South Africa

The spirit of Robben Island: Kathrada’s unusual wish for Maimane and Malema

By Ranjeni Munusamy 22 March 2017

Ailing struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada has some unfinished business. He wants to take Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema on a tour of Robben Island. He believes it would be enriching for these young leaders to hear from him about the time he and other Struggle giants spent there. Imagine what that gesture would do for nation-building. Sadly, the 87-year-old Kathrada is in hospital recovering from brain surgery. At a time when South Africa is burdened with destructive leadership and grappling with racism, the legacy of the liberation heroes is more poignant than ever. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.   

“Let us unite and make our country indeed a prosperous country. We have no right to push this country backward,” President Jacob Zuma said at the gravesite of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko on Tuesday. Zuma said the contribution of those who died for South Africa’s liberation, including Biko and the 69 victims of the Sharpeville massacre, should never be forgotten. South Africans therefore had no right to pull the country backwards, he told reporters.

Zuma’s words are so far beyond irony that it is possible he had no idea what he was saying. His leadership has been the antithesis of unity and prosperity for the country, and if anybody needs to be told that he had no right to push the country backwards, it is the president himself.

Zuma has, in fact, been told this. In April last year, Kathrada, one of the three surviving Rivonia trialists and former Robben Island prisoner, wrote to Zuma asking him to consider stepping down.

Following the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla that found that Zuma failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution, Kathrada said he agonised about writing to Zuma but believed “the people’s interest must at all times remain supreme”. In the letter, Kathrada also raised his concerns about the firing of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and the revelations by Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas that he was offered a promotion by members of the Gupta family.

“If we are to continue to be guided by growing public opinion and the need to do the right thing, would he not seriously consider stepping down?” Kathrada asked Zuma.

“If not, Comrade President, are you aware that your outstanding contribution to the liberation struggle stands to be severely tarnished if the remainder of your term as President continues to be dogged by crises and a growing public loss of confidence in the ANC and government as a whole?

“I know that if I were in the President’s shoes, I would step down with immediate effect. I believe that is what would help the country to find its way out of a path that it never imagined it would be on, but one that it must move out of soon,” Kathrada wrote.

Zuma ignored the letter, as he has done with other appeals from ANC stalwarts and military veterans to do what is best for their organisation, and the country. He appears to feels no pang of conscience when he speaks of the memory of South Africa’s liberators and their sacrifices to deliver freedom.

Speaking at the Human Rights Day commemoration in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape on Tuesday, Zuma said South Africa was now “a stable constitutional democracy” because of the sacrifices of many people such as those were killed at Sharpeville in 1960 during a protest against pass laws. He also called for a spirit of unity in remembrance of liberation heroes like Oliver Tambo who kept the ANC united during difficult times.

At an interfaith prayer service for Kathrada at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia on Tuesday, the site where he and other top ANC leaders were arrested in 1963, there were also tributes to the Struggle heroes. Kathrada has been in a serious condition in hospital after undergoing surgery earlier this month to remove blood clots from his brain. The prayer service was attended by among others George Bizos, lawyer for the Rivonia trialists, Sophie de Bruyn, a leader of the 1956 Women’s March and Laloo Chiba, former Robben Island prisoner and Kathrada’s best friend.

Chairman of the board of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Derek Hanekom said the stalwarts remained an inspiration.    

“It is no coincidence that Uncle Kathy was such a dear and close friend to Nelson Mandela‚ because they are the same‚ think the same‚ project the same‚ stand for the same values‚” Hanekom said. “When we get together like this on Human Rights Day‚ it is about honouring Uncle Kathy and the many others who fought to bring us the human rights we enjoy today.”

Hanekom, who is also Tourism Minister and a member of the ANC national executive committee (NEC), said Kathrada remained a member of the ANC. He said the ANC had to remain focused on its goal of uniting South Africa.

“We must never unite behind wrongdoing,” Hanekom said.

Asked what he meant by this, Hanekom told Daily Maverick that the ANC had to be “really careful about comrades appearing to unite behind wrongdoing and the defence of wrongdoing”.

“There needs to be principled unity to advance the goals and objectives of the ANC,” he said.

Asked whether being chairman of the Kathrada Foundation placed pressure on him to raise the stalwart’s concerns in the ANC, Hanekom said he shared the concerns of Kathrada and other members of the board about the situation in the organisation and the country. Members of the board include former president Kgalema Motlanthe, former Speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu, De Bruyn, Chiba and Kathrada’s wife, Barbara Hogan.

“We are likeminded so there is no pressure on me. I have never been afraid to express my concerns in NEC meetings and outside… We need to get our act together and correct some of the wrongs,” Hanekom said. In November last year, Hanekom led an unexpected manoeuvre at an NEC meeting for Zuma to step down from office. After a protracted debate, Zuma’s supporters suppressed the rebellion.

“What we need is leadership that is able to steer us in the right direction and take up the issues that are worrying all South Africans,” Hanekom said on Tuesday. 

Updating well-wishers about Kathrada’s condition, director of his foundation Neeshan Balton said after a setback following the surgery, the stalwart was doing better.

“In the last 48 hours there has been remarkable recovery. He is no longer in a sedated state‚ he is conscious. All of the seizures that accompany the operation have now stopped as well‚ his speech is improving‚” Balton said. “But his condition still remains unpredictable with no time frames for recovery.”

Balton also revealed that it was Kathrada’s wish to take Maimane and Malema on a guided tour of Robben Island. Asked about this, Balton said Kathrada believed that the two young opposition leaders should hear first-hand about the experiences on Robben Island as the historical context was important in current politics.

If it did come to pass, this would be an unusual and controversial move as the ANC has claim to most of that history. Kathrada’s desire to take the opposition leaders to the island could be an indication that he believes history should be shared across party lines or that they need to be empowered with historical perspective. It could also mean that he recognises that the future of South Africa might not be the ANC’s preserve. Whatever it is, it is not insignificant that a giant of the liberation Struggle recognises the leaders of the opposition and wants to pass on his knowledge to them.

This might rattle the ANC but it will be a massive gesture for nation-building. New generations of political leaders need to be cultivated, something the ANC has completely neglected. As a hybrid, formerly all-white party, the DA has a mixed legacy and the elders are more destructive than helpful for Maimane – as Helen Zille has again proved. As a founding leader of the EFF, Malema has no elders other than those he looked up to in the ANC.

Therefore, such a move by Kathrada would mean the Struggle inheritance is passed on across political party lines to broader society so that their fight for a non-racial, non-sexist society does not belong to the ANC alone.

The constant exposure of racism and sexism, such as the bullying of a black woman by a white man at a Spur restaurant in Johannesburg, shows that South Africa is far from the ideal of the cohesive society with respect for human rights. Perhaps the passing of the baton beyond the current leadership is the only way to get there. Hopefully Kathrada recovers and gets his wish, if only to return to the place of his incarceration that he has come to love. DM

Photo: Ahmed Kathrada (EPA), Julius Malema & Mmusi Maimane (SAPA)


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