South Africa

Ahmed Kathrada: On 25 years of freedom, love and peace

By Ranjeni Munusamy 16 October 2014

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the release of five Rivonia trialists. It went by without any real acknowledgement as South Africa continues to be caught up in the vortex of the Oscar Pistorius trial. Ahmed Kathrada, one of the two surviving trialists who walked free that day, remembers those heady days around his release and exciting change in the country. And one of South Africa’s most famous prisoners, who survived 26 years of incarceration under the cruellest conditions, says Pistorius shouldn’t have anything to complain about, should he go to jail. Oh, the irony. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Uncle Kathy is a stickler for time so I wait, bouncing my legs excitedly, for 10am, the time I am supposed to call him at his flat in Cape Town. He answers the phone on the second ring and I can’t help but smile at the perky “Helloo”. I apologise for taking up his time when surely he has better things to do. “There is no peace for the wicked,” he says playfully. “Besides, when you have been deprived of freedom of speech for so many years, you never get fed up of talking.”

And with that, I am drawn into his wonderful world again – a journey down memory lane, a look back to the golden years of the liberation struggle, the voices and images from a lifetime ago that still linger in his mind. In June, I journeyed with him to Robben Island, where he opened up this world to me. In seconds, from across the country, his gentle, quivering voice lures me back in.

Nelson Mandela, Uncle Kathy says, had been separated from the rest of the group for about two to three years, during which time he had been in negotiations with the former Apartheid government. The talks included the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of liberation organisations and the return of exiles.

On 10 October 1989, Uncle Kathy was amongst a group of comrades that went from Pollsmoor Prison, where they had been transferred to from Robben Island in 1982, to see Madiba at the house he stayed in at Victor Verster Prison. It was here that they got the news that they would soon be free men after 26 years of incarceration. “Chaps, this is goodbye,” Madiba told them. They were, however, sceptical, saying they would believe it when it happened.

That night, a television was brought into the dining hall and on the eight o’ clock news, it was announced that a group of eight long-term political prisoners were being released. “I looked for my own name. It was number eight,” Uncle Kathy says. They did not know when exactly their release would be.

He often tells the story of what happened when they were flown to Johannesburg and on the Saturday night, the head of the prison informed them that they had received a fax from Pretoria stating they would be released the next day.

Their question: What is a fax?

I have heard Uncle Kathy tell this story many times before; it never ceases to be a delight, hearing about their fascination with all that had changed as the prisoners emerged from a time warp.

On 15 October 1989, he was for the first time separated from the rest of the political prisoners with whom he had experienced his greatest trials and agonies. And thus began a new chapter as a free man in a rapidly changing and volatile country.

Uncle Kathy says he was one of the “fortunate ones” who had family to go home to. He was welcomed back at his brother’s home in Lenasia, where a small, self-catering flat had been prepared for him in anticipation of his release. He got to the house in the early hours of the morning and his first visitor at around 6am was his long-time friend and comrade Laloo “Isu” Chiba, who had been released from Robben Island in 1982. Uncle Kathy says Chiba and Eddie Daniels had been “like brothers” to him during their time on the Island. It was a great joy to see Chiba after so long, and the bond they rediscovered that day still endures. “He is my close confidante, even now. We discuss issues and very personal matters too.”

A shock came later that day. About 5,000 people turned up at a park near his house to welcome him. And still later on that eventful day, the media whirl began. Those who were released addressed a press conference at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. It turned out to be a big public event with thousands arriving there too.

For a long time, that first day remained a blank. Then I saw a video recording of it and it all came back. It was all so overwhelming.

I remember the children in particular. They were such a curiosity, not having seen them for so many years. They were climbing on me and touching me all over on my head.”

The media bombardment was also a lot to contend with after being isolated from society for so long. Suddenly their pictures were plastered all over the newspapers and on television, and there were constant interviews and coverage of their movements. “It was a new experience altogether,” Uncle Kathy says. “It took some adjustment. We saw TV in the later years in prison but we didn’t know what a TV interview was.”

They used to push these long instruments (microphones) at us. I said, ‘What do I do with this?’ and was told to just talk. I don’t know why it was so long.”

It was all part of the culture shock of reintegrating into South African society at a heady time of political and societal change. The fashion was different, the places had changed and getting around was a lot more difficult. When they had gone to prison, there were just dual way roads. They came out to find multiple lane freeways with faster cars. “I tried to drive once from Lenasia to Johannesburg and never drove again,” Uncle Kathy says.

What put me off were the taxis. They still do.”

And then the shocker.

I missed prison. There, they open the gates for you and close the gates. They provide food.” I’m laughing, but I realise he is serious when he goes on. “There was a lot of time to think and discuss. That time was gone.”

Outside you are governed by regulations. There was little free time. And the media was all over.”

Oscar Pistorius should hear this, I think briefly, before chasing the silly thought out of my mind. But later I ask Uncle Kathy if he has been following the sentencing proceedings in the Pistorius trial and what he makes of the arguments that jail conditions might be too harsh for the athlete. As I ask the question, I realise how ridiculous the Pistorius issue really is. These gentle old men spent 26 years in prison, most of which were in brutal conditions, in the freezing cold and isolated from the rest of humanity. They did hard labour at the quarry.

Also, notably, they never killed anyone and fought for our liberation.

You can’t really escape the trial. When people talk about prison, I naturally get interested. I think he (Pistorius) will have nothing to complain about. He will be able to adjust to it,” he says encouragingly. I suppress the urge to laugh.

ranjeni-kathrada 02

Photo: Ahmed Kathrada with Andrew Mlangeni, the two remaining survivors of the group of eight prisoners released from prison 25 years ago. (Kathrada Foundation)

Uncle Kathy is kept busy through the work of his foundation and regularly travels abroad for related causes on non-racialism and the promotion of human rights. Mostly he is the chief storyteller of the Rivonia trialists, as one of three remaining survivors. He takes people on guided tours to Robben Island and is trying to get a house there where he can take time out and also entertain visitors. In many ways, the island is still a home to him.

I decide to ask about Uncle Kathy’s relationship with his partner, Barbara Hogan, although I feel slightly disrespectful probing his private life. Hogan was the first woman in South Africa to be found guilty of high treason and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Uncle Kathy says he met her soon after she was released in 1990.

We struck a relationship and it is still there.” I know I should leave it there but I want to ask more. Uncle Kathy was 60 when he was released. How do you find love so late in life? Also, I’ve seen them together. They’re best friends. It’s a love you, too, fall in love with.

Uncle Kathy says their common experiences of prison are a binding factor. They start the day talking about the news. “This morning I was looking at my computer, and started reading a story about women prisoners in Barberton prison. So we were talking about that.”

Every morning they drive from their flat and take a walk along the promenade in Sea Point, Cape Town. It’s more a slow shuffle now, rather than a walk.

Unfortunately we didn’t go today. We were a bit late. When we are in Joburg, we walk around Zoo Lake.”

They spend the December holidays at a place Barbara has in Simonstown. “It is very peaceful there. No unexpected knocks on the door. I can spend the whole day in my pyjamas.”

I want to talk some more about this, but instead I switch to politics. I ask Uncle Kathy about his relationship with the ANC and how he responds to contemporary politics. He says his only involvement is in his branch, but he attends events when the ANC invites him. “I’m quite happy being a branch member. I avoid getting into the controversies as they arise.

I’m at peace, really.”

And so he should be, even though South Africa and the ANC is in desperate need of moral leadership. But haven’t these liberation heroes done enough for us? Haven’t they given enough? Should they really bear the burden of responsibility for our multiple troubles now?

This has been a momentous year – the 50th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial, Uncle Kathy’s 85th birthday, as well as the 25th anniversary of the Rivonia trialists’ freedom. It’s also been a time when “Chaps, this is goodbye” took on a new meaning as they had to contend with the passing of their brother and leader, Madiba.

Being free in South Africa means different things to different people. For this golden generation of liberation heroes, it means being able to shuffle slowly in the morning sun, watching the waves crash on the rocks in a place they were kept away from for so long. And they should be left to do so, in peace. DM

Photo: Ahmed Kathrada is seen in Lenasia following his release. Picture by The Lenasia Indicator

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