Remembering the anti-apartheid giant Ahmed Kathrada

South African leaders bid farewell to ‘Uncle Kathy’ who spent 75 years fighting for equality, freedom and human dignity.

Ahmed Kathrada
South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, shown here at the ANC's centenary celebration in Bloemfontein, died on Tuesday, March 28 [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Johannesburg, South Africa – Flags were lowered to half-mast and mourners lined the streets outside Westpark Cemetery on Wednesday morning. Many embraced tearfully as the white hearse, escorted by a fleet of police motorcycles and bearing the coffin draped in the ruling African National Congress flag of green, yellow and black, made its way towards Heroes’ Acre. This burial site for prominent South Africans is the final resting place for Ahmed Kathrada, stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, activist and former political prisoner.

South Africa is a nation in mourning. After three-quarters of a century fighting for equality, freedom and dignity, Kathrada’s watch has ended.

Fondly known as “Uncle Kathy”, Kathrada died in hospital early on Tuesday morning, aged 87, due to complications following brain surgery to remove a blood clot. He later developed pneumonia in both lungs and was kept under sedation. Despite this, there was a constant stream of comrades, family and friends by his bedside as his condition deteriorated.

Born on August 21, 1929, to Indian immigrant parents in the small northwestern farming town of Schweizer-Reneke, also known as the City of Sunflowers, Kathrada was the fourth of six children. Owing to their Indian heritage and the policies of the time, Kathrada could not attend either the European or African schools in the area. At the age of eight he was forced to move to Johannesburg to pursue an education. Hailed as belonging to the golden era of incorruptible freedom fighters – the selfless generation – he there began his political career at the tender age of 12, handing out pamphlets for the Young Communist League of South Africa.

Instrumental in the Women’s March

Speaking at his funeral, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn remembered a young Kathrada. She is an anti-apartheid hero in her own right and the first woman to receive the Women’s Award for exceptional national service from the South African government. She is also the last living leader of the Women’s March of 1956, protesting against the implementation of pass laws for black women.

But when she met Kathrada in the early 1950s, they did not meet on the political battlefield; they met at a party.

“He couldn’t dance,” she laughed, shaking her head, adding that he never let that small detail stop him from trying. “He had two left feet but oh, he loved dancing.” 

Their friendship was cemented after that first party nearly 70 years ago. She remembers fondly how Kathrada was an organiser, and how he made sure she ate at least one meal a day, arranging for fellow comrade Helen Joseph to put a plate of food aside for her, despite limited funds.

“He was also very instrumental in the Women’s March,” she recalls, smiling as she details how it was Kathrada’s job to quell the Indian husbands’ fears about their women joining the protest.

He also drove her, and some of the other women who participated in this monumental occasion, to their various locations, despite being placed under restrictions by apartheid security police and having a banning order against him at the time. Under the apartheid regime, “banned people” endured severe restrictions on their movements, political activities and associations. They were barred from entering places where large numbers of people gathered or worked, such as factories, airports, schools, universities and courts. They were often not allowed to join political parties or to publish in newspapers. They were definitely not allowed to attend mass marches against the regime.

Williams De-Bruyn said that despite his being much younger than many of the other leaders, Kathrada was known for always “speaking truth to power”, a quality that would persist into his later years.

READ MORE: Ahmed Kathrada – The Robben Island diaries

Freedom fighter

Kathrada was arrested for the first time in 1946 at the age of 17, along with 2,000 other peaceful protesters. These “passive resisters” were arrested for defying laws put in place by the apartheid government discriminating against Indian citizens, and Kathrada spent one month in prison. Two years later, with the banning of the African National Congress, Kathrada was placed under house arrest.

He would be jailed a further 18 times before being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 at the age of 34 following the infamous Rivonia Trial, along with fellow revolutionaries Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and seven other defendants. He spent 26 years and three months in prison, serving 18 of those years on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. He was released in 1989 at the age of 60, just four months before Mandela.

Now that Kathrada is gone, only two Rivonia Trialists – Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni – remain. Both attended Kathrada’s funeral. Also in attendance were embattled former finance minister Pravin Gordhan (who was sacked today by President Jacob Zuma); David Makhura, premier of Gauteng; Graca Machel, the widow of Nelson Mandela; deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa; ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and former acting president Kgalema Motlanthe.

A nation’s father

Zenani Mandela, the daughter of Nelson Mandela – South Africa’s first democratically elected president and a close friend of Kathrada – and his second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, choked down tears as she spoke about her “Uncle Kathy” at a special prayer meeting held for Kathrada on Tuesday.

She said South Africans must never forget the role he played in the fight for freedom and the toll it took on him.

“Because it was a fight, for all his gentleness, Uncle Kathy was there in the trenches,” she said. She began to cry as she recalled the unique relationship she and her family shared with Kathrada.

For Uncle Kathy, as it is for my father, it is abundantly clear that millions of South Africans consider them as relatives of the first order.

by Zenani Mandela, daughter of Nelson Mandela

“There are people who come into your life and never leave, because they are truly special. They have what we call presence, that rare ability to loom large in our lives so that their impact on our lives is multiplied a thousand times over. He was my other father.”

She said she had only the fondest memories of the “gentle giant” whom she describes as one as the last of a generation who fought so valiantly for South Africa and even in liberation still managed to practise what was preached during the struggle.

Kathy, she said, walked the talk. “Uncle Kathy was my dad’s best friend, brother and confidante.”

She says she had arranged for the two to spend time together during Madiba’s final days. “I loved watching the two of them share jokes, reminiscing about the past, and it is one of my life’s most abiding memories,” she said.

Despite her personal connection to both men, she says that perhaps the measure of a legacy is not what the person means to their immediate family, but rather how many outsiders consider them flesh and blood.

“For Uncle Kathy, as it is for my father, it is abundantly clear that millions of South Africans consider them as relatives of the first order,” she said.

South Africa, she said, has not just lost a leader, but a father as well.

The prayer event was also one of Winnie Mandela’s first public appearances since her recent hospitalisation. Speaking to the media at the event, Madikizela-Mandela said that the passing of Kathrada is so much more than the death of just another veteran in the fight for freedom. “It was a rehash of Madiba’s passing. His passing just brings the finality to a chapter in the history of our struggle,” she said.

She said she wishes that he hadn’t left her, and the country, during this particular time of crisis. “What he had fought for isn’t what is going on today, and it is a tragedy.”

OPINION: The Mandela legacy

Mandela appears with Kathrada and Mandela's daughter Zindzi in October 2010 [Debbie Yazbek/Mandela Foundation/AFP] 
Mandela appears with Kathrada and Mandela’s daughter Zindzi in October 2010 [Debbie Yazbek/Mandela Foundation/AFP] 

Jacob Zuma’s absence

Noticeably absent from the funeral was South African president Jacob Zuma.

Zuma had not been invited to speak at the event, and indicated that he would not be attending the funeral at the request of the Kathrada family, a blow to a sitting president and fellow struggle veteran.

Just under a year ago, Kathrada penned an open letter to Zuma, asking him to step down as president or risk to “further deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country”. This, in face of “persistently widespread criticism, condemnation and demand” following the scathing Constitutional Court judgment on the Nkandla matter, dealing with upgrades to the presidential homestead.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa last year found that the 246m rand ($18m) spent, initially said to have been for security upgrades, unduly benefited the president and that he had spent public money to upgrade his private residence.

Kathrada further wrote that if he were president, he would step down with immediate effect, paraphrasing the motto of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe that “there comes a time in the life of every nation when it must choose to submit or fight”.

With that, he urged the president to submit to the will of the people and resign.

At the funeral, Kathrada’s written words were echoed again as Kgalema Motlanthe included excerpts from the letter in his speech. Kathrada was hailed for his courage in breaking ranks and taking a stand against his president, party leader and comrade.

READ MORE: Anti-apartheid icon Ahmed Kathrada laid to rest

Mourners pray next to the coffin of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada [Kevin Sutherland/EPA] 
Mourners pray next to the coffin of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada [Kevin Sutherland/EPA] 

Championing a non-racial South Africa

Various other speakers at the funeral remembered “Uncle Kathy” as one of the finest sons of the soil, saying he dedicated his life to freedom, equality and justice. He was described as a social and political giant, but humble to his last day. He will be remembered as soft-spoken but strong-willed with a sharp wit, incorruptible in both his politics and his personal life.

He was described as being ahead of his time, opting for the building of a non-racial South Africa at a time when it would have been very easy to mobilise the oppressed black masses on the notion of being anti-white.

But it’s not just the older generation of stalwarts and activists that have paid homage to Kathrada.

He was described as a social and political giant, but humble to his last day.


Leaders and student activists from the country’s recent Fees Must Fall protests have also added their voices in interviews and on social media to the chorus of praise, not just for Kathrada’s historic contribution but for his ongoing support during the student protests which have been an annual occurrence since 2015.

In October 2016, student activist and former Student Representative Council for Wits University leader Shaeera Kalla was shot with rubber bullets by riot police while protesting for free, quality and decolonised education for all. She was shot 13 times at close range, in the back, resulting in her hospitalisation. His support extended beyond the political.

“Just a few months ago #Uncle Kathy came to see me in hospital,” Kalla said on Twitter.

Just before that, he had apparently been to the University of the Witwatersrand to address student protesters and activists. “He was active till the end,” she said in the same tweet.

“He was shocked at the police brutality on campus. During his brief visit, he expressed his support for our movement and told me to keep fighting. I will forever be grateful that a man of such stature was so concerned with my recovery,” Kalla told Al Jazeera.

A photograph that Kalla tweeted shows her lying in a hospital bed on her stomach, while Kathrada holds her hand – a unique meeting of the struggle leaders from both the old and the new generation.

OPINION: #FeesMustFall – Decolonising education

Raising up tomorrow’s leaders

When thousands of student protesters gathered on the lawns of the Union Building in Pretoria in 2015, demanding to be addressed by the president about the deepening education crisis, many were surprised by the presence of a stoic figure on their side of the picket line: Kathrada was at their march.

His presence did not go unnoticed by the students – a generation that feels disenfranchised and forgotten by the former liberators of the country’s oppressed.

Kalla recalled the renewed fire in their hearts when they realised that Kathrada had not forgotten them.

“Having someone of his calibre there on the picket lines with us was very, very important as we as young people felt let down by our elders who had neglected us in our struggle,” Kalla told Al Jazeera. “But that day, we knew Uncle Kathy would never do that to us.”

Like his friend Mandela, Kathrada always had a soft spot for the youth, believing that it was from their ranks that the future of South Africa would rise.

This task is a difficult one, but we were raised on the shoulders of giants, and we cannot let them down.

by Shaeera Kalla, student activist

Williams-De Bruyn said he wanted to help equip the leaders of tomorrow and ease the suffering of those who would pick up the baton and continue the fight.

“He was quite aware that the young people would have to carry out another struggle. A struggle of now. And so he has equipped you properly, politically, but you also stand in good stead to fight this struggle because now you are educated and the resources are there,” she said at the funeral.

The ongoing student movement embodies many of Kathrada’s ideals: It is young, passionate, and represents various classes, races, genders, religions and sexual orientations. And they know the struggle is far from over.

“By being involved in activism until his last days he made us realise that the struggle for equality and emancipation is never over,” Kalla said. “Uncle Kathy left us as young people with a challenge and that challenge is to continue his generation’s fight for liberation.”

She says she knows it won’t be easy. “This task is a difficult one, but we were raised on the shoulders of giants, and we cannot let them down.”

Neeshan Balton from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation said at the end of the funeral service that on Heroes’ Acre, with neighbours such as South African cleric and leading white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist Beyers Naude, even in death Kathrada will be in a non-racial environment, as he would have wanted.

In a moving statement, emeritus archbishop Desmond Tutu envisioned Kathrada’s imminent reunion with friends long gone.

“May Ahmed rest in peace and rise in glory,” Tutu said. “May he rejoice in many heavenly cups of hot chocolate with his old friends and comrades, Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Motsoaledi and Mahlaba, among them.”

When Mandela, his fellow Robben Island inmate and close friend, died in 2013, Kathrada wrote in a tribute letter: “In death, you once more challenge people from every strata, religion and position to think about how their own actions do and can change the world for better or worse.”

Now, his own death is challenging South Africans to reflect on how far they have come as a nation, and how far they still have to go to achieve the vision and goal of the non-racial, non-sexist society envisioned by this African National Congress leader.

Despite being eligible for a state burial, Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada was laid to rest on Wednesday in a simple burial as per his Islamic faith.

Source: Al Jazeera