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South Africa loses its conscience-keeper. Farewell, Ahmed Kathrada!

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee | Updated on: 30 March 2017, 12:08 IST
(File photo)

Ahmed Kathrada, one of the last remaining icons of the liberation struggle in South Africa, died on 28 March, at the age of 87.

Tributes poured in from across the world for this legendary freedom fighter, one of the eight people who were sentenced to life imprisonment following the infamous Rivonia trial in 1964. The most famous of these people, Nelson Mandela, passed away in 2013, and now only two of the eight are still alive: Denis Goldberg, 83, and Andrew Mlangeni, 91.

Madiba's comrade in arms

Kathrada, along with Mandela, spent 26 years and three months at Robben Island prison and Pollsmoor prison. He was jailed at the age of 34, and was 60 when he was released, with South Africa on the verge of liberation.

A life-long comrade of Madiba (Mandela's clan name, by which he was popularly called), perhaps the most moving tribute, and the one that poignantly described the relationship between the two freedom fighters, was expressed by Winnie Mandela, Madiba's ex-wife: "I experienced the same pain that I experienced on the death of Madiba. When Madiba passed on, part of his soul was left in Kathy. He was just an extension of our family. So the pain is the same, and somehow, it feels like a closure of a chapter in history."

To South Africans, he was 'Kathy', or to those who were a little younger, 'Uncle Kathy'.

An activist from the age of 12 and a youth leader in his teens, he spent the best years of his life in prison, and emerged without bitterness or hatred towards his oppressors, as did so many others.

They personified what one writer had penned many years ago: that the reason there was very little 'revenge' politics or witch-hunts in Africa after decolonisation or liberation was because of the "matchless ability of the black man to forgive, if not forget".

My memories of Kathy

One of the great privileges of my professional life was to have known the icons of the liberation struggles in southern Africa, some intimately, in the course of the decade of service I spent in that region as an Indian diplomat.

I met many of them in Zambia in the 1980s, where the African National Congress, led by Oliver Tambo, had its headquarters in exile after it was banned. Kathy, of course, was in prison.

I first met him in Cape Town, soon after arriving in the year 2000 as India's High Commissioner to South Africa. Kathy lived in Cape Town, the seat of the South African Parliament, although he had left Parliament in 1999 following the end of Madiba's five-year term as President. But Kathy remained the head of the Robben Island Council and its Robben Island Museum, set up on the waterfront in Table Bay in Cape Town, the same spot from where prisoners were ferried to Robben Island.

Incidentally, Kathy was a minister (of correctional services) in Madiba's cabinet for all of two days. When the Inkatha Freedom Party led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi joined Madiba's government, they wanted one of the ministries connected to Home affairs and security, and Kathy needed no persuasion, he told me, to give up his portfolio and be appointed as Madiba's political and parliamentary affairs advisor, virtually Madiba's right-hand man. He felt he had much more leeway to influence policy.

Touring Robben Island with Kathy

One of the high watermarks of my sojourn was the guided tour of Robben Island that my family and I were given by Kathy. We were in august company – among others who had been given this privilege were Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher. He had mixed feelings about the latter – indeed about the entire leadership of the West. To him, they were supporters of the apartheid regime, and their change of tune after liberation was the height of hypocrisy.

To go through the prison buildings, the quarry and the surrounding areas of that 'island in chains', as another famous prisoner, Indris Naidoo called it, was an unforgettable experience.

In a soft, passionless, matter-of-fact commentary, he made that prison, and their experiences, come alive: the pain and the suffering, the continuation of apartheid discrimination even in prison, the brutalities, the relentless battle for minimal human dignity, and with all that, the courage, the camaraderie, and the unshakable optimism that sustained them. In the Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba quotes Kathy as saying: "In prison, a minute feels like a year, and a year passes like a minute."

Kathy said his great regret about being in prison was not being able to have a family and children. His most heart-wrenching moment of pathos, mixed with a surge of joy, was when he spied one of the children of the guards from his prison cell.

One of the things that almost always figured in our conversations was Kathy's description of how, facing a lifetime in prison, none of them had any doubt about their ultimate success.

He did four degrees in prison, as did others, including the current President, Jacob Zuma. Walter Sisulu, the administrative genius of the ANC and Madiba's mentor in many ways, exhorted them to study, Kathy said, in order to be ready to govern after the inevitable success of their struggle!

Kathy had the fighter's quality of looking on the bright side. Prison, he said, was good for their health! The hard, almost brutal regime toughened them.

Once, he mentioned something he famously repeated in public, that they were 'safer' in prison because the apartheid regime's police were not attacking and shooting them, as they were doing to black people outside.

My most precious souvenir is the replica of the key to Madiba's cell in prison, which Kathy presented to us after our tour of the island.

Conscience-keeper of a nation

Recently, Kathy had strongly criticised Jacob Zuma for indulging in corrupt practices, and issued an open letter asking him to resign. His life partner, Barbara Hogan, is an equally fierce critic of the current President.

The President's office has issued a statement that he will not be attending the funeral, "in compliance with the wishes of the family". The government will be represented by Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy President.

Till the end, Kathy remained, as much as his great friend and 'elder brother', the conscience-keeper of his country.

The author was India's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, South Africa and Namibia, and Ambassador to Nepal and Egypt.

First published: 29 March 2017, 22:48 IST
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee @ShivMjee

The writer was India's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, South Africa and Namibia, and Ambassador to Nepal and Egypt.