AHMED KATHRADA - A great and gentle revolutionary, 1929-2017

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017

Ahmed Mohamed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada was born on 21 August 1929 in the small rural town of Schweizer-Reneke, about three hundred kilometres from Johannesburg. An immigrant from India, his father ran a small general dealer shop. The Kathrada family was not wealthy, but managed a comfortable standard of living. Relationships across racial lines were cordial, empathetic and generally peaceful though it was understood that political and economic bias was skewed towards white people at the expense of people of colour. The land upon which his father had opened his business could not be owned by him as Indians were forbidden from owning land.


As a child Kathy was blissfully unaware of the racial divide that existed at that time. His playmates were straddled across the racial divide, an Afrikaner midwife had facilitated his birth and his very first teacher was an African. However, at the age of eight he had to move to Johannesburg. The rural town had a school for whites and one for Africans but no school facilities for young Indians.

Ahmed Kathrada

At the age of nine, Kathy came across the name of Dr Yusuf Dadoo, a leader in the Indian community and a revolutionary devoted to the Communist Party of South Africa. Dr Dadoo was an inspiring, charming and defiant political activist who promoted the concept of non-racial unity, communism, women empowerment and active resistance against discriminatory laws. Kathy’s respect for Dr Dadoo awakened his own political awareness and soon he was attending meetings and later distributing leaflets, putting up posters, painting slogans on walls and volunteering for campaigns.Through these political actions Kathy met and began to associate with fellow activists who would become life-long friends.

Revolutionary Activism

In the 1940s, the rise of the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses led by Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker, marked a shift to militant politics and cooperation with the African National Congress (ANC).

In 1948, Malan's National Party government enacted new apartheid laws, as well as the stricter application of existing discriminatory legislation such as the Pass laws and amendments to the Immorality Act. At the tender age of twelve Kathy joined the Young Communist League and at age 17 participated in the Passive Resistance Campaign mounted by the Indian Congresses. He gave up his schooling to work fulltime and was one of two thousand people arrested and imprisoned for defying a law that discriminated against Indians. This was his first jail sentence for civil disobedience. On release he founded the Transvaal Indian Youth Volunteer Corps.

As the alliance between the ANC and Indian Congresses developed, Kathy came into close contact with Nelson Mandela (whom he first met in 1945), Walter Sisulu, JB Marks and other leaders of the liberation movement.

Kholvad House

In 1947 he moved into Flat 13, Kholvad House, which would become a key meeting point for prominent political activists during this time. ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli occasionally stayed there as did Rev Michael Scott, an Anglican priest and human rights activist. Other visitors included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Advocate Duma Nokwe, Robert Resha, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Tommy and Bob Vassen, Aggie Patel, Dr Chota Motala, George Peake, Alex La Guma and Reggie September.

After living there for seventeen years, he was instructed by the leadership to go underground. Because he was given only about four hours to do so, he decided to leave everything in the hands of Ameen Cajee, his friend and flat mate. Cajee and his family lived there for the 26 years that Kathy was incarcerated and immediately made it available to him upon his release. Kathy took advantage of the offer and stayed there for a short period but later returned it to Cajee.

In 1951, Kathy was selected to visit Berlin to attend the World Youth Festival and from there he visited the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, which left an indelible impression on him. He worked at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth in Budapest for nine months.

Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela

Defiance Campaign

Returning to South Africa, he immersed himself in the organisation of the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws that was jointly launched by the ANC and the South African Indian Congress in 1952. All the organisers were arrested but were released on bail. The trial of amongst others, Walter Sisulu, JB Marks, Nelson Mandela, Yusuf Dadoo and Kathy began in November. On 2 December 1952, all twenty were found guilty of ‘statutory communism’ and sentenced to nine month's imprisonment with hard labour, but this was suspended for two years.

In 1953 Kathy was elected to the executive of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. He joined the protests against the Bantu Education Act of 1954 and was active in the campaign against the removal of Africans from Sophiatown in Johannesburg. The regime then served banning orders on him, prohibiting him from attending gatherings and from membership of a long list of organisations.

Ahmed Kathrada, Nelson Mandela and Barbara Hogan

Despite this, in 1954 Kathy helped organise the Congress of the People which adopted the Freedom Charter on 26 June 1955.

Treason Trial

In 1956, he was one of the activists and leaders charged for High Treason. The regime restricted him to Johannesburg in 1957. While they were on trial, in 1960, the ANC and PAC were banned and he was detained, with the other defendants.

Going Underground

By the time Kathy joined the newly formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, he had already been a veteran of the struggle for twenty years. Kathy recalled that he was among MK’s earliest recruits, and also served ‘on the regional command that identified potential targets even before the official launch of the armed wing on 16 December 1961’. He was a member of a unit that carried out modest sabotage with the dual purpose of assessing targets and testing the efficacy of their equipment. However, Kathy soon realised that his aptitude lay in doing political work rather than in the military field, but at no time did he object to the decision to move to an armed struggle.

Kathy’s five-year banning order expired in January 1962 and was only reissued nine months later. During this period, Kathy was part of a small committee that was responsible for the transport and security of Nelson Mandela. They made arrangements for Mandela to illegally leave South Africa to canvass support from the newly independent African countries for both the ANC and MK, and ensured that he returned safely to South Africa.

Photo Credit Benny Gool title: Robben Island veterans visiting Madiba at home, 7 June 2007 Robben Island veterans visiting Madiba at home, 7 June 2007 Top row from l to r: Laloo “Isu”Chiba, Michael Dingake, Kwedi Mkalipi,Eddie Daniels, Ahmed Kathrada Bottom row: Billy Nair and Nelson Mandela

A few weeks later Mandela was arrested. Kathy became secretary of the Free Mandela Committee, and launched the ‘Free Mandela’ campaign that was to develop into one of the greatest international campaigns in later years. Together with Joe Slovo, who was Madiba’s lawyer, Kathy consulted with Mandela on numerous occasions, and attended the opening of the trial in Pretoria. This drew the attention of the Security Police, and by that evening Kathy was slapped with house arrest. Kathy became the second person after Helen Joseph to be placed under house arrest.

Soon after the arrest of Reggie Vandeyar, Indres Naidoo and Shirish Nanabhai for MK activities on 17 April 1963, Kathy was instructed by the SACP to go underground, and relocate to Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia.

Rivonia Trial

On an ill-fated day, 11 July 1963, Liliesleaf farm was raided, and Kathy was arrested with all those who were present. He was charged under the Sabotage Act, in what infamously became known as the Rivonia Trial - often referred to as ‘the trial that changed South Africa’. On 30 October 1963, Kathy along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi, Rusty Bernstein, James Kantor and Andrew Mlangeni appeared in the Pretoria Supreme Court charged on two counts of sabotage.

The defence team comprised of Joel Joffe, and Bram Fischer, Vernon Berrange, Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos. The trial judge was Justice Quartus de Wet, with the Prosecution being led by Dr Percy Yutar. The Verwoerd government was hoping for the maximum sentence for the accused i.e. the death penalty and from the outset, the defence team informed their clients that they should expect the worst. All ten accused pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Lifelong friends and Former Robben Islanders - Isu Chiba, Ahmed Kathrada, Reggie Vandeyar anf Shirish Nanabhai

The trial ended on 12 June 1964, with the court sentencing eight of the convicted to life imprisonment. Seven of the trialists were incarcerated on Robben Island Prison, and Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central Prison because white prisoners were not allowed on Robben Island. The life sentences received was seen as a reprieve because they had been expecting the death sentence.

Prisoner 468/64

The sentence pronounced by the judge at the Rivonia Trial presaged the beginning of a new phase in Kathy’s life. The trialists were transported by plane to Robben Island, Kathy was given the prison number 468/64 – the four hundred and sixty-eighth prisoner to be admitted to the Island that year.

Prison regulations dictated that Coloured and Indian prisoners were to receive long pants, shoes and socks whilst African prisoners were to get short pants and no socks. Kathy who was the youngest of the seven Rivonia trialists on the island was uncomfortable to see his elders in short pants, especially in the midst of winter. This differentiation also extended to the diet – the amount and type of food varied according to race classification. After his release in 1989, Kathy would remark on this many times when retelling the story of his time in prison.

They were kept in total isolation from the other political and common law prisoners on the Island. Over time, they would find innovative ways of communicating with the other political section, and Kathy served on the Communications Committee which was tasked with doing this, and to somehow get news of what was happening in the world beyond the island.

The ANC members on the Island also established a committee called the ‘High Organ’. By 1965, they started work in the lime quarry with picks and shovels. This was hard physical work, and Kathy had difficulty adjusting to the use of picks and wheelbarrows laden with stones. The prison had people from all the different liberation organisations besides the ANC, such as the Pan Africanist Congress, the Unity Movement, the Black Consciousness Movement and the Liberal Party. Despite political differences and rivalries, the Islanders learnt to respect each other and cooperate and unite in the fight for better prison conditions.

In 1972 Kathy’s mother passed away. Kathy had last seen her about ten years before.


Prisoners were allowed to study and Kathy who had dropped out of school in his matric year successfully completed two undergraduate degrees, BA and BBibl – in history, criminology, African politics and library science. He also completed BA Honours in African studies and history; all through the University of South Africa (UNISA), the long distance education university.

Besides academic education, the ANC members also had to undergo political education. The syllabus consisted of subjects as the history of the ANC, the history of the trade union movement and international relations.

There was a constant battle on the Island for better prison conditions. One of the strategies the prisoners used was to embark on hunger strikes. Another was legal action. Through these actions prison conditions did improve. African prisoners were given long pants, games were allowed, the diet improved and hot showers were provided.

Transfer to Pollsmoor Prison

On 21 October 1982, Kathy was transferred to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland, in the City of Cape Town’s suburb of Tokai. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni and Raymond Mhlaba had been transferred in April 1982. And Kathy was reunited with them, being placed in the same communal cell. It was at Pollsmoor that on 8 February 1985 the five were offered conditional release from prison, provided that they undertook not to join the uprising that was sweeping the country. The offer was rejected.

In December 1988, Nelson Mandela was moved to a warder’s house at Victor Verster Prison about 76kms from Pollsmoor Prison. Kathy was to visit Madiba once more and then all of them were taken to visit Madiba on 10 October 1985. On 13 October Kathy together with Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Wilton Mkwayi and Oscar Mpetha were flown to Johannesburg and were taken to Diepkloof Prison where they found Japhta ‘Jeff’ Masemola. On the morning of Sunday, 15 October, the eight were released and driven by convoy to their various destinations.

Fidel Castro and Ahmed Kathrada

After spending 26 years, 3 months and 4 days in jail, Kathy was finally free.

Building the New South Africa

The early 1990s heralded a new phase in Kathy's life. In the aftermath of his own release in 1989 and the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release of Nelson Mandela – Kathy dedicated himself to building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. Kathy accompanied Madiba on his first visit abroad, where they were reunited with Oliver Tambo in Sweden.

Kathy was actively re-building relationships with family and comrades, many of whom were banned, exiled or imprisoned. It is during this time that Kathy met Barbara Hogan with whom he started a romantic relationship. Some years later they married. Barbara was sentenced to ten years in prison in the early 1980s for furthering the aims of a banned organisation and inadvertently became the first woman to be found guilty of high treason. The two ex-jailbirds decided to spend the rest of their lives together.

Building the ANC

The ANC decided that the mainstay of its strategy during this time would be the re-establishment of the organisation in the country. This would entail building a mass organisation coupled with heightened mobilisation.

At Johannesburg Park Station: Ahmed Kathrada, Dr. Zainub Asvat, Oliver Tambo, Cief Albert Luthuli, Tommy Vassen, Amina Cachalia

In 1990, the ANC Lenasia Branch was the first to be set up in the present Gauteng Province and Kathy was enrolled as its first member. In 1991, the ANC elected Nelson Mandela as its president. Kathy was elected as a member of the National Executive Committee and appointed as head of public relations. He was the public face of the organisation.

Political violence had become endemic across the country. Lurking behind most of the political violence was the invisible hand of the ‘Third Force’. This was really a short hand for the apartheid state's security establishment's efforts to destabilize the passage to peace and democracy.

The internecine conflict in Natal between supporters of Inkatha and the liberation movement continued unabated. Political violence in 1993 severely tested the peace process in the country. On 10 April 1993, Chris Hani, the General Secretary of the SACP and NEC member of the ANC was assassinated. Soon after Oliver Tambo passed away.

27 April 1994 was the date of South Africa’s first democratic elections. Kathy describes the casting of his ballot as a ‘thrilling experience’. People in the millions waited their turn to cast their vote, signalling the death of the old order and the ushering in of a new one.

Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor

Kathy was elected to Parliament but was reluctant to become a minister. Madiba then decided that Kathy should become his Parliamentary Counsellor, meaning the president’s representative in the legislative arm of government. This suited Kathy because he worked in the President’s office and advised him on the weighty matters of the state.

At the ANC’s Mafikeng conference in 1997, Kathy stepped down from the National Executive Committee of the ANC. He also decided not to continue as a Member of Parliament in 1999 when he completed his five year term. He decided that he wanted to devote himself to some of things that he was passionate about.

Elder Statesman

Kathy began a new phase of his life in 1999. He was keen to record his life story and the history of the struggle against apartheid. He also wanted to devote more time to work on Robben Island. This led to the establishment of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which has become a leading anti-racism voice in the country.

Immediately after retiring from Parliament, Kathy devoted several years to writing his biography. Simply entitled Memoirs (2004), it is a fascinating book about a modest man who experienced a momentous life. It allows entry into the life of Ahmed Kathrada, a very humble yet very real hero, whose steadfast adherence to the highest ideals helped alter the future of a nation. It offers an essential and all-too-rare view into the mind and soul of a truly great and profoundly gentle revolutionary.

Robben Island

Kathy was appointed by President Mandela as the chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council in 1997 and was instrumental in the establishment of the museum and it being declared a World Heritage Site. Kathy had made more than three hundred trips to the Island since his release and his passion for it had been fuelled by the idea that a place of oppression can be transformed into a place of liberation.

Nelson Mandela’s Confidant

Nelson Mandela and Kathy both retired from state office in 1999. Kathy played a key role in the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which was to serve as Madiba’s post-presidential office. He was appointed as a board member at its inception and remained one until December 2015. Kathy was involved in several books on Madiba’s life which he did by jogging the latter’s memory, thereby verifying the facts; and was consulted on many important political and personal issues that confronted the former president.

Ahmed Kathrada Foundation

In 2008, Kathy was persuaded to set up an institution in his name that would promote the values, initiatives and programmes that he held dear to his heart. Cyril Ramaphosa, the inaugural Chairperson, speaking at its launch said: ‘We see the foundation as a critical vehicle to promote and to deepen our understanding of the concept of non-racialism . . . which includes the democratic values of human dignity, equality, human rights and non-sexism.’

Building Non-Racialism and Internationalism

The Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation facilitated the formation of the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA) and currently serve as the secretariat. It strives to coordinate and support national and international anti-racism strategies.

Kathy maintained a strong sense of solidarity with oppressed people in other parts of the world. He acknowledged the leading role played by India in isolating apartheid South Africa. In his November 2014 statement marking the 125th anniversary of the birth of Jawaharlal Nehru, Kathy said: ‘A general ban on trade between India and South Africa was in place since 1946. No vessel with a South African flag was allowed at Indian seaports and Indian ships were not allowed to call on South African ports. It was only in the 1980s that the rest of the world started to follow the lead of India and the isolation of South Africa from all facets of global life took hold.’

Speaking Out

When the Constitutional Court ruled in 2016 that President Jacob Zuma had contravened the Constitution, Kathy decided to write a letter to him. He said that he was ‘breaking with tradition’ and expressed his disquiet that the President had ‘failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law’. Kathy called upon the President to resign.

Passing On

At the beginning of March 2017, Kathy was admitted to hospital, suffered a number of complications and eventually succumbed on 28 March at 3:45a.m. At the age of 87, Ahmed Kathrada, the third surviving Rivonia trialist was no more.

In accordance with his wishes that he should be buried in line with Islamic rites, Kathy’s funeral was held the next day at Westpark Cemetery. It was attended by well over three thousand people, from all walks of life. It commenced with Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Jewish prayers. It was addressed by his close friend, Laloo Isu Chiba; Sophie Williams-de Bruyn, an old comrade; his nephew Nazir Kathrada on behalf of the family; and speakers from the ANC, COSATU and SACP. The eulogy was delivered by former president Kgalema Motlanthe. Speakers at the funeral made powerful statements that the values that Kathy stood for were being trampled upon; that people who were speaking out need to be defended; and those abusing power must resign.

Compiled by AwaaZ, courtesy Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

Last modified on Monday, 10 July 2017 01:27

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