Ahmed Kathrada was a giant. His contribution to the international struggle against racism has been matched by very few people. He and his fellow Rivonia trialists were an inspiration to millions of people across the whole world and across generations, inspiring us to “take up the spear” and to fight against racism wherever we found it. Especially, he was one of the people who inspired the world to take up the struggle against apartheid, that crime against humanity,, for a period of some forty years. That was an astonishing achievement when you consider that he spent 26 of those years incommunicado in an apartheid prison.
Kathrada’s picture, with those of the other Rivonia trialists, appeared on posters, on placards and banners throughout the world. Wherever there was opposition to apartheid, Ahmed Kathrada’s picture was in evidence and was an inspiration to millions as they did what they could to bring down the apartheid regime through sanctions. And it should never be forgotten that international solidarity was the fourth pillar in the struggle against apartheid, the others being mass action, making South African ungovernable and the armed struggle.
So what was it about Ahmed Kathrada that inspired so many of us to become involved in the international struggle against apartheid. First, he was not one to shrink from a political struggle because it was difficult and would involve great sacrifice on his part. He took the very simple stance that racism and its offshoot, apartheid, was wrong and that it had to be opposed. He was not like the many who kept their heads down and hoped that apartheid would go away. He was involved, from the very beginning, in organising the mass action that was needed to challenge apartheid laws. Within his own Indian community he was one of the organisers of the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s. LIke so many others, including Nelson Mandela, he was arrested and faced prison for his opposition to apartheid laws. From the very beginning, he was in the forefront of the struggle.
His involvement in the planning and organisation of the Congress of the People, that seminal event in the liberation struggle, was acknowledged by the apartheid state when he was arrested along with 155 others and charged with treason. The Treason Trial attracted international opprobrium and the 156 trialists became heroes of the liberation struggle. The trial lasted for four years, and Kathrada was one of those still on trial when the Treason Trial collapsed in ignominy. The year was 1960. It was the year of the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations (which meant that it was treasonable to be a member), and the ferocious clampdown by the apartheid state.
Kathrada was not one of those who surrendered. He did not accept that opposition to apartheid was no longer possible. He recognised that such opposition would now be illegal and therefore had to be conducted underground. He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) which became the armed wing of the now illegal ANC. He became a member of the Regional Command, helping to plan and organise the attacks on power stations and other symbols of apartheid power. The launch of these attacks on 16th December 1961 was a huge, direct challenge to the power of the apartheid state as Johannesburg and Durban were plunged into darkness. They attracted international attention with Robin Day, of the BBC, interviewing Nelson Mandela. They were reported across the world.
The apartheid state responded by introducing the 90 Days Law allowing detention without trial and, following the Sharpeville Massacre, had already arrested hundreds of people. There was no question that South Africa was in crisis. In the UK, the newly formed Anti-Apartheid Movement called its first demonstration in Trafalgar Square, directly outside the South African High Commission. Then came a disaster. The whole of the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg, and were brought to trial with the already arrested Nelson Mandela. Ahmed Kathrada was one of the Rivonia trialists.
They were charged under the Sabotage Act, facing the death penalty. The prosecutor was Percy Yutar and the judge was Quartus De Wet. The trialists took the decision that the defence had to be a political one, even though this risked their lives. Nelson Mandela made the speech from the dock that has achieved legendary status. He represented the position taken by all the trialists, refusing to beg for their lives but stating quite clearly that, if necessary, they were prepared to die.
Much to the surprise of the whole world, Quartus de Wet sentenced them to life imprisonment. Kathrada was given the opportunity to appeal his sentence. According to Joel Joffe, one of their legal representatives at the trial, Kathrada refused to do this. The reason that Joffe gives in his book “The Rivonia Story” is that Kathrada did not think that there was any point in an appeal. He preferred to take his chances on liberation when it came. There was a real danger that if any appeal had gone forward, the appeal court might find the sentences to lenient, and impose the death penalty. Kathrada refused to expose his comrades to this risk. His integrity would not allow him to do it. That is a measure of the greatness of the man.
So began the long period of imprisonment. Kathrada, because he was Indian, was allowed more privileges than his African comrades. He was supposed to have better food and was entitled to wear long trousers. There followed a long period of struggle in which he refused these privileges until they were given to his comrades as well. Kathrada was able to complete five degrees, including history and criminology, while he was in prison. Slowly but surely the apartheid prison authorities were forced to concede that Kathrada and the other Rivonia trialists were human beings.
Worse still was to come for the apartheid authorities. Following the Soweto uprising of 1976, where the children involved recognised that their leaders were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and the other Rivonia trialists, the apartheid government of PW Botha was forced into secret negotiations. The example of the Rivonia trialists had galvanised the world. The campaign for their release was growing. Barclays Bank withdrew from South Africa. Chase Manhattan Bank refused to roll over the apartheid debt. The Commonwealth imposed sanctions despite Margaret Thatcher. Sanctions were imposed by ordinary people in the UK. Some 20,000,000 or more people were boycotting South African goods by the time of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988. The demand for the release of Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists became unstoppable.
On 15 October 1989 Kathrada, along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu were released from prison. Govan Mbeki and Denis Goldberg had already been released. Along with the Rivonia trialists Jeff Masemola, Billy Nair, Wilton Mkwayi and Oscar Mpetha were also released. Of the Rivonia trialists only Nelson Mandela remained in prison, and the apartheid regime was preparing for his release and the unbanning of the ANC and other political organisations. This was a victory for the dignity, courage and resolve of the Rivonia trialists, confronted as they were by an appalling and racist ideology, apartheid.
Nor did they fail us in the years to come. They were old. They had spent two and a half decades in prison. They could have claimed that they were tired and rested on their laurels. They did not do so. They began that long and difficult process of negotiating the end of apartheid, which culminated on that glorious day, 27th April 1994, when the whole of South Africa went to vote in the first democratic elections held in that country.
Ahmed Kathrada was an MP in that new Parliament, that first democratically elected Parliament in South Africa. He accepted a post as a Presidential advisor. He was involved in the drafting of the new constitution. He helped President Mandela to initiate the process of reconciliation. When he finally retired from public office, he set up the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, with the express purpose of combatting racism.
Ahmed Kathrada was never a man to choose a quiet life before principle. Nor did he ever avoid the battle so that he could be safe. His whole life is a testimony to his morality. He gave his whole life to the fight against apartheid, to the fight against racism and for the right of people to treated with dignity and honour. This week we have buried a man whose whole life is a testimonial to what we should aspire to achieve.
Hamba Kahle, Comrade Kathy, Hamba Kahle.