Dressed in an olive green shirt, green tweed jacket and brown pants, apartheid freedom fighter Ahmed Kathrada took his seat in front of the microphone at the VOC studios. The shy, humble man is grey and balding, yet one cannot spot a wrinkle, nor any other visible signs of aging. He showed no physical scars of a prisoner during apartheid, despite being at the forefront of fighting for the freedoms South Africans enjoy today.
For the 81-year-old Rivonia trialist, the memories of apartheid are still very vivid. Kathrada was one of the most prominent Indian activists in the struggle for a non-racialised South Africa. In 1963, he was one of ten leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) tried for 221 acts of sabotage and attempts to overthrow the Apartheid government with violent methods. Before their arrest, the fearless activists were forced to go underground and lived on Liliesleaf Farm, owned by Arthur Goldreich.
“We were there provisionally until the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe [ANC military wing] got its own farm,” explained Kathrada. Underground rules stated that they were not allowed to return to a hiding place, but they had no alternative. “So we went back…and it turned out to be the last time,” Kathrada continued. “We were just busy in a meeting and the police found us and arrested us.”
Decades ago the freedom fighters were guided by the policies of the ANC irrespective of their personal views. Some were given the option to go into exile abroad. “My personal views were to remain in the country and the organisation accepted that and supported me.” Kathrada decided to go underground instead of going into exile. Prior to his arrest, Kathrada was pretending to be Portugese. Once his colleagues were satisfied that he could pass as Portugese, Kathrada answered an advertisement where a vacant garden cottage was available for him to live in.
“I occupied this garden cottage because we couldn’t find sufficient venues. The venue that the ANC had founded with the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association was not known to us and it was against the rule to go to a place which was not known. They couldn’t go to my place either because it was not known to anybody. Liliesleaf Farm was known so it was decided to go back to Liliesleaf and that is where we got arrested.”
Kathrada was not raised in a political environment, yet he experienced racism which was quite natural at the time. “When the time came for me to go to school I was not admitted into the white school nor into the black school – the school of my friends. So at the age of eight I was wrenched away from my family to go to Johannesburg,” he recalled.
“But as I went to Johannesburg, in the area where I lived, there was a youth club run by the Young Communist League and of course young people, who liked picnics, debates, lectures, films and so forth,” he reminisced, adding that his involvement in the League opened his eyes to politics. Kathrada went to his friends homes and saw how their parents were politically involved. That, he said, was how his political consciousness deepened. At the age of about 12 years, he joined the Young Communist League.
During the Rivonia Trial, Kathrada, along with the other trialists were all sentenced to life imprisonment – which he light-heartedly described as a “bonus”. “Most of us had been to prison before for short times. I’d been to prison for a month at the age of 17 … when we got a life sentence it was a bonus because we were supposed to be hanged,” he recalled. “Amongst us and our lawyers, the expectation was death. When the judge said life imprisonment, there was a collective sigh of relief because we are alive. Jail is better than death.”
While on Robben Island, Dennis Goldberg was detained separately as he was white. Kathrada was the youngest of the seven at the age of 34. Govan Mbeki, father of former president Thabo Mbeki, was 20 years his senior, former president Nelson Mandela was 11 years older and Walter Sisulu was 18 years older. Kathrada was the luckliest of the lot, as he received more privileges because he was Indian. “Because they were Africans they had to wear short trousers right through the winter and no socks. I was given long trousers and socks because that’s how Apartheid applied differently to the different groups.”
Kathrada was even given more food. “We had the same food in the morning: porridge, soup and coffee. I got more sugar than Mandela but less than Goldberg. I got a bit more meat and fish than Mandela. I got a quarter loaf of bread everyday. Mandela didn’t get bread….” he said, adding that for 10 years the black prisoners did not get any bread. “These are my leaders, my seniors … and I could not give them my bread…
Even though Kathrada instinctively objected to the treatment of his colleagues by not wanting to eat his bread, Mandela told him accept it. “Mr Mandela said that will be wrong. You never give up what you’ve got. By struggling you must struggle for equality on a higher level.” Three years later the dress code was equalized and but the food took longer. The state gave in after being pressured by outsiders.
Access to news was completely blocked during their incarceration. The only way they were able to get information was by bribing, blackmailing, or smuggling with prison warders, as newspapers were not allowed for 16 years. Letters and visits were only allowed every six months. The Soweto Uprising came and went in June 1976, and Kathrada knew nothing about it until August.
After 18 years on Robben island, five of the trialists were moved to Pollsmoor prison and for the first time all five of them were staying in the same cell. It was while eating together and watching the 8pm news that it was announced that eight trialists were going to be released. For Kathrada, the first day of his release was overwhelming.
“The only thing I could really remember is children. At Pollsmoor i had seen and held a child for the first time after 20 years … on the first day of release the overwhelming experience was children and they themselves were as curious as we were. Further than that I remember very little,” he said, adding that there had been a massive media frenzy.
It is because of this contribution, that he and four other living trialists were celebrated this week, in a lavish tribute by the Umkhonto weSizwe Veterans Association and the Department of Arts and Culture in Sandton. President Jacob Zuma conferred the award on Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Dennis Goldberg and the most signficant icon, Nelson Mandela. Kathrada, whose greatest inspiration was Dr Yusuf Dadoo, said that although South Africa has a long way to go one of the most important elements was achieved – dignity.
“We are only 17 years old,” he said. “We have got problems from what we inherited and more problems came but while we can never be satisfied. At the same time we have made progress. The most important thing of 1994 is … for the fist time we could say we want dignity. Wealth and education and everything are worth nothing if you haven’t got dignity. We won our dignity which is the most important thing.”
This article originally appeared here.