Ahmed Kathrada spent decades in jail with Nelson Mandela, then spent the first years of democracy helping to shape the country’s government after the fall of apartheid. Kathrada, 87, died in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning.
According to a statement posted by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, he “passed away peacefully after a short period of illness, following surgery to the brain.”
Friends and strangers alike called Kathrada by the nickname Kathy, which was bestowed on him by his eighth-grade teacher, who was Afrikaans, a member of the white minority descended from Dutch colonists.
“Afrikaans-speaking chap,” Kathrada explained in an interview with NPR earlier this year. “And he could not pronounce my name — Kathrada — so he changed it to Kathy. And it stuck. Since 1944.”
Kathy was a leader in the fledgling Indian-rights movement in Johannesburg in the 1950s. He moved there when he was 8 to attend school because there was no school for Indians in his hometown of Schweizer-Reneke. His parents were immigrants from Gujarat. Indian families in rural South Africa were quite rare.
“So when I was arrested in the Free State in 1955, the head of police said, ‘I’ve never seen an Indian in my life. I’ve got a cell for whites, I’ve got a cell for blacks. I don’t have a cell to put you,'” Kathrada recalled.
Kathrada told NPR that he initially supported passive resistance, then eventually agreed with the African National Congress, the struggle movement turned political party, to create an armed resistance to overthrow the apartheid government.
When the ANC was banned in 1960, Kathrada went underground. On July 11, 1963, he was arrested with other ANC leaders. It led to the Rivonia Trial, the most famous case in South Africa’s history.
Kathrada, with fellow defendants including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, agreed from the outset not to appeal their convictions of treason.
“They said prepare for the worst,” he said. “They didn’t say the word hang, but they said prepare for the very worst.”
Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, the 34-year-old was sent to Robben Island, the infamous prison off Cape Town. He remained locked up until he was 60. He says he never lost faith he would one day be freed. He and other ANC leaders helped Mandela draft his memoirs in prison and smuggle them outside.
After his release, Kathrada preached forgiveness. Indeed, his best friend later in life was one of his prison guards.
“Unlike in other colonial countries where the colonists went home after freedom came, our oppressors were South Africans,” he explained. “Born and bred in South Africa. And not a few thousand, but a few million.”
When the ANC won control of South Africa in the first all-race elections in 1994 and dismantled apartheid, Kathrada served as President Mandela’s parliamentary adviser. He, like Mandela, stepped down after one term.
Later, he actually moved back to Robben Island — this time to a private house, where he lived for nearly five years as president of the Robben Island Museum.
He enjoyed giving VIP tours of the prison-turned-museum to world leaders.
“That’s on my CV,” he said with a laugh. “Professional, unpaid tour guide. I’ve been there more than 300 times.”
Kathrada is survived by his longtime partner Barbara Hogan, herself a former political prisoner and government minister.
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