About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Ahmed ('Kathy') Mohamed Kathrada

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada was born 21 August 1929 in Schweizer Reneke. In 1941 he joined the Young Communist League. In 1946, he was one of the 2000 resisters who went to prison as part of the Passive Resistance Campaign launched by the Indian Congresses. He represented the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress at the World Youth Festival in Berlin in 1951. He participated in the 1952 Defiance Campaign launched jointly by the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress. He was one of 20 people charged for organising the Defiance Campaign (the case came up as the State vs. Sisulu and 19 others). All the accused received a suspended sentence of nine months. He was served with his first banning order in 1954. He was arrested in 1956 and charged in the Treason Trial and was one of the 30 accused who were acquitted in March 1961. Kathrada played an active role in Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) when it was formed in 1961. After he was placed under house arrest in 1963 he went underground and was arrested at Lilliesleaf farm, Rivonia, on 11 July 1963. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.

In prison he completed the BA, B. Biblio, BA Hons. (History) and BA Hons. (African Politics) degrees.

He served 26 years of his sentence and was released together with Walter Sisulu and others on 15 October 1989. He was elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC in 1991 and 1994, and declined nomination in 1997. He was elected to Parliament in 1994 and became Parliamentary Counselor to the President during the presidency of Nelson Mandela. He declined to stand for Parliament in the 1999 election.

He serves as chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council and the Ex-Prisoners Committee and is a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

His Letters from Robben Island, was published in 1999 by Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, USA and Mayibuye Books, UWC.

Ahmed "Kathy" Kathrada
by Bongi Bengu

Profile

Kathy has a rapier-like tongue, a sharp wit laced with irony and sarcasm. To be really effective, this art needs to be combined with a deep understanding of human nature, the psyche conditioned as it is by culture and society.

Kathy spent the first 10 years of his life in Schweizer Reneke, a small dorp out in the platteland, where Afrikaners dominated. This gave him a facility with Afrikaans.

After his arrest in 1963, Theunis 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel1, the Special Branch man who had already acquired a fearsome reputation as a torturer and brute, confronted him. Swanepoel threatened to make Kathy talk. In any tense situation, Kathy's voice remains controlled, but with an added whisper of a quiver. Visions of torture surfaced in his mind as he searched for a suitable retort. It came in the form of reciting an Afrikaans poem written by a noted Afrikaner poet, Jan Cilliers:

Ek hou van 'n man wat sy man kan staan
Ek hou van 'n arm wat 'n slag kan slaan
'n Oog wat nie wyk, wat 'n bars kan kyk
En 'n wil wat so vas soos 'n kilpsteen staan.

(I like a man who stands as a man
I like an arm that can strike a blow
An eye that never shies away, that can pierce a crack
And a will that stands steadfast as a rock).

He had tackled Swanepoel on his own turf. Swanepoel had no answer and stormed off. His threats never materialised.

That was in 1963. Kathy would be the last to deny that he had got away because torture was not yet quite the stock in trade of the SB at the time.

In the late 1960s, a head warder on Robben Island, Du Plessis (or Dup as he was known for short) was put in charge of us at work. He was a nasty specimen. It was practice that when we returned from work at the lime quarry, he would hand us over to the warder on section duty. This ritual involved stating the number of prisoners in his charge whom he was handing over.

As we prisoners trooped into the courtyard of the isolation section, Dup stood at the steel door impatiently looking for the section warder. He was nowhere in sight. Kathy had stayed away from quarry work that day because he needed medical attention and was exercising, walking back and forth on the concrete edge of the quadrangle courtyard. Dup stood at the top of the entrance ramp. As Kathy approached, Dup bellowed: 'Waar's die baas?' (Where is the boss?2). He repeated the question, directing it aggressively at Kathy. Eventually, with calm deliberation Kathy responded: 'Daar is niemand hierso met daardie naam nie'. (There is no one here by that name). Dup was livid. Kathy, after a pause, followed up with: 'Miskien bedoel u die beampte?' (Perhaps you mean the official?) Kathy had used the polite form of 'you' and the very proper term 'official' rather than 'warder', which prison officials generally used. This was just too much for Dup. He flung the keys to the ground and left us in the section unguarded and without effecting the ritual hand-over.

Kathy employed his cutting tongue and sharp repartee even amongst us comrades. Behind it was a capacity to tell things as they were, rather than to put a gloss on something to suit the listener. Mandela, describing his friendship with Kathy, observed that many, especially leaders, tend to be surrounded by those who feel obliged to give reports based on what they think the listener would like to hear about himself. Kathy, he maintained, is a friend who holds up a true mirror to him so that he could see himself as he is, warts and all.

In Kathy these qualities combine with a fierce loyalty to the ANC, and to Mandela and Sisulu. This has made him stand foursquare with the decision that, if the death sentence were to be imposed on them in the Rivonia Trial, they would not appeal against the sentence. The lawyers were convinced that he stood the best chance of being acquitted on appeal. Kathy would have none of it. All the Rivonia trialists refused to file appeals. Their releases, when they came in 1989, were part of the process leading to negotiations initiated by Mandela from prison, and never as the result of an appeal for clemency.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.