Ahmed Kathrada – My comrade and brother

Ahmed Kathrada was arrested at Liliesleaf farm, along with other ANC leaders, and spent 26 years in prison, 18 of those on Robben Island. He remained close to Nelson Mandela until the end.

After the passing of anti – apartheid hero Ahmed Kathrada, Opus remembers the South African statesman with this exclusive interview.


Of course, the best story that former Rivonia Trialist Ahmed Kathrada tells us about Nelson Mandela happens after the interview, when we had already packed up our recording equipment.

We were looking at photographs of him with all kinds of celebrities, including Will Smith and Beyonce who he had shown around Robben Island, when he pointed at a picture of a young girl who, he said, had inspired him the most. Her name was Michelle Brits.

“I met her on Robben Island when I was accompanying Nadine Gordimer and Verna Hunt. She asked me whether she could have her photograph taken with me. I joked that it would cost her.

I later learnt that she was there as part of “Reach for a Dream”, because she was dying. Th e two things she had wanted to do before she died were to visit the Island and meet Madiba. “I later went to Madiba and said to him that he should meet this girl and asked when I could bring her to him. He said we should not put the girl through unnecessary pressure and that he would go to her. A few weeks later he went to visit her in her home in Secunda in Mpumalanga. He flew there in a helicopter, bearing gifts for this sick child.”

Kathrada is one of the few people who can legitimately call Nelson Mandela a friend, but refuses to do so out of respect for Madiba. He was one of the eight men who were sentenced to life imprisonment after the Rivonia Trial in 1964 and spent 26 years on Robben Island, most of that alongside Mandela.

We spoke to him in August 2013 at his flat opposite the Company’s Garden in Cape Town about his relationship and recollections of Mandela.

When was the last time you saw the former President?
The last time was a few weeks ago when he was already in hospital.

How was the interaction with him?
It was very traumatic. He was conscious but he had pipes so he could only respond with his eyes. That’s how one could tell that he understood. It was a short visit; all the people who went to see him were only given a few minutes and it was by invitation only. I was there for only a few minutes. I touched him and said a few words to which he responded with his eyes. It was traumatic because all my life I’ve known him as a strong, tall, well-built man – a boxer – now to see him in that state, which is a shadow of how I’ve known him all my life, was traumatic.

Can you remember your first interaction with Nelson Mandela?
What I remember is that it was around 1945 or 1946.

How old were you at the time?
I was about 17, at high school and he was at Wits University. I met him through his fellow students, Ismail Meer and JN Singh, who were studying law with him. Ismail had a flat which I inherited after he left. They used to come to the flat after lectures. That was where I first saw Nelson Mandela. At the time non-whites, especially Africans, were very few at university or as professionals so one would be in awe of him and want to be like him. He had this ability to relate to me, a high school kid, almost as an equal, wanting to know what my interests were, what I wanted to do and so on. I could go back and boast to my classmate that I was with this man who was a university student and he treated me like a friend. That was the first impact.

What were your initial impressions of Mandela?
The impression was of this university student who was able to relate to me as a high school student who was 11 years younger than him.

Did your impressions of him change over the years as you interacted with him and got to know him better?
It got stronger as I met him at various types of events and we grew quite close. He had an amazing quality and he could relate to a child, a peasant, an aristocrat, royalty and anyone. He related easily to people and that’s been proven over and over again.

You are one of the few remaining Rivonia Trialists. Do you still see the others? Do you get together?
Not as Rivonia Trialists, but I was in Mandela’s offi ce when he was the President for five years and we also served on the national executive together. We were quite close at that time to the extent that I had open access to him without appointments.

Did you believe at the time of the Rivonia Trial that he would live to see South Africa become a democratic country?
At the time of the trial the predominant thought in our minds was death. This was emphasised to us during the 90-day detention period where our only visitors were police. They would come from time to time to interrogate us and get information about colleagues and activities. They would come with one message only: “If you do not give this information, you are going to die”. When the 90-day period was over and we saw our lawyers for the first time, they told us to prepare for the worst. During the whole trial we expected death.

We had four of the most senior leaders of the ANC among the eight of us: Mandela, [Walter] Sisulu, [Govan] Mbeki and [Raymond] Mhlaba. Collectively they told us how we should be conducting this trial as a political trial not as a criminal trial. Some of us went into the witness box while others didn’t. It was agreed that when we got into the witness box, we would not dispute genuine evidence. But on the other hand we would not volunteer the evidence that they did not have. You go in, proclaim your political beliefs and you admit if there’s evidence you say: “Yes it is true”. You don’t ask for mercy, you don’t apologise. We had taken a collective decision that if we received the death sentence, there would be no appeal. Until the very last day the expectation among the lawyers and us was that we would get the death penalty.

How much input did the other trialists have in the very famous speech that Nelson Mandela made at the trial?
He made his speech at the beginning of the defence case. Th e prosecution expected him to go into the witness box to be open to cross-examination, but we had taken a decision collectively in order to have political impact. All of us had gone through every bit of the speech and had all agreed. As a fellow prisoner he was obviously not allowed to speak on behalf of us but in fact he was speaking on our behalf. Th e implications were clear, even one of the lawyers asked us if we were aware that we were asking for the death sentence, especially the last part of it. The lawyer who had appeared for us at the mitigation stage said: “You chaps are asking for the death sentence”, but this was a collective political decision and our lawyers were mostly political people so they agreed wholeheartedly with our approach.

Were you comfortable with Mandela making the speech, especially the part where he said: “I am prepared to die”?
Absolutely. It didn’t come as a surprise. We had agreed to it.

If you had to reflect on the trial, what stood out for you?
The moment would be the end of his speech where he said:“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. That was an electric moment. Although we knew it, we reacted the way the people and the prosecution reacted to it. The second moment was when we all expected death and the judge said life. Those are the two moments that stood out for me.

What went through your mind when the judge said “I’m imposing a life sentence on the accused”?
Personally I didn’t hear it. He was very soft. It was only when Denis Goldberg shouted: “Life!” across to the people in the gallery when most of us realised that it was life and not death. Th ere was a collective sigh of relief among us that we were not going to die.

When you arrived on Robben Island you found yourself, as someone classified as Indian, having more rights than your comrades who were classified as African. How did you deal with that situation?
We were eight but Denis Goldberg was not with us so the seven of us were sent to Robben Island. I was the only Indian and the youngest in our group. I was not the youngest on Robben Island because there were even 15-year-olds there. As an Indian among the seven, I was given preferential treatment. I had long trousers and my comrades who were older than me had to wear shorts. Govan Mbeki was 20 years my senior, Sisulu was 18 years my senior and Madiba was 11 years my senior. Yet I was getting long trousers and my leaders and elders were in shorts. Th e attitude of whites generally was that all Africans were children and children wore short trousers.

Then it came to food, we had the same food – porridge, soup and coffee –but I would get more sugar than Mandela. Not that mine was too much, but it was more than Mandela and less than Denis Goldberg. I would get a quarter loaf of bread. Both Indians and coloureds got bread, but Mandela got bread for the first time after 10 years. One’s instinct was to reject that, but Madiba said: “No, politically you don’t give up what you have”. One coloured prisoner protested about the discrimination and as Madiba had predicted the response was that “you must complain in writing and we will reclassify you from coloured to black, you then will have the same food”. Madiba was right. In three years we managed to equalise the clothing but food took 10 years. There was one advantage we had; there were about 25 of us completely isolated and among that group there were about a dozen of us who were either Indian or coloured. So when things relaxed we put a lot of food together so at least among the 25 of us we had the same food. That obviously could not be the case among the hundreds of other prisoners in communal cells.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

What are the strongest memories you have of the Island and your interaction with Mandela at the time?
The strongest memory is when we arrived and Madiba, on behalf of the leadership, said: “We are now prisoners not leaders, we don’t make policies, we don’t give instructions. Our leaders are outside”. At the time Chief [Albert] Luthuli was still alive and the late Oliver Tambo led our comrades in exile. Mandela said that that was the national executive, and they were there to make policy and instructions. Our main objective was to concentrate on the work of prisoners and ensure that we continue with political education. There was also a lot of emphasis on academics, but we encountered lots of problems. Instead of encouraging us to study, the authorities discouraged us. They said those who want to study formally with a college or university had to have money and that money had to come from the immediate family and not from lawyers or the church. Th e Red Cross would send money but it was sent back. Even books were sent back. Th at disqualifi ed the vast majority from formally studying so there was an emphasis on informal studies. In our section, Neville Alexander started an organisation called RITA [Robben Island Teachers Association] and their main job was to teach us. I owe whatever I did personally to Neville. He was such a brilliant chap and a natural teacher. I did library science, not because I was interested but we had ulterior motives for everything. Neville took my books and guided me so I could get through my degree. There were illiterate people, mostly in the communal section, but in our section there were three who were completely illiterate. Neville concentrated on them with the help of Govan Mbeki and Fikile Bam as he wasn’t Xhosa speaking. It was the same in the communal cells. We can boast that no prisoner left Robben Island illiterate. I can give you two examples. One was a young chap who came there at the age of 15. He was sentenced to 10 years and in that time he did his matric. His parents had money so he did his BA as well as his BJuris. He completed his law studies outside and today he is the deputy chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Judge Dikgang Moseneke. Another example is a young person who came from a really poor family and he had no money to study formally. He wasn’t illiterate; he didn’t complete primary school but he could at least read and write. He came out of prison after 10 years without a certifi cate but he was an educated man: that’s President [Jacob] Zuma. I am not talking politics now. I am talking about Robben Island. Those are two of many examples one can give of informal education. Nobody left illiterate. President Zuma could stand with anybody in the world. If I may just go back, when Madiba and others said we were no longer leaders they carried that out. He did everything that ordinary prisoners had to do. In 1977, after 13 years in jail, he was offered release provided he went to the Transkei. He refused, saying all of South Africa belonged to both blacks and whites. I followed his example when I was offered release in 1982 and I refused.

What were the conditions they gave for your release?
The conditions were that I won’t take part in politics. I didn’t even bother about it but he got the message. I didn’t want to give an immediate reply and I told them it was a very weighty issue and I had to consult my lawyer. Dullah Omar and I wanted to see each other so this gave us an opportunity and I told him to please write a letter saying I’m not interested. More than that when it came to hard work, people like Madiba could have easily asked for exemption but he refused and he was with us. When it came to hunger strikes again some of us who were younger agreed that our elders who may not be too well should be exempted but they refused and they went through all hunger strikes, except those who had medical reasons. The whole approach of the leadership was no preferential treatment except those with doctor’s orders. Madiba had high blood pressure and cholesterol so medically he had to have some things which were different. That’s how they conducted themselves. You would see Madiba polishing the floor. Everything that we did they did. I discovered something recently which I knew but it hit me hard. During the day when we were working we were together but at night there was no communication because we were in single cells. Madiba, Sisulu and their families had a lot of trouble outside, such as detention, exile and punishment which they never showed to us. Their first duty was to the fellow prisoners. When I read Winnie’s [Mandela] book, I read there what he managed to hide from us. He hid the inner feelings which he would not show during the day when he wrote [letters]. I saw that letter for the first time in Winnie’s book. Before, during and after prison Sisulu was like a father to me. I had lost my father in 1944 when I came to Johannesburg and he was like my father. At Pollsmoor the last seven years we were together. Th e two of us were in one cell and the other two, Mlangeni and Mhlaba, were in a different cell. Madiba was of course not with us. There I saw that while during the day they didn’t make us feel how much anxiety they had about their families, it was when the two of us were alone that I experienced it. Th ere was one very cold night that I’ll never forget. His eyes were weak. I was fast asleep but I woke up for some reason. By that time, after 15 years, we had beds and I saw Walter with a photo album of his family. His eyesight was bad so he was going through the photos page by page. I noticed that it was a regular thing on a Saturday night to connect with his family. During the day they may have talked about it but they never showed the measure of their concern for their family. Their concern was always for fellow prisoners.

You are one of the few people who can call Nelson Mandela a friend?
I think it is a bit arrogant to be described as a friend. According to custom he is my elder brother, and Walter Sisulu was my father. I would not be presumptuous to call him my friend as he has always been my elder brother, and comrade of course.

I’ve had conflicting reports about the decision to focus the campaign for the release of political prisoners on Mandela. Was this discussed on Robben Island at all?
If I remember correctly, and I may be mistaken, the call was made by the World newspaper editor Percy Qoboza. The decision that it must be called the “Release Nelson Mandela” campaign was taken outside and we had nothing to do with it. I also understand that there was some debate outside the country where some people said that it should be “Release all political prisoners”, but there was a need to focus on one individual and that’s how I believe it became the “Release Mandela” campaign.

How did other prisoners feel about this notion of the campaign focusing on Nelson Mandela?
There was no debate about it. You must also realise that about 25 of us were completely isolated from the hundreds of other political prisoners so I can’t say what happened there. But we never heard of any disputes and we were not there to address them if there was any at all.

How was the consultation on Robben Island, did you get to interact with the other hundreds of prisoners at all?
Yes, I had the public knowledge. He also acknowledges in his book that I was head of the committee that was in charge, firstly, of getting news. For 15 years we didn’t have newspapers. Secondly, we had to establish and maintain contact with our comrades in the other section. We had to devise all sorts of means to keep in contact. We got into all sorts of troubles on two or three occasions. I lost my study privileges as punishment and on one occasion I was sentenced to solitary confinement for six months, all because of the attempt to keep contact with other comrades.

You were released in 1989?
I was released on 15 October 1989. Govan Mbeki was released in 1987, and Denis Goldberg was released in 1985. When PW Botha offered to release all political prisoners he was one of those who accepted the offer. In 1989 the rest of us were released. Just to give you background; when Madiba started talking to the other side he was in isolation. After 18 years on Robben Island, five of us were transferred to Pollsmoor and after three years at Pollsmoor he was further isolated from us. He was alone and that’s when he started talking to the other side.

We won’t go into all the details but his attempts, which were consistent with ANC policy, was to use a combination of pressure. We had the mass struggle by Cosatu and the United Democratic Front, combined with the armed struggle by the underground ANC and international solidarity. A combination of those forces was used to force the enemy to the negotiation table, which was ANC policy. In his isolation, when I think back, when he came back from hospital and was told he was no longer going to be with us, he was going to be on his own, instinctively we wanted to protest but he said: “Cool it, something good might come out of this”. In retrospect, already in his mind there was a necessity to talk to the other side, and that is what he did. He made one thing clear that he was not negotiating, because prisoners cannot negotiate. He was trying to persuade the other side to talk to the ANC through Oliver Tambo but in order to facilitate the talks they had to meet certain conditions: release all political prisoners, unban all political organisations, allow the exiles to come back. When that happens, we can start talking. That’s how we got released. We were the first to be released as a group in 1989. Of course, Govan Mbeki and Denis were already released. They had demanded that all the elderly should be released but Mandela refused. They allowed Govan Mbeki, then Mandela asked about Walter Sisulu. I was told that the response from [former President FW] De Klerk was: “If we release Walter Sisulu, we’ll lose the elections”. It was about to be elections at the time. They had already made up their minds to release him but they kept him away from us until we were all released on 15 October 1989.

Did you have the sense at that time that Nelson Mandela’s release was imminent?
On 2 February 1990 De Klerk had announced all the demands Madiba had made. By that time all of us were released. He made that announcement on 2 February 1990 and announced Nelson Mandela’s release on 11 February.

How difficult was it at the time for Mandela to try and influence the process and at the same time try to keep everybody informed and involved. Obviously there was Mandela on the one side, you and other political prisoners and the ANC on the outside?
I knew that subsequently he didn’t want to talk to us because there were five of us and he is a super democrat. If the three of the five had said no more talking, it would have been the end and he would have accepted that. This is why he didn’t want to talk to us. When we already faced a fait accompli, he was given permission to report to us one by one. Two of our comrades asked why he had waited for so long. Sisulu said: “There’s nothing wrong in principle but the initiative should have come from the other side”. I was the last one and he expected that I would be against it altogether, although from Pollsmoor it was easier because Dullah Omar used to visit us under the guise of being my lawyer. He had free access to us so we knew what was happening outside. I had personally misjudged the situation. I thought we were on the eve of something very dramatic and that we had been talking from the point of view of weakness. But obviously I was wrong. Madiba’s timing was right, but I told him that I’m against it and he does mention that in his book as well.

How did you interact with the ANC in exile?
There was very little interaction but when he started talking, Mac Maharaj was in the country underground so somehow he was able to have constant contact with the leadership outside and we were kept informed, but those are details that Mac would have. It is public knowledge that George Bizos carried the first messages abroad to inform others of what Madiba was doing.

Can you take us through the first time you interacted with Madiba after your release?
When he was at Victor Verster the four of us were at Pollsmoor and we were taken regularly to see him. By that time he could report to us about the talks. On Tuesday 10 October 1989, we went to see him and he said: “Chaps, this is goodbye”. That night they didn’t bring us immediately back to Pollsmoor as they normally did. They said we were going to eat there.

There we were, so-called terrorists, sitting with top brass of the prisons service, brigadiers and others, having supper together. It was compulsory for us at that time to wear suits and those who couldn’t afford them were given suits by the prison, so we were sitting in suits eating with these brigadiers. We didn’t know why. We also had television by that time but that night they kept us for a while waiting for the 8 o’clock news.

Then President De Klerk announced that the eight people were going to be released. My name was the eighth to be called but he didn’t say when. That was on a Tuesday night. Before Friday they told us to pack up. Christo Brand who still works now with us on Robben Island – a very decent chap – told me: “Look you people are going to be transferred. We don’t know about release or anything but pack up whatever you want to pack”. I packed up my prison uniform and prison dish. Then we were transferred “We have just received a fax from prison headquarters. You are going to be released tomorrow”. Just like that. The first question was: “What is a fax?” We had heard of this thing by that time because we had newspapers and television but we couldn’t conceptualise how you put in a piece of paper and it gets to the other side. That release came so suddenly. Tuesday was the announcement and on Sunday all the remaining Rivonia Trial people were at home.

Please tell us of your interaction with him as free men.
We were on the national executive [of the ANC] together and when I was a full-time employee in the ANC office, so we had a lot of interaction. What I didn’t mention was that in 1960, while still dealing with the Treason Trial and the ANC and PAC were banned, Oliver Tambo was asked to leave the country and so the law firm of Mandela and Tambo closed down. During the Treason Trial, Mandela used my flat as his office and after the Treason Trial he continued to use my flat as his office.

Our interaction was very close and it continued even after his release. During his presidency he appointed me as the counsellor in the President’s office and I made it very clear that “counsellor” was a very fancy name and didn’t mean that I was the only adviser. I was also in the Cabinet for two days until he sacked me, I must still ask for my pension… [laughing].

What portfolio?
The Minister of Correctional services, to service prisons at that time. I was quite amazed that this was announced already but by that time they came to know that I was not interested. Fortunately, the Inkatha Freedom Party agreed to join the government and wanted one of the four security positions: either intelligence, defence, police or correctional services. Correctional Services was the least difficult so it was easy for Madiba to take my position and give it to them. It made me very happy but I was never interested in the Cabinet. He then made me his counsellor.

What is it about Nelson Mandela that has made him so special in the eyes of the world?
It’s a matter of personality and style. That is the difference because otherwise all our leaders were carrying out the policy. I think what differed is his ability. Walter [Sisulu] had that ability as a father figure but, like me, he was not interested in government. It was really a question of style that made Madiba different throughout his life. He was born and brought up as a leader, a chief. Then he rose in the ANC Youth League to become president. Then he joined the ANC in the [then] Transvaal and became president. What makes him different is his style to relate and what could be seen as an obsession with children. When he became President he donated a third of his salary towards children. Then of course he was carrying out the policy of non-racialism and forgiveness. He invited the widows and wives of former Presidents and Prime Ministers of the apartheid government to tea. When Mrs [Betsy] Verwoerd could not come, he flew down for tea with her. He carried out the same policy with a different style. You know about the rugby match and so forth, one can go on and on. What sets him apart from the rest is interacting the same way as with the peasant and the queen.

Do you think there is a difference between the leaders in South Africa today and those of your generation?
Basically, they are all carrying out the same policy. I have the attitude that if I start concentrating on an individual I can go wrong. Individuals come and go but I would be very worried if there’s a change in policy. If there would be any danger, it would be changing the basic policy which is reaffirmed at every conference. I’m not particularly concerned about leaders; they come and go.

What kind of a role can elders like yourself play to make sure we remain on the right track in South Africa?
I retired from the national executive in 1997 and I retired from Parliament in 1999 voluntarily, but my colleagues said I must do something. They started the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and its basic aim is to deepen non-racialism. Although that is policy, but it is on the back burner and we are concentrating on reaching particularly our young people to get them to know about where they came from, their responsibilities, education, etc.

‘What makes him different is his style to relate and what could be seen as an obsession with children. When he became President he donated a third of his salary towards children’

We are making steady progress and that has kept me very busy because it is not a big organisation, nor is it a political organisation. Cyril [Ramaphosa] is our chairperson and we have two other Cabinet Ministers on the board but it is not political. We just concentrate on reaching out to young people with this policy of non-racialism.

Talking about retirement, behind you there’s a photo with you and Madiba and it says: “To Madala, You must now retire”, signed by Nelson Mandela. It was taken in 2001. Can you tell us about it?
That was the type of relationship we enjoyed, teasing each other. He started calling me “Madala” and I reciprocated and we’ve been calling each other “Madala” since then. The other day when I went to see him, sick as he is, I said “Madala”. This is how we address each other informally. At meetings we addressed each other as comrade or Mr President, but that’s how close our relationship was.

How do we in still the values that Madiba had in young people, how do we keep his legacy alive?
That’s a major thing, if one considers his main contribution was reconciliation and everything else flows from that; his policy of forgiveness, his policy of looking into the future – non-racialism, promotion on merit and so on. Those are not as one would wish but they are part of his main legacy. The other, as I said, is the matter of style once the policy is implemented. I’d be happy if the policy would be implemented much stronger than it is being done. Every now and then of course there are criticisms which we hope they will overcome and stick to the basic policy of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa. That is his main legacy, one can go into detail and talk about his ability to relate to people and all that but those we’ve already talked about, they are all part of his legacy.

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