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Ahmed Kathrada: a simple life full of love after 26 years of incarceration

Ahmed Kathrada leaves a legacy filled with self-sacrifice and courage. Kopano Tlape/EPA

Ahmed Kathrada, one of South Africa’s preeminent struggle stalwarts who has died at the age of 87, was best known to many as Kathy or Uncle Kathy. He was a most unassuming man. Shy and non-imposing, he would walk through his neighbourhood and if approached it would be like meeting an old family friend. He was warm and gentle, always leaving you with a smile. That’s how I came to know and love him.

His quiet demeanour belied a sharp and inquiring mind. Until his last days he was interested in politics always referring to himself as a political animal. He requested a meeting with Rhodes Must Fall activists, exchanging notes on history and activism.

Often he would remind me that “saints are sinners”. Part of being human we had a margin of error, allowing ourselves the right to self-correct but also to forgive. In many ways, he maintained a childlike innocence – always seeing the best in everyone.

Surrounding himself with strong and opinionated people, he married the fierce and courageous Barbara Hogan whom he adored. She was also an anti-apartheid activist. He was most animated with Barbara and his godchildren, Mateo and Hari, sharing stories of domestic bliss including the famous “mouse in the house” that kept eating bits and pieces of his chocolates. Barbara entertained with good humour all his jabs, revealing a warm and tender relationship.

A man who banished bitterness

Kathrada spent 26 years incarcerated by the apartheid regime, 18 of them on Robben Island, many alongside his friend Nelson Mandela. Barbara reminded me that his life after prison was good, simple but full of love and beauty. Surrounded by family and friends he kept his circle small and lived a humble life without seeking fame or fortune.

He was a role model for his nephews and nieces, never promoting family or friends because if you were worthy of that promotion you should earn it through good work. These values sometimes conflicted with other’s expectations of him. Yet he continued to maintain a strong hold on a simple freedom without being a slave to materialism or power. It was exactly this simple freedom that made his life exceptional.

He didn’t share many stories about the Island. But often he mentioned the unnaturalness of prison by measuring it against the lack of children’s voices. It was children and the youth that excited him. Especially his appreciation for beautiful young women, keeping everyone entertained and, in particular, the story of the young woman that pulled his face to show off her dimple for a selfie.

His hope for the future was a South Africa free of racism and poverty, talking about his wish to see every child in the country going to sleep in a warm bed, after eating a hot meal and waking up to go to school safely. Dignity was for him the cornerstone for human rights. Poverty and markers of marginalisation had to be eradicated so that dignity was ensured for all.

He was old fashioned but he knew that some principles such as the right to love whomever you chose was about restoring dignity. It was this approach that you recognised when you met him. He treated everyone with equal respect.

I was once full of anger and resentment; life had knocked me badly. He invited me to tea as was his custom when he needed to talk. In a gentle manner he spoke about a conscious choice he made not to be bitter when he came out of prison. He said bitterness only affects the person carrying it. Making me laugh, he said you can always tell a bitter person. It’s written on their face.

Self-sacrifice and courage

On reflective moments he would share some of his errors in judgement. In 1951/52 while living for a year in Budapest and working for the World Youth Federation Congress he came upon political prisoners working on a bridge on a cold winter’s night not sufficiently clothed and how he shamefully felt disgust for them.

Later these thoughts would haunt him as he became a political prisoner. He shifted from being a forceful and irreverent youth to being a measured and thoughtful person, never shying away from the politics of the day. He encouraged difference in opinions and reflected on them. It was this openness to see things from a fresh perspective that he encouraged discussions with young people, respecting divergence in historical memory.

He supported the release of political prisoners in Palestine and spoke out against corruption and bad governance in South Africa.

History will be written from varying perspectives. His life and times will be written about in years to come and will be contested and challenged. Unlike other Rivonia Trialists who were sentenced to life imprisonment, he could have had a lighter sentencing. He chose life imprisonment out of loyalty with his comrades.

One thing is certain, he leaves a legacy that is filled with stories of self-sacrifice and courage. Even though much of the country’s history of the struggle is beginning to be forgotten, his is a legacy I hope South Africans can use as an example for a good life. He leaves a gaping hole in many hearts and his unwavering courage to speak out in matters of national interest will be missed.

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