Ahmed Kathrada dies at 87; Nelson Mandela's trusted ally helped overturn apartheid in South Africa

Ahmed Kathrada, a close confidante of Nelson Mandela who dedicated his life to opposing apartheid and racism, died in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning. He was 87.

Kathrada died after suffering a "short period of illness," according to a statement from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. He was hospitalized earlier in March to receive treatment for blood clotting in his brain.

Kathrada, or Kathy as South Africans affectionately called him, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island during the apartheid era, with Nelson Mandela and 10 other anti-apartheid activists, all arrested in a 1963 police raid on their hideout at Liliesleaf Farm, north of Johannesburg.

Kathrada, an African National Congress activist, played a major role in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He called Mandela his “elder brother,” and mourned his 2013 death with the words, “My life is a void.”

He got his first taste of politics when he was 12 and served his first stint in jail for political activism at 17. He was banned from political activities but continued to play cat-and-mouse with South African police. He was arrested 18 times.

Kathrada was the son of Indian migrants, Mohamed and Hawa Kathrada, who arrived from Gujarat in India and set up a small shop in 1919 in the modest town of Schweizer Reneke, 200 miles from Johannesburg, in what is now North West Province. Barred from the local primary schools as an Indian, he went to Fordsburg, Johannesburg, to live with his aunt, Fatima, and attend an Indian school.

At 12, he joined a nonracial youth group run by the Youth Communist League and he soon volunteered to hand out leaflets.

He left school in his final year to work for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council, an organization that led peaceful protests against the racist segregation laws that preceded apartheid (which came in 1948) and barred blacks, Indians and people of color from voting, living and doing business in certain areas or buying land.

Thousands of Indians marched in Durban, staging a national strike and pitching tents in the city’s center, which they called Resistance City. Police arrested 2,000 people over several months in 1946, including Kathrada, who was jailed for a month. From then on, Kathrada was in and out of trouble with the law for political resistance.

To Kathrada, “a life of humiliation and without dignity is not worth living,” words he wrote in one of his letters from Robben Island. He ignored the racist “Europeans Only” signs and laws that enforced segregation and prohibited blacks, Indians and other people of color from traveling freely. Once, when he got onto a Europeans-only bus, an indignant white woman told him and his colleagues to read the sign.

“We responded by saying that, ‘We do not mind sharing a lift with Europeans,’ and that she was welcome to join us,” he wrote last year on the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation website. “Of course, she must have been horrified at the attitude of us ‘non-Europeans’ and chose not to take the lift. But, we asserted our dignity, and made our point.”

In 1951, Kathrada traveled to an international student congress in Poland and visited Auschwitz, which he said had a profound effect on him, encapsulating the evil of institutionalized racism.

A year later, he helped organize the Defiance Campaign, a peaceful protest campaign, and was one of 20 leaders convicted and given a suspended sentence of nine months’ hard labor.

He was banned from attending gatherings or participating in politics, but that didn’t slow his activism.

In 1955, he was one of the organizers of a people’s congress in Kliptown, Soweto, that proclaimed the Freedom Charter — a document demanding a nonracial South Africa where all races were equal. It later became the foundation of South Africa’s constitution. Banned from political activity, Kathrada had to hide in a storeroom during the event.

In the early 1960s he began dating a white girlfriend, Sylvia Neame, another anti-apartheid activist. Such relationships were illegal under apartheid laws. When he was jailed on Robben Island in 1963, Neame told him that she would wait for him, but in 1965 she was jailed for two years for her political activities, and she fled South Africa soon after her release.

Kathrada, along with Mandela, was one of 156 anti-apartheid activists charged in the four-year Treason Trial in 1956. All were eventually acquitted.

But Kathrada was continually harassed by police, arrested, banned and placed under house arrest. Friends advised him to flee into exile but he said he was determined to stay and continue resisting the regime. He went underground in 1962, adopting disguises when he wanted to move about, but was arrested again in 1963 with Mandela and 10 others and convicted of sabotage.

The prisoners were shackled and flown to Robben Island, where he would spend 18 years of a 26-year sentence. Family members and friends were often barred from visiting him. Newspapers and radios were banned in the prison and Kathrada was allowed to receive only one letter every six months.

When prison authorities gave Mandela and the other black prisoners shorts and Kathrada got trousers, he intended to insist on wearing shorts too. Mandela urged him not to give up any benefit he had, but instead to fight for all to have the same benefit. Kathrada and other Indian and colored prisoners shared food rations with black prisoners who were given less.

The prisoners concealed items in secret compartments and bribed or blackmailed guards to get hold of newspapers or smuggle out letters. Kathrada spent six months in solitary confinement for smuggling a letter to another prisoner.

In prison he wrote to his mother that he regretted neglecting his formal education. He made up for it, becoming the first prisoner on Robben Island to get a degree, a bachelor of the arts in history and criminology. Later he received three additional degrees.

He kept a secret collection of letters and notebooks of inspiring quotations, but they were confiscated in 1972, along with a photograph of his girlfriend. A warden destroyed the photograph in front of him, saying Kathrada had no right to keep a photograph of a white woman.

Later, Kathrada and another prisoner took advantage of the weekend guards’ shift, offering to clean out the cell where the confiscated items were being held. They recovered many of his letters and notebooks.

The injustices of apartheid — some petty, some large — always hurt, but Kathrada wrote from prison that “my nature will not allow me to harbor hatred for anyone, no matter how deeply he may have wounded my feelings.”

In 1989, at the age of 60, he was released from prison and soon met a woman who would be his life partner, Barbara Hogan, another ANC activist. She had been jailed for 10 years for high treason. The couple never had children.

Kathrada was elected to parliament in the first democratic elections in 1994 and became an advisor to Mandela.

Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, believes South Africa could have been plunged into civil war in the 1990s if not for Mandela, Kathrada and other activists.

“People like Kathy have helped because of their lack of bitterness, their magnanimity and generosity of spirit and willingness to forgive, even after so much suffering,” Tutu said.

After his release, getting used to devices such as cellphones and computers, Kathrada occasionally missed the calm reflective moments of prison.

“I missed prison. There, they open the gates for you and close the gates. They provide food. There was a lot of time to think and discuss. That time was gone,” he told one journalist.

He believes Robben Island, now a museum, should not be seen as a memorial to the brutality of apartheid.

“We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness, a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness,” he said. The words are inscribed near the entrance of Robben Island prison.

Kathrada is survived by his partner, Hogan.

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