South Africa

Walking with Kathrada: A journey to Robben Island

By Ranjeni Munusamy 27 June 2014

One of the three surviving Rivonia trialists, Ahmed Kathrada, turns 85 in August. To mark the occasion, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation is producing a coffee-table book capturing around 300 tours he has conducted on Robben Island with presidents, royalty, celebrities and other notables. The writer was asked to interview Kathrada on the Island about these tours and what the world’s most famous would ask him. (A DVD of this interview will be released with the book.) Accompanying a giant of the liberation struggle to the place he was held captive for 18 years of his 26-year incarceration was a testing and emotional journey. Among other things, Kathrada spoke of the pain of saying goodbye to Madiba and his strange desire to now live on the Island. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Ahmed Kathrada is standing on the ramp in The Clocktower building at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, from where the ferry to Robben Island leaves. He is clutching his tour ticket, waiting in the queue behind buzzing tourists who are eager to see one of the South Africa’s most historic places. You would think that a renowned former inmate and previous chairman of the Robben Island Museum Council would have special passage or privileges. But no, he is standing in the queue.

It appears that none of the tourists know who he is, mostly because he tries to go unnoticed in his simple clothes and insistence on no special treatment in everything he does.

I am standing further behind in the queue, stealing glances at him. He looks so fragile. Cape Town’s weather is being temperamental with clouds overhead. I worry whether he will be warm enough in the wintery breeze. He shuffles restlessly on the ramp; the ferry is late and he is eager to go.

With us is photojournalist Benny Gool, who chronicled the life of Nelson Mandela through his pictures. A camera crew from Videovision Entertainment, the producers of the biographical film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, is taking the footage of our tour. Zaakirah Vadi, a communications officer at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, and Mahomed Seedat, Kathrada’s former aide and driver, complete our posse. The camera crew has filmed Kathrada before and know the Island from the filming of Long Walk. They’re not fussed about the day’s assignment – just let it happen naturally, they say.

I am, however, apprehensive. I have never before interviewed Uncle Kathy. There is something about his manner, his gait and his self-effacing character that always makes me tear up. I have sat in audiences where he had been speaking, drinking in his wonderful anecdotes about his life and experiences. I have been in his presence many times but have never had a one-on-one conversation with him.

The invitation to interview him on the Island is a great honour, but one I knew would be an uphill climb. It is something you get to do once in a lifetime – journey with a legend to the place of his torment, and walk him through the experiences of a legion of icons, most of whom are now gone. It needs respect and gentleness, and at the same time, the ability to probe an old man’s memory for what is buried deep within.

I am mindful of all this as we cross the gangplank to board the ferry. Uncle Kathy is shuffling slowly, taking small steps, a sign showing that the youngest Rivonia treason trialist now has eight-and-a-half decades of life behind him. In my mind flashes an image of him and Govan Mbeki shackled together in leg irons, shuffling towards their long imprisonment.

My mission is to get through the day without crying.

He sits beside me, explaining that the ferry we are using that day is hired as the Robben Island boat is being serviced. As the boat chugs across the harbour towards the open sea, he starts talking about his first trip to the Island 50 years ago when he and six of his comrades were flown in by military plane on an icy morning in June 1964. He has told the story hundreds of times, but he relates it with emotion, pausing to recall little details, as if he is telling it for the first time.

The boat is now bouncing on the waves and my insides are starting to churn. Uncle Kathy is sitting calmly next to me as if he is on his couch watching television. If he notices that I have broken out into a cold sweat and battling not to heave, he doesn’t say anything. The journey to the Island takes 35 minutes and I feel every one of them. Eventually Uncle Kathy sticks out his finger to the left: “There’s the Island!”

He and I get miked, so everything we say from the time we disembark is recorded. We are passing a wall of iconic pictures running along the harbour. The crew is filming so I start asking questions about the arrival of the Rivonia trialists on the Island so that this time his answers are captured. Uncle Kathy is, however, dealing with the logistics of getting us around the Island, as he has done close to 300 times when he escorted luminaries from US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Oprah and Beyonce.

We are driven to B-Section, where Mandela, Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and others were imprisoned. When we get to the courtyard where pictures of the prisoners are mounted, Uncle Kathy switches into tour guide mode, explaining the layout, some of the experiences, the hardships. In his hand is a huge key which he using to gesture and point.

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Photo: The key to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell (Benny Gool)

He tells the crew not to waste too much time taking pictures because we will be late for the ferry back. He says there is never enough time to get through everything so it’s best that we keep moving. It then dawns on me that Uncle Kathy doesn’t realise that the purpose of the visit is to capture him, not the Island. The Island has been recorded hundreds of times and will be there forever for future generations to visit. We are there to ensure future generations will have the benefit of hearing and seeing the Island’s most famous tour guide telling the story.

I am asking questions but he wants to keep moving, telling me we’ll be able to talk properly inside. The crew rushes ahead so they can capture Uncle Kathy walking through the prison doors. He ruins the shot because he is too much of a gentleman. He wants me to walk in first.

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Photo: Kathrada in the passage of B-Section on Robben Island. (Benny Gool)

The passage in B-Section is deadly silent. I look for signs of the heroes who once traversed it. There is none.

Uncle Kathy is shuffling towards the Mandela cell, holding the key. I have been here before, 17 years ago, but not inside the cell. Uncle Kathy and I go in, and he points out the mat on the floor where Madiba slept, the bucket that was used as a toilet and explains that in later years, there was a desk in the cell. I disregard the pang in my chest and start asking about the famous people who came there to pay homage and what they asked Uncle Kathy when they were inside.

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Photo: Kathrada in Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. (Benny Gool)

But he wants to move on. He says not everyone can come inside the cell and we need to get moving so he can give the key back. I go to the bars and try to look out, to see what Tata saw every day. I am too short and can’t see anything.

It would make precious footage to capture Uncle Kathy speaking inside the Mandela cell, but we are herded out and down the passage. “This is my cell”, he points ahead. “I know it because of this red thing,” he says, gesturing to a tag on the wall. I try to ask questions at the entrance to his cell, but it’s not working. He doesn’t seem to think it’s that big a deal.

We get to the recreation room where benches are lined up facing a screen on the wall. A bird is trapped inside and making a racket against the bars trying to get out. “Now we can talk,” Uncle Kathy says, sitting down against the wall. This will not make the best pictures and footage, but, well, we need to let it happen naturally.

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Photo: Kathrada and Munusamy in the recreation room on Robben Island. (Benny Gool)

We talk about the best and worst of their stay on the island, the deep bonds of comradeship, his longing to see children, the one and only time they saw the night sky, an incident when drunken warders forced them to stand naked again the wall and Govan Mbeki collapsed.

I ask him how he can keep coming back here, a place of so much pain and torment. He says he had made it his home. I probe why it is he applied to come back to the Island after they were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. He explains that when prison conditions were relaxed, he enjoyed the company and discussions with his peers. Only the senior leaders were transferred to Pollsmoor and you could swear and make jokes in front of them. So he missed being in this horrible maximum-security prison on an island secluded from the rest of humanity.

My bewilderment must not be that visible because he goes on to say that he wants to get a house in the village on the Island, which were previously the warders’ houses. Only a few are now occupied by the Island staff. Why on earth would he want to stay there? “Oh, I like the peace and quiet. And it is nice to walk around in the mornings.” He explains that he would not stay there full time if he does get a house, just when he wants to.

I get to his relationship with Madiba. He explains the one clash they had in 1950 when Madiba was in the ANC Youth League. They never fought again through all their years of friendship. Uncle Kathy was Madiba’s parliamentary counsellor when he was president and their relationship remained close after their retirement.

I stray from the brief of the interview. “When did you really say goodbye to him?” Uncle Kathy tells of going to see Madiba during his last stay in hospital. It is the intensive care unit, there are pipes in his nose and mouth, he cannot speak. The look on his face shows he is reliving the moment. “It was a one-sided conversation,” he says, “But he held my hand.”

That was the last time I saw him. Before then, when he could speak, he sent Zelda (la Grange) to me. He wanted to know if I was okay, if I needed anything.” The pain in his eyes is now profound. Nobody else in the room seemed to be breathing. Even the hapless bird has fallen silent and is listening. I wish away the tear threatening to fall out of my right eye, mercifully away from the cameras.

I say it must be hard to let them all go, and be the one left behind to tell the world of their greatness. He tells how difficult it was to speak at Sisulu’s funeral and then last December at Mandela’s. I remark about how his tribute at Madiba’s funeral made the world cry. He repeats the sentiment he expressed then: When Sisulu died, he lost a father; Madiba was his brother.

The bird starts squawking. It is time to go. We are back to tour guide mode as we make our way to the limestone quarry, where the B-Section prisoners did hard labour for 13 years. But being outside also gave them a chance to have political debates and teach each other. One not-so-political debate was about the reproductive patterns of chameleons after one appeared, and then came back some time later with babies.

Their former warder Christo Brand, who now works for the Robben Island Museum, joins us. Uncle Kathy and Brand are chuckling together, talking animatedly. Brand joins in with the anecdotes, telling how he was informed that he would be guarding dangerous terrorists and his shock when he saw the gentle old men in the cells. Brand allowed them special privileges and favours on the Island, and went with them to Pollsmoor when they were transferred. Uncle Kathy tells me that Brand’s wife bakes him delicious cakes for his birthday and Christmas.

One of the things I ask Uncle Kathy is why he retired from politics in 1999. “I didn’t think I was making a difference,” he says. I want to laugh, wondering if anybody in politics has such considerations anymore.

Our last stop is the Alpha 1 officers club, on a cliff from where there is a magnificent view of Cape Town with the dramatic backdrop of Table Mountain. Uncle Kathy tells us this is a favourite spot for photographers. We are unlucky: there is a heavy cloud over the mountain and the city is hardly visible. Zaakirah tells Uncle Kathy we should take the pictures anyway for the book. He thinks we want pictures of the view. He pauses only briefly for the picture before shuffling us into the shop, asking us if we want water or chocolates.

We now have to hurry back to get the ferry. Uncle Kathy thinks it will waste time if we stop to take more pictures at the landmark arch at the entrance. We do it anyway but there are tourists in the way and he is shuffling forward, anxious because the ferry’s hooter is bleating.

Just before we board, I clutch his arm and say thank you for all he shared and the surreal experience. “Oh, that’s all right,” he says.

We are bouncing our way back to the mainland, now unmiked, so we are just chatting. Uncle Kathy is telling me how he shunned all the privileges he had been offered for drivers and bodyguards. Mahomed Seedat was the only aide he needed during the time he was in the presidency as Mandela’s parliamentary counsellor. Uncle Kathy says had tried to drive once after his release from prison in 1989, and got such a fright with the new roads and fast cars that he never drove again. Mahomed has been driving him since, and even though he is no longer employed by him, helps when he needs to get around Cape Town.

Uncle Kathy says he prefers to go around without drawing attention to himself. But when people do recognise him, he never declines requests for pictures. One of the odder requests was a woman who wanted a close-up picture with him and wanted her dimple in her cheek to show. “She was moving my head this way and that so that her dimple was visible in the picture,” he chuckles.

I try to ask about his perceptions of current politics. He is too wily to fall in the trap and dodges out skilfully. We are back on the mainland and in the bustle of the Waterfront. I miss having him to myself already.

Mahomed is to drop Uncle Kathy off at his flat before driving us to the airport. I try to prolong the time with Uncle Kathy by trying to motivate that he come along for the ride to the airport. But this will inconvenience Mahomed and we pull up outside Uncle Kathy’s flat. I get out of the car and run around to hug him. I hold on for longer than I should, feeling like he is the link to those we can no longer hold on to.

It was nice being with you,” he says into my hair. Then he turns and disappears through the gate, shuffling slowly in that way he has. DM

Photo: Ahmed Kathrada and Ranjeni Munusamy in the courtyard in B-Section on Robben Island. (Benny Gool)

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