12 June 2014 marked 50 years to the day that Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada, along with seven other accused, was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage.
12 June 1964 signified the conclusion of the notorious Rivonia Trial in the then-Pretoria Supreme Court, where Justice Quartus de Wet sentenced accused number one (Nelson Mandela), along with Dennis Goldberg, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Raymond Mhlaba, to life imprisonment.
In passing sentence, Justice De Wet said: “I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which would usually be death for such a crime. But consistent with my duty, that is the only leniency which I can show. The sentence in the case of all the accused will be one of life imprisonment …”
Fifty years on, on 12 June 2014, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation hosted a Youth Leadership programme for learners at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The event included dialogue around the Rivonia Trial and subsequent sentencing, a performance by members of the Foundation, a reading of Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock by South African actor Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, and an inspiring talk on taking responsibility by Shaka Sisulu, grandson of the late Walter Sisulu and founder of Cheesekids, a social movement and activism platform that brings together young people within their communities to do good.
Shaka Sisulu inspires young people to speak out
“Today 50 years ago, a group of men stood together in the dock facing sentencing. Their collective ideal was a non-racial and free South Africa. While sentencing meant that people lost their freedom, the trial was a platform where ANC leaders expressed what they represented,” said Sisulu.
Speaking about the incarceration of the ANC heads in 1964, Sisulu maintains that the leaders were “well preserved” while in prison.
“Incarcerated leaders were able to educate political prisoners who reached Robben Island. They also distilled their ideologies while in prison. After decades of imprisonment, ideals such as reconciliation and forgiveness emerged.
“As we mark the day, we urge young people to be prepared to stand for things they believe in, and also to acknowledge struggles across the globe for human rights. There would have been no trial if young people didn’t get involved. They mobilised forces, they held strikes, they organised stayaways – young activists used the platforms available to them to highlight the struggle,” he added.
Kathrada remembers the Rivonia Trial, Robben Island
Ahmed Kathrada shared his memory of Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock, saying that before and during the trial, there was an expectation of a death sentence, so much so that it had become court procedure for the judge to say, “Accused number X, have you anything to say before I sentence you to death?”
“So Madiba, in expectation of the death sentence, had prepared to address the court – he was going to repeat what he stood for, what he hoped to achieve, and what he was prepared to die for, in case of the death sentence,” he said.
After the sentencing, Kathrada said, “there was a collective sigh of relief that we were not going to die”.
Speaking about his arrival on Robben Island the morning after sentencing, along with six of the seven convicted trialists (Dennis Goldberg was taken to Pretoria to serve his sentence), Kathrada said: “The seven of us were woken up, put into leg irons, handcuffed and put on a plane. The next morning we landed on Robben Island. It was a freezing cold winter’s day. I was the youngest of the seven, aged 36.
“The first thing we were instructed to do was change into prison attire. Because my colleagues were black, they were given short trousers, but I was given long trousers. I watched as four of the most senior leaders of the ANC, people almost 20 years older than me, changed into short pants.
“Then came the food discrimination. In the morning we all got the same porridge, but I was given a little more sugar than Madiba. I was given a quarter loaf of bread; Madiba was only given bread after 10 years in prison.
“I could have broken rank and appealed my sentence, but we stood together as prisoners and colleagues. Madiba announced upon our arrival that we were no longer leaders, we were prisoners. And so we behaved like ordinary prisoners.
“In prison there was an emphasis on education. We had a political syllabus that all ANC members had to go through, and we also completed academic studies where possible. Despite adverse conditions in prison, working with a pick and shovel for over eight hours a day, or at the stone quarry, even under those severe conditions, prisoners studied. The educated men among us took special interest in the uneducated among us – nobody left Robben Island illiterate.
“Throughout the years, there was the realisation that while prison was hard, we were protected. No policeman could come to Robben Island and start shooting at us. Many of our comrades who were not in prison were tortured to death, hanged, assassinated, but we were protected.
“We worked in the lime quarry for 13 years, but we never lost hope,” said Kathrada.
“Today at Robben Island, you’ll see massive blocks of concrete. When they are wet, you’ll see an inscription on one of them. It reads, ‘ANC is sure of victory, August 1967.’ Robben Island was terrible in the 60s, but the optimism remained – we were going to win – and that sentiment never ever left us. We never spoke about how it would happen; we talked about the ANC as a party winning, and that's what happened eventually.”
Speaking about his release from prison and the ANC policy of forgiveness, Kathrada spoke about the ideals for which he went to prison.
“People who harbour emotions of bitterness, anger and revenge suffer more than the people towards whom these emotions are directed. And so after our release, the only policy we would support was one that said all South Africans should be able to live together in non-racialism. From a policy and a practical point of view there was no alternative for us. We were trying, and still are trying, to build a united South Africa under one flag, under one anthem.”
On his vision of the future, Kathrada asked the youth to reflect on the positive developments taking place in South Africa.
“We are only 20 years old as a democracy. In the life of an individual that is a lot, but in the life of a nation it is not so much. In 20 years we have achieved a great deal – most importantly we gained our dignity and democracy as equal human beings. We know we have some way to go, but we have much to be proud of,” he said.