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Ahmed Kathrada: The mountains we still have to climb ar...

South Africa

South Africa, Politics

Ahmed Kathrada: The mountains we still have to climb are huge

Ahmed Kathrada was interviewed by MELANIE VERWOERD, former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland, for EWN.

Watch the EWN interview here

MV: After nearly three decades in jail, for your beliefs, if you now look back, do you think it was all worth it?

AK: Absolutely. Yes. I do not have a bit of regret for what I went through. I think everything we did was, to a greater extent, worth it. And the so-called sacrifices we made fade into almost nothing compared to others who did not live to see the democracy. So I can’t speak about it as sacrifices. It was nothing compared to people who were tortured, people who were hanged, people who did not live to see democracy.

MV: What are the things that you are most proud of, that we as a nation have achieved in the last 22 years?

AK: Without going into all the detail… we got rid of apartheid. After 300 years of white rule, oppressive rule, we got rid of it. And with all its shortcomings, we have established a non-racial society and non-racial government. Having said that, I am quite aware that 20 years in the life of an individual may be a lot. But in the life of a nation it is not. It’s a stepping stone towards what we want to achieve.

There have been a lot of mistakes. That is inevitable. Because prior to 1994, we had never ruled, not even a city council. I remember being in Madiba’s office in the first five years of democracy. We didn’t know about Cabinet papers. We didn’t know anything really. Fortunately, we had a predominantly or an almost 100% white civil service. Without them we couldn’t have done anything. Not only in the presidency but in every single ministry. We had to rely on their experience. And they played ball. They co-operated as much as possible. If they wanted to sabotage they could easily have done it. But they didn’t.

MV: Why do you think they didn’t sabotage the new regime?

AK: I think they had adjusted. They must have foreseen the future and for them it was just a question of who is the new boss, like good civil servants. So they thought, our livelihood now depends on a new boss and we have to serve the new boss. So by and large that’s what they did. I can’t remember a single complaint about a deliberate effort to sabotage things. I can’t remember that at all.

MV: So the story of De Klerk taking out the lightbulbs, is that just a myth?

AK: Ja! [laughing]

MV: Do you think that today the civil servant is equally as responsive to the needs of those who are around them?

AK: Well you know, I always avoid talking about these contemporary things. Simply because it is too new, and because I depend only on newspapers and the media. I have no connection with the government any more, since I retired. Of course, I still know some of the individuals in government and they are my friends. But when we meet, we do not discuss politics, we only discuss social affairs.

MV: Earlier you spoke about our achievements, but there must also be disappointments, with things we have not achieved?

AK: I would not say disappointments. We must remember, 20 years in the life of a nation is not much. And one cannot expect everything that one wants immediately. One must learn to expect that. I have recently been to India and some other countries, and after years of independence they still have problems. One doesn’t always want to compare with other countries, but having seen some things in other countries, our issues are nothing new. But I mustn’t be misunderstood. We can never be satisfied. We can look at the progress in the last 20 years, but then we have to look ahead at the mountains we still have to climb. And those are huge.

MV: Which ones do you think are the most challenging?

AK: Primarily, poverty, crime and corruption. We have to deal with all that. The main thing is poverty and corruption in the public sector and the private sector.

MV: What about the race issue. I know your foundation has been very vocal on that front. I am very concerned about race relations deteriorating, especially among young people. How do you feel about that?

AK: It’s understandable. It is not acceptable but understandable considering where we come from. I also believe there is a lot of work lacking in youth organisations. Not government youth organisations, but civil society youth organisations, in educating the people in terms of protest etc. I cannot sit here and condemn for example the demonstrations. I just wish that young people trying to voice their frustrations and aspirations don’t have to resort to destruction – to burning of books and burning of paintings as I have seen. So one wishes without having to condemn, one wishes that they don’t have to do that, because what has to be conveyed to young people today is, unlike in the past, there is every avenue open for them to make known their desires and frustrations. There is the Constitutional Court, there is the Public Protector. These are avenues that one can turn to when things are going wrong. And one wishes that they take advantage of those avenues instead of having to resort to other means. Violent means in particular.

MV: What about the interpersonal racial stuff. You have seen the worst in South Africa and you have also in a way seen the best of South Africa during the transition. It seems that the divisions between people are coming back…

AK: Well, in 20 years we cannot get rid of the Group Areas Act, and what preceded the Group Areas Act. To mention one example: In Johannesburg, we had for years racially classified areas, Lenasia for Indian people, Soweto for Black people. Today, even though the pace of change is slow, the schools in Lenasia, which were just Indian, are no longer that. Hundreds of kids come from Soweto to schools in Lenasia simply because they find that the teaching in the schools where they come from is not up to standard. They come to Lenasia where they find teachers that did not have Bantu education. Bantu education is one of the biggest crimes that the apartheid government imposed. It created such divisions among people that had to be overcome. So we had generations of teachers who went through Bantu education and came out with limited qualifications. Because, Verwoerd had made it clear that black people are in white South Africa. And that was the mentality. So all those stumbling blocks are still to be overcome.

MV: What is your wish for South Africa in years to come?

AK: First, the eradication of poverty. And then, making it less difficult for people to gain their aspirations, without any stumbling blocks. I really wish that for young people. The majority of the population is young. And I wish that any stumbling blocks that are in the way of progress can be removed so that young people can take fullest advantage of the opportunities. My wish is to see a situation where we do not have to import skills. Not that we are importing too many skills now. But the doors of learning are open and I wish that young people can take fullest advantage of this so that they themselves will provide the skills that are needed.

MV: Are you hopeful about the future of SA?

AK: I am. There’s a tendency today to concentrate on individuals. Even this morning when I was on my computer, there was so much against President Zuma. You know, individuals do not make policy. President Zuma does not make policy. It’s the ruling party that makes policy. It’s the government that makes policy. And that’s where the concentration of criticism should be – to those who are really responsible for policy.

MV: I agree with you that there has been a growth of politics of the individual which is actually quite foreign for the ANC as I understood it…

AK: Well unfortunately people compare with Mandela and now to a lesser extent, Thabo Mbeki. These are and were not super humans. They tried to respond to the needs of the day. And now of course, we have some, especially young people, saying Mandela sold out. But they have no idea of history. They think that the De Klerk government was so weak that it would just cave in. They don’t realise that Africa only started getting its independence in the Sixties. The South African Army could have walked through Africa. As they did. They went to Zambia. They went to Mozambique, without resistance. So it wasn’t just a matter of doing what we wanted to do, as if we had all the means. But that’s the thinking of some young people who are not aware of what leaders of the time faced.

MV: I also hear young people saying that the Constitution is not African and that we should change the Constitution.

AK: Yes, I hear that too and I suppose they mean well. But they don’t take into account it’s not just about sitting at a desk and changing various chapters of the Constitution. It’s not as easy as that. Constitutions also evolve to meet with the situations as it demands. But one wishes that these types of things are conveyed more and more to the impatient, understandably impatient, young people.

MV: We spent five years together in Parliament …

AK: Yes, but I felt very much out of place there. Five years was enough and then I retired. Simply because I think I’m lazy (laughs). To do justice to the position I held as adviser to the president, I should have mastered piles of documentation. Not that everything depended on the individual. But the individual in that position had to have a certain amount of expertise. Now for me that was too much. And I always warned in my political life and in government there comes a time when you have to say to yourself: “Look, you tried your best, but now it’s time to make way for others.” And fortunately for me, I realised that in time. Five years for me in government was enough and five years in civil society organisations such as the chairman of the Robben Island council was enough.

MV: At Madiba’s funeral you gave the most moving speech. You must miss him?

AK: I miss two individuals – both very special to me. I miss (Walter) Sisulu because I regarded Sisulu as a father. For the most private things one has to turn to someone. My father died when I was 14, my mother was 200 miles away. In any case she was not an educated person whom I could turn to. So I turned to Walter who was a father figure to me. In jail and outside jail. And then to my elder brother, Madiba. That is why I always correct people who say “your friend” when they refer to Madiba. I suppose I am a bit conservative, but I can’t call a person who is 11 or 12 years older than me my friend. So Walter was my father. Madiba was my elder brother… but not a friend. Although the relationship was very easy, the respect was always there. When both of them died of course… I can never forget. Those are the most difficult speeches I have had to make. Sisulu’s funeral was not given the TV publicity, but it was very difficult as was the Madiba funeral which was so widely publicised.

MV: I think it was so special for all of us… because up until then there were so many formalities and somehow you gave voice to the far more personal sadness so many felt. If Madiba and Sisulu was still alive, how do you think they would feel about our country now?

AK: While I was in jail, I wrote an assignment on the “ifs” of history. If Lenin was still alive how would the world look (laughs). So you see the “ifs” are very difficult, because you are just speculating.

MV: Do you mind sharing a favourite story of Madiba?

AK: Oh, there were so many. Perhaps, this story, which is also indicative of what we miss most during the years in jail. On the day of his release, when the convoy was taking him from prison to his home, he asked his car to stop. The reason? On the verandah of a house he saw a lady with a baby. He got out and went up to her. Of course the lady knew who Mandela was. He asked: “Can I please hold the baby for a while?” She agreed, reluctantly of course. Since here comes a strange man out of the car and he wants to hold her baby.

People often ask us what we missed most in jail. And many people say food. What they don’t realise is how we missed children. And Madiba showed that on the day. In my case for instance, I saw and touched a child for the first time after 20 years and that was not on Robben Island. As you know, after 18 years, five of us including Madiba were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. Because there were only five of us, things were very relaxed. So when my lawyer came to see me with his child she wouldn’t stay in the car. Since things were so relaxed, they let her come in. She came in and there was no longer any consultation with her father, my lawyer.

She sat on my lap and I just stroked her hair. It was completely overwhelming for me just to have a child sitting on my lap. So my lawyer had to come back. That’s what one misses most in prison. It’s an artificial society without children and you want to even just hear a child crying. That’s how bad it is and that deprivation was the very worst. Not the food, nothing else. Just the deprivation of engaging with children.

MV: When I hear that I have to ask you: Why are you not bitter?

AK: Bitterness, anger, revenge… these are negative emotions. People harbouring those emotions suffer much more than to whom these are directed. I realised that early on and so I focused on accepting and forgiveness. DM

Photo: Melanie Verwoerd and Ahmed Kathrada.


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