Ahmed Kathrada: The Robben Island diaries

An interview with the veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and friend of Nelson Mandela who has died at the age of 87.

Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada spent decades in prison together [Ahmed Kathrada Foundation]

Ahmed Kathrada, the veteran of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle who spent 26 years imprisoned – many of them with his close friend Nelson Mandela – died in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning at the age of 87.

The following is an interview he gave to Al Jazeera in 2013, in which he talks about the early years of the anti-apartheid movement, the decades he spent in prison, the country’s transition to democracy and his 50-year friendship with Mandela. 

Al Jazeera: When did you first meet Nelson Mandela?

Ahmed Kathrada: [I first met Mandela] about 50 years ago …. We were in awe of this man who had gone to university, because there were not many people who were non-white who were at university.

Thereafter, of course, we met politically and there was a long history, but the main things were the three major court cases and we were [the] accused. During the court case that sent us to jail in the first place, we only saw lawyers for the first time three months after detention. And when we saw them for the first time, they told us to prepare for the worst.

What stands out in my mind is Mr Mandela. His whole aim was to treat that as a political trial and not as a criminal trial. So when you get into the witness box – those of us who went into the witness box – [he said]: “You don’t plead for mercy, you don’t apologise for what you have done. Where there is genuine evidence you don’t dispute it, where there is no evidence you don’t volunteer it either. You proclaim your political beliefs proudly, and if there is a death sentence, you don’t appeal.” And that is how the whole trial was conducted.

There was a very well-known speech that Mandela made in court in which he ended by saying: “All my life I have devoted to the achievement of equality and democracy. It is what I hoped to achieve and if need be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

So that was the whole tone of the trial and until the very last day, the expectation was that [it would be a death sentence]. And of course there was a collective sigh of relief when it was not a death sentence, but a life sentence.

What do you remember most about your decades in prison together?

He spent 27 years in prison and I spent 26. But we were together for many, many of those years [and most of all, I remember] his leadership qualities.

What I remember, when we landed on Robben Island, his words were: “We are no longer leaders, we are now just prisoners because we don’t make policy, we don’t give instructions. Our leaders are outside of prison, they make policy, they give instructions, and we are ordinary prisoners.”

And that is how he engaged.

Take us through ‘a day in the life’ on Robben Island

[We would] get up in the morning at half past five, first go for a shower and then go forth to work. For eight hours a day we used to work.

Although the treatment was different [between the races], as political prisoners we were a united force. We didn’t make those laws, those laws were imposed upon us. So we had to continue to fight for equality in everything. It took a long time, but we succeeded.

We went to work and there was no discrimination there. We worked with picks and shovel which was very hard work. Our hands, at the beginning, had blisters and blood. But after a while we got used to it. But we wanted to be out, to be outside of our cells. Once we were locked up in our single cells, we couldn’t talk to each other, but there we could work in groups and we could talk.

For 15 years we didn’t have newspapers, so we had to find ways of keeping ourselves informed, [by] smuggling [things in] – we did succeed, but we got in trouble from time to time. We had to keep ourselves informed, but we had to accept the situation that we are prisoners and we are going to spend many years in prison. We had to accept the fact that we were not going to escape, it is impossible.

You had to make [it] your home and you had to work to maintain your home, to keep it clean. There were the basic things you could do to make it a home, where you could decorate it with photographs and so on, so after some years you would do that.

In our first years we were only writing two letters a year, but then it grew in time. When I finished my 25th year in prison, I was writing 40 letters a year. It took a long time before we achieved this. But our spirits never went down. Our spirits remained and we knew that we were going to win, one day.

We never imagined that Mandela would be president of the country or that I would be sitting in parliament, we never imagined that. But we knew the ANC would win one day – and it has happened in our lifetime.

What was Mandela like during the prison years?

Years after we were [on Robben Island], he was offered to be released – alone. He refused, saying first of all he does not want preferential treatment. Secondly, they wanted to send him to some little part of South Africa, and he said: “I’m not prepared to go there, the whole of South Africa belongs to us – black and white.”

[On Robben Island] when we were working hard labour with picks and shovels, he could have been exempted, [but] he refused to be exempted. When we were on hunger strikes, those of us who were younger thought that our elders and those who were not well should be exempted. He refused to be exempted. He said: “We are prisoners like all the others, and no preference should be given.”

There was also discrimination [by prison authorities] between Indians like me, and blacks like Mandela. Different laws applied to different people, different communities. For instance, Mandela – being black – did not get bread for 10 years. And me – being Indian – got a quarter loaf of bread every day; things like that. There and then he could have easily got preferential treatment. Even the clothing was different. Mr Mandela [and other black inmates] were wearing short trousers, while we were wearing long trousers, according to the law at that time. And he could have easily got treated like us, but he refused.

He refused all preferential treatment. He said whatever happens we must fight for equality. So in three years we did manage to get equal clothing. But food took much longer. In all those years, he behaved like an ordinary prisoner.


by ”Ahmed

was a complex character – both the aristocrat, and royalty, and the peasant; the intellectual and the ordinary person; he was a combination of so many different characteristics … you cannot just put him into one box and say ‘this is him’.”]

What was it like when you finally got off the island?

After 15 years [in prison], we got newspapers, after 20 years we got television, so we were more and more in touch with everything happening outside. We got more letters, we got more visits, so we kept in touch.

But in terms of deprivation, the worst deprivation was the lack of children [on the island] …. I saw a child, and touched a child, after 20 years. So it was the worst deprivation, absence of children. But you couldn’t escape, you had to accept the fact that you are a prisoner.

When we came out it was a different world.

In one instance, when the guard came to ask in 1989 – we were being transferred to a prison in Johannesburg – and the guard came and said we have just received a fax from headquarters that you are going to be released tomorrow – just like that. What was our reaction? [We asked]: “What is a fax?” We didn’t know what a fax was. At that time, we had seen this thing on television, but how do you conceptualise [it]? And then you get out of prison and you see ATM machines and you see all sorts of things like computers, and the whole system is different.

Why was Mandela always the reluctant hero?

In his own books he says that the thing he dislikes most is the way people are trying to make him into a saint. He says he has the weaknesses and strengths of ordinary human beings, he is not a saint, he dislikes the idea of being one. So he did not ask for it.

But looking back on his background, he was born into royalty, brought up to be a leader, and when he got into politics, after years of activity he becomes leader of the [ANC] Youth League. He graduates from that and becomes president of the provincial ANC, essentially the deputy national president …. So he evolved over the years as a leader, it wasn’t as if he suddenly became a leader.

When he was asked to go underground he had to give up his family and his two little girls, he had to give up his law practice, he had to live like an outlaw, disguised as a labourer or a chauffeur, whatever suited him at a particular time to continue his political work. That took courage and sacrifice.

Should South Africa’s transition have been more ‘revolutionary’?

The policy of the ANC, which is the governing party, was a policy of a non-racial, non-sexist democratic South Africa. Unlike other colonial countries, ours was different. In other countries – India and across Africa – the French, the Spanish, the Germans, the British were all the rulers. And when freedom came they all went home.

South Africa was different. Our rulers were white, but they were South African. They were from here, there was no other country. And it wasn’t a question of a few thousand like other colonial countries. We were talking about millions …. So our policy of non-racialism was absolutely crucial, because you got to build one united nation with everybody, you can’t exclude anybody. So the element of forgiveness, nation-building, became paramount.

When [Mandela] became president, among the first things he did, was he called the wives and the widows of former apartheid presidents and prime ministers and invited them for tea. The widow of the worst apartheid leader [Hendrik] Verwoerd, she couldn’t come, because she was ill. He got into his helicopter and decided to visit her. And that was all because of nation-building, of forgiveness.

You have to build a strong foundation for a new country. And these elements of forgiveness, absence of wickedness, absence of hatred, absence of revenge, were very crucial things to build the nation. And he personified these qualities. All of us believed in it, of course – it was policy – but he personified those by interaction.

Has South Africa achieved what struggle stalwarts like you and Mandela hoped for?

The Freedom Charter is enshrined in the constitution of the ANC and in the constitution of the country. If there is any violation of these, it can be a criminal offence.

I cannot for a moment say … that everything is fine, that a country which has had freedom and democracy and will have [for many more years] will claim that everything is all right. Our aim is to build one united nation and we are taking major steps.

The first thing we achieved on April 27, 1994 is dignity, dignity and equal human rights. Prior to that, all over South Africa there were signs saying “Europeans only” in libraries, restaurants, hotels, parks, railways, everywhere you go, and signs that said “non-Europeans not allowed”. There were even signs that said “non-Europeans and dogs not allowed”, which reduced human beings who were not white to the level of animals.

So the first time I saw the inside of a hotel room was at the age of 22 when I went to Europe. In my own country, I saw it at the age of 60 when there was relaxation when we came out of prison.

So we have made progress and we continue to make progress. When I say we have achieved dignity as human beings, we must always still be aware that the challenges are no longer apartheid. The challenges are poverty, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, housing – those are the challenges. And there is no dignity in poverty, there is no dignity in hunger, so we cannot be satisfied in what we have achieved.

We have achieved, we have built over two million houses, hundreds of schools have been built, clinics, hospitals. There is so much more to be done. But we are on the road. We can only be satisfied, as Nelson Mandela has said, when we are convinced that every child goes to bed with a full stomach, gets up smiling with a full breakfast, proper clothing, goes to a proper school, plays on a proper sports field, comes home, there is always food, clothing everything, when that happens. And it is not going to happen in our lifetime because the challenges are huge.

This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera digital magazine. 

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Source: Al Jazeera