Ahmed Kathrada on Robben Island
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
In June 1964 Nelson Mandela and seven fellow political prisoners were sent to Robben Island to begin life sentences. At what became known as the Rivonia Trial, in Pretoria, Mandela and his co-defendants were found guilty of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. (It was at this trial that Mandela made his famous lengthy peroration from the dock, concluding that the “ideal of a democratic and free society” is one “for which I am prepared to die”.)
Mandela spent eighteen years on Robben Island. In March 1982, he and three other prisoners (including Walter Sisulu) were given thirty minutes to pack their belongings and transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. And in October 1988, in anticipation of his release, Mandela was moved again, this time to relatively comfortable quarters at the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, some 60 km north-east of Cape Town. When he was released on February 11, 1990, in front of the world’s TV cameras, it was from the prison in Paarl that he emerged accompanied by Winnie Mandela, one fist raised in defiance (two would have suggested premature triumph, Mandela later explained).
Among Mandela’s fellow inmates was Ahmed Kathrada (“Kathy”), eleven years his junior. His fascinating Memoirs (published in 2004) deserve to be better known. Kathrada, of Indian parentage, was, in Mandela’s words, a “key member of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress”. In a foreword to the book, Mandela writes: “Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something, even if only through a brief foreword”. In the Acknowledgements to his own autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela had written: “Thanks again to my comrade Ahmed Kathrada for the long hours spent revising, correcting and giving accuracy to the story”. Of his first meeting with Kathrada, Mandela remembers, “Although I disagreed with [him], I admired his fire”.
Ahmed Kathrada arguing with the police; from his Memoirs
Kathrada vividly describes their arrival on the bleak, largely treeless island off Cape Town (June being a winter month in the southern hemisphere): “We exited the aircraft to an icy drizzle and buffeting winds, to be met by guards armed with automatic weapons”. Later he says, “If I had to use a single word to define life on Robben Island, it would be ‘cold’. Cold food, cold showers, cold winters, cold wind coming in off the sea, cold warders . . .”. When not toiling in the lime quarry, the eight men were kept separate from other, lower-ranking political prisoners. Section B, built specially for the new arrivals, consisted entirely of single cells, whereas the other prisoners were more likely to be housed in dormitories.
There were many acts of cruelty or spite. Kathrada reveals that letters of condolence to friends didn’t always reach their intended recipients; equally those written in languages unfamiliar to the poorly educated Afrikaner jailers went undelivered. Incoming letters were censored. Kathrada describes how a letter from his brother was withheld (he received it eighteen years later) because of its reference to “a change of government in Britain. Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were now in power . . .”. Those dangerous Communists!
A censored letter addressed to "Kathy" Kathrada; from Memoirs
Photographs of Kathrada’s white girlfriend Sylvia were destroyed in front of him, as “symbols of racial defiance”. No newspapers, radios, clocks or wristwatches were permitted (“warders deliberately concealed the dials of their own watches lest, perchance, we note the time of day”!). When the men once clandestinely acquired a transistor they had to go to baroque lengths to conceal it, and when the batteries ran down, there was no way of replacing them. Kathrada says that “depriving us, through the long years behind bars, of access to news was one of the cruellest forms of punishment our jailers could inflict on us”. Yet he had two “faithful literary companions” with him in his cell: the Oxford Book of English Verse and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
And the prisoners formed debating and study groups (educating illiterate common criminals and the Afrikaner guards); at one point they discussed whether there had ever been tigers in Africa, Mandela pointing out that there was a word in “isiXhosa for tiger, differentiating the animal from other cats”. Kathrada, meanwhile, persuaded Mandela to start (secretly) writing his memoirs. When he was also transferred to Pollsmoor, in October 1982, he reflected: “Strange as it may seem, I missed the island – not the prison or the pettiness of the warders, but the ‘family’ we had formed in B Section, and the setting”.
He writes of his liberation, “I came out of prison at the age of sixty, having spent almost half of my adult life behind bars”. Elsewhere he tells us that “In prison the minutes can seem like years, but the years go by like minutes”, an observation that speaks powerfully of tedium and loss. And yet he appears entirely without self-pity: “From the moment I became involved in politics as a schoolboy, I realised that, unacceptable as my own circumstances were, the lot of my African colleagues and leaders – Mandela, Tutu, Sisulu, Tambo, [Govan] Mbeki – who would become household names, was infinitely worse”. He reserves his bitterness and rage for the brutal treatment handed out to associates: “Suliman Saloojee, my dearest friend Babla, . . . brutally interrogated and tortured to death – by the sadistic Rooi Rus Swanepoel – then flung from a window on the seventh floor of Gray’s Building, Johannesburg headquarters of the security police”.
Towards the end of his Memoirs, Karthada talks of how, on his first post-liberation visit to the rural town of Schweizer-Reneke (where he grew up), he “paused at the vacant lots where our shop and houses had been razed to the ground in 1981 . . . . I was in prison when my mother, my brother Ismail and his wife Amina passed away”.
The prison was finally closed in 1996, turned into a museum, and declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. Visitors today have the good fortune to be taken round by a former inmate. It’s a sobering experience. Ahmed Kathrada, who is now eighty-six, remains chair of the Robben Island Museum Council.