: Reuters)

Throughout the narrative (with an impish smile) he played with Amina Cachalia'a hand. I shall dilate on this fascinating digression later.

The conspirators had rationed out the work according to their respective talents. Mandela told me:

I would hand over the first draft to Kathy to check out factual details – you see, I have never in my life met anyone with a better memory.

Only after Kathy had edited the draft was it shown to “comrade Walter Sisulu for ideological consistency”.

“All this could be arranged from cell to cell – which overlooked the yard, where prisoners assembled before being taken to the lime quarries for their day's labour,” Mandela added.

The next step was loaded with high voltage suspense: how was the final draft to be smuggled past the heavily guarded gate to the prisoner’s cages?

The genius for this vital step was Laloo Chiba, with silver hair and eyebrows, a wheatish complexion and eyes which were unexpectedly blue. He had a talent for very fine, miniaturised writing. From a matchbox, he would slide out the cardboard tray stacked with match sticks. Keep the sticks in a drawer, and carefully steam out the rectangular paper, the size of a large postage stamp.

Chiba would pack a thousand words on the reverse side of this “postage stamp”; another thousand on the cardboard. With grains of cooked rice, the paper was neatly stuck to the bottom of the tray.

At the appointed hour, when there were no guards in the courtyard, the match box was tossed out of the window, to be picked up in the morning by one of the “conspirators”. It was left to the resourcefulness of “Comrade” Mac Maharaj to smuggle the manuscript out of Apartheid South Africa.

Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his wife Winnie, walks out of the Victor Verster prison near Cape Town after spending 27 years in jail. (Photo: Reuters)

Having sacrificed their lives for South Africa's liberation, did leaders like Kathy depart with a sense of fulfilment? He spent his last years as a guide at Robben Island. That was more nostalgia for the years of struggle than a celebration of victory. Yes, the yoke of apartheid was lifted. But, at this distance in time, that was all.

When South African Communists (most of them doubled up as the ANC for tactical reasons) returned from the Italian Communist stalwart Enrico Berlinguer's funeral in June 1984, described by historian Paul Ginsborg as “the greatest spontaneous civic demonstration in the history of the Italian Republic”, there were stars in their eyes.

Mikhail Gorbachev, though, still a few months shy of taking over as the Soviet leader, was among the world statesmen at the funeral. The Left seemed to be on the ascendant everywhere – in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Afghanistan. ANC/Communist leaders like Sisulu, Kathy and Joe Slovo hoped to win riding that crest.

Ironically, Gorbachev lost control of his Glasnost, Perestroika agenda. He supervised the liquidation of the Soviet Empire. History took an unimaginable turn.

There was now no question of any victory for SA leaders. The victorious system's project was globalisation. Freed of the Soviet fear, the West would now, for its own convenience, open the prison doors for Mandela and his cohorts to walk free. They would be brought into focus as pliant victors.

Gavin Relly, chairman of Anglo-American, South Africa’s most powerful company, told me on camera that “Mandela would, we hope, pursue sensible economic policies”. It may not have been a degrading bargain (Kathy protested) but a bargain it was.

The first Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, was not in Robben Island. In fact, in 1994, the World Economic Forum selected him as “Global Leader for Tomorrow”.

Where South Africa has been led is in plain view. Similarities with our own partitioned freedom from a Britain exhausted by war are purely coincidental.

(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on saeednaqvi@hotmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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