Michael McGowan pays a personal tribute to Ahmed M Kathrada, an ally of Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa
Ahmed Kathrada, who died recently in Johannesburg aged 87, was a great ally of Nelson Mandela in the struggle against the apartheid system in South Africa.
Along with my wife Margarita, I had the privilege of meeting Kathrada on Robben Island – where he was a fellow prisoner of Mandela – during our attendance at an international conference in Cape Town shortly after the official end of apartheid in 1994.
At the end of 1995, Robben Island was declared a national monument in South Africa in order to ensure that its history and its symbolic significance in the struggle against apartheid was respected.
Kathrada, who became chair of the Robben Island Council, was always determined that the island off Cape Town should be maintained as a symbol of the success of the struggle to overthrow South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime, especially as suggestions for the development of the island ranged from ecotourism to an offshore casino.
I was at first surprised when we arrived at the small Robben Island to discover that the setting was more serene than I had anticipated. I had expected to be immediately struck by the harshness and horror of the place from what I had imagined, not the quiet nature reserve before me.
We were soon drawn back to the reality of the living hell for the political prisoners when, with Kathrada, we visited the prison’s tiny cells, including his own and Mandela’s, not to mention the place where prisoners were forced to break rocks.
Kathrada also talked about his interest in sport and surprisingly revealed that, like us, he was a passionate soccer fan – of Leeds United, specifically. He recounted his delight in following the ‘glory years’ of Leeds, when the team was at the height of its reputation in world club soccer. And he mentioned his regret that most of his fellow political prisoners were Manchester United supporters.
Although Robben Island prisoners were allowed very few letters, and even then they which were heavily censored, Kathrada said sports magazines were widely available, and soccer was always a hot topic.
Kathrada was born in what was then Western Transvaal, now the North West province, as the fourth of six children of Gujarati immigrants. An early radical, he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa aged 12. Later, as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he attended an international conference in East Berlin in 1951, during which he visited Auschwitz and described the Nazi death camp as “the logical conclusion of racism”.
In 1963, Kathrada was arrested in Rivonia, Johannesburg at the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. He was charged with sabotage, attempting to overthrow the government and attempting to start a guerrilla war.
The Rivonia trial, as it became known, ended in June 1964 when Kathrada was one of eight sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour on Robben Isalnd. His fellow prisoners included Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg – and Nelson Mandela.
For 18 years, Kathrada was confined to the island before he was moved to Pollsmor Prison on the mainland near Cape Town in 1982, joining Mandela and the others. It was from Pollsmoor that he was released in October 1989, just months before Mandela was freed from Victor Versted in Paarl to the north, in scenes broadcast the world over.
In the 1994 South African elections, the first truly democratic polls in its history, Kathrada was elected MP for the ANC, and in September 1994 was appointed political advisor to the now President Nelson Mandela.
In 1999 Kathrada left parliamentary politics, and in recent years was highly critical of the failures of the ANC government in addressing a series of corruption scandals. Last year, he called on current President Jacob Zuma to resign.
Despite the brutality suffered by the Robben Island prisoners, they showed courage and resilience. They developed a spirit of solidarity and were determined to continue their political struggle behind bars.
The political life of Ahmed Kathrada spanned more than 70 years. And what an unforgettable privilege it was to meet a political leader the world so rarely encounters and part of a team of brilliant and courageous ANC leaders that have inspired the world.
Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.