Ahmed Kathrada could not have scripted his send-off any better. The planet seemed to pause on its axis as he disappeared into the red earth after a spectacular farewell that will be a marker in South Africa’s history. As his favoured son former President Kgalema Motlanthe said in his eulogy, “for better or for worse, what he stood for never changed according to the fluidities of history”. In death, as throughout his life, Kathrada was a revolutionary and an activist. His funeral opened a new struggle for the liberation of his country, and in his name, another evil system must and will fall. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Before they were released from prison in October 1989, Kathrada and his comrades went to see Nelson Mandela at Victor Verster prison. “Chaps, this is goodbye,” Madiba told them. It was a story Kathrada loved telling, and a phrase that became his own.
It is hard to believe that such a momentous parting was articulated in such a cavalier manner. But this cohort of heroes was salt-of-the earth characters, exceptional to everyone except themselves. It was why they seemed perpetually surprised that people made such a fuss of them.
Coming off the ferry after a visit to Robben Island a few years ago, Kathrada was confronted a group of shrieking teenage girls, tourists visiting Cape Town. He was startled and turned to look behind him at who the girls were so excited to see. He was quite stunned when they said it was him and asked to take pictures.
Such was the humility of Ahmed Kathrada that he never completely understood his own greatness.
The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation had a profound understanding of his character and his wishes and therefore planned every part of his send-off in the way he would have wanted. The request that President Jacob Zuma not speak at the funeral came from the foundation, not the Kathrada family. It was a weighty decision to communicate, but they felt compelled to honour his wishes.
The speakers at the funeral were also people Kathrada loved and respected. Derek Hanekom, Laloo Chiba, Sophie Williams de-Bruyn and Kgalema Motlanthe were people he held dear and chose them to play important roles in his life and his foundation. He trusted them and knew that they would best represent him in death.
It could not have been easy for Motlanthe to deliver the eulogy he did, standing over Kathrada’s mortal remains. He was clearly in pain, mourning the man with whom he shared so many fond memories. Their bond was so close that before Motlanthe went to government, he would stay with Kathrada at his flat in Cape Town.
“When mortality asserts itself, it does so without due regard to human emotion,” he said. “And so it is that during moments like this, the fragility of the human condition whips up feelings of hurt, sorrow, grief and pain in all of us whom he leaves behind.”
Motlanthe knew that Kathrada would not have wanted him to deliver an effusive tribute without expressing what he himself would have said if he could.
“It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failure of politics.”
What he did next caught everyone present by surprise. He read an extract of the letter Kathrada had written to Zuma last year calling on him to step down.
“Three hundred and fifty-four days ago today, comrade Kathrada wrote this letter to which a reply had not been forthcoming,” Motlanthe said. “I have quoted comrade Kathy at length in this regard to make the point that for better or for worse what he stood for never changed according to the fluidities of history.”
“Comrade Kathy took exception to the current the culture of feeding frenzy, moral corruption, societal depravity, political dissolution, the gross and sleaze enveloping human mind that would put to shame even some of the vilest political orders known to human history. He found current South African political leadership wanting on many fronts that he mentions in his letter and could not hesitate to call for the resignation of the President of the country with whom the buck stops.”
In the front row, next to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema was the first to spring to his feet and applaud. It led to a thunderous standing ovation, followed by shouts of “Phansi Zuma!” and “Zuma must fall!”
Asked by Daily Maverick after the burial about the speech, Motlanthe said: “Well, I was asked to speak and I decided I should do this.”
He was not the only one driven by the heaviness of the moment to speak out against the shame and chaos in the government and ANC.
Gauteng premier David Makhura, who is also a board member of the Kathrada Foundation, opened the gambit in his address, saying “We must have the humility to listen to the stalwarts and veterans of the movement”.
His voice laced with emotion, Makhura said:
“We must be angry if anyone insults our stalwarts and veterans. We hope their voices are heard and respected.”
Anyone who has followed how a group of ANC stalwarts and military veterans have struggled to get their organisation to take seriously their concerns will know exactly what Makhura meant.
Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali said in his message that leaders must be separated from organisations. “Leaders will come and go but organisations will remain. No matter how popular you may be, never for a moment think you are bigger than the organisation.” He spoke of their responsibility to stand up and say “My friend, you are doing wrong.”
South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande said Kathrada’s passing came at a time when his wisdom was needed to combat the “parasitic patronage networks seeking to capture our movement”.
“As the SACP, in memory of Comrade Kathy, we say no to those intensions. And we will continue to say no, no, no! … In the name of Comrade Kathy, let us defend the ANC. We don’t have many ANCs, we have one ANC.”
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe spoke about how Kathrada was “incorruptible”. Then, bizarrely, he appealed to the ANC’s stalwarts and veterans to provide guidance to the leadership. Considering how Mantashe and his deputy Jessie Duarte have led the veterans down the garden path over their call for a national consultative conference, this was quite disingenuous.
It was therefore quite comical when Mantashe said the veterans had a responsibility “to guide us and all generations to come”, a voice shouted from the crowd:
“Let’s meet tomorrow!”
Mantashe did not respond to the invitation.
It was also quite an ominous sign that as Mantashe was giving a long description of the qualities of good leaders, the South African flag behind him fell over.
While Motlanthe’s speech was the showstopper, the concluding message from the director of the Kathrada Foundation Neeshan Balton provided the grand finale. Balton was privy to Kathrada’s feelings on many things, personal and political, and therefore bore the responsibility to make some of these known.
He informed Barbara Hogan that Kathrada had told him before he underwent brain surgery earlier this month how much he loved her. Balton said he had advised Kathrada to tell his wife this but suspected that he never did.
Balton informed Malema of Kathrada’s wish to take him to Robben Island to tell him of their experiences there. He asked Malema to carry out this wish, escorted by one of the other veterans. Malema nodded in agreement. It must have annoyed some the ANC’s leaders present that Malema was not only seated in the front row but also received this special mention. It was something Balton felt duty-bound to communicate.
He also told how when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was to appear in court on trumped-up corruption charges last year, Kathrada said he wanted to be “the first one there to accompany him to court”. Balton asked an emotional Gordhan to stand and the crowd erupted in applause.
“Irrespective of whether you are a minister or not in days and weeks to come, you remain true to the values and principles that Ahmed Kathrada would be proud of.”
The intense pressure Gordhan has been under over the past few days, with Zuma’s pending decision to fire him and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, gave way to tears. The emotion must also have been due to the realisation that there could be no greater honour bestowed on him than to be told, at that moment in time, that he was doing Kathrada proud.
There were many poignant moments in the few hours it took to pay tribute to Kathrada and lay him to rest. Former president Thabo Mbeki and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa led the procession that brought his body into the marquee. His remains were blessed by moving interfaith prayers. And he was laid to rest in the presence of a legion of respected people, among them Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and veterans Andrew Mlangeni, George Bizos and his long-time friend Laloo Chiba.
The missing man had no place there.
If Zuma was in a dilemma before about swinging his axe to chop Gordhan, Hanekom and others in his Cabinet, Kathrada’s funeral saw that same axe ricochet and slice him deeply. Zuma was steeped in disgrace before, but on Wednesday he became a truly diminished man. He will never recover from the shame that echoed from Kathrada’s grave and reverberated across the country.
South Africa needed a tipping point and Kathrada’s passing provided that. He was an activist from the age of 12 and a revolutionary even in his grave. He has pricked the consciences of many people, including those who continue to prop up Zuma’s sham presidency.
Kathrada’s memory and legacy provide a guiding light to help us find our way home.
The autumn leaves have begun falling over the small mound of earth in Hero’s Acre where he now lies. Each gentle flutter is a reminder of his silent call to action that can never be ignored.
And from deep inside the soul of this tormented nation, you can hear him say:
“Chaps, this is goodbye.” DM
Photo: Viewers look upon a portrait of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada during the burial procession at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa, 29 March 2017. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND
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