South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Kathrada spoke – and acted – out of concern for the state of the movement and the needs of the country

Op-Ed: Kathrada spoke  – and acted – out of concern for the state of the movement and the needs of the country

In a life full of difficult choices, we know that Ahmed Kathrada's decision to publicly call on President Jacob Zuma to resign his office was one of the most difficult and painful he had had to make. He made the call out of a sincere concern for the state of the movement and the needs of the country. By CYRIL RAMAPHOSA

Born here in the small town of Schweizer-Reneke at a time of drought and depression, Kathrada’s world was defined from the outset by the iniquity of racial segregation.

He was forced to leave his home and his parents at the age of 8 because this town had no school for Indians.

Living with relatives in Johannesburg, he found political activism – and in political activism he found a new home, a new family and a lifetime of struggle.

It was his involvement in the Communist Party and the Congress movement that gave him the confidence, the fortitude, the discipline and the clarity of purpose that made him such an outstanding revolutionary.

Like others of his generation he was shaped both by the tumultuous epoch through which he lived and by the popular movement to which he belonged.

But Kathy also had an intrinsic integrity, a readiness to serve others and a willingness to sacrifice his own well-being for the good of others.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Rivonia trial, where there was so little evidence against him that the defence lawyers thought he stood a good chance of acquittal.

But he refused to break ranks. This is what made me realize the real worth of Uncle Kathy. It reminded me of Martin Lurther   King Jr   when he said “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. The true Neighbour {comrade} will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways   he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”

It was an act of remarkable selflessness to choose to stand with his comrades to face the harshest of consequences, as he had always done, and as he would always do.

He was made to suffer for his convictions.

He entered prison for the first time at the age of 17.

He was banned and placed under house arrest.

And like his fellow Rivonia trialists, he spent nearly three decades in the harsh, unforgiving isolation of an apartheid prison cell.

And yet, despite all that he had endured and all that he had witnessed, he harboured no bitterness.

He harboured no bitterness because he understood the destructive power of hate, how it cripples society and corrodes the soul.

He had seen its malignant effect at close quarters – in the streets of Schweizer-Reneke, among the bones of Auschwitz, in the slums of Johannesburg, behind the walls of Robben Island.

He had seen how it turned loving mothers and fathers, dutiful sons and daughters into instruments of oppression and neglect.

He saw how bigotry could turn one human against another, how fear and ignorance could fuel acts of extreme cruelty and barbarity.

But he also understood the awesome power of reconciliation.

He saw how human solidarity could overcome prejudice and intolerance.

He saw how compassion could overcome indifference.

He was convinced that the human impulse to love and respect and cherish is infinitely more powerful and abiding than the narrow chauvinism that disfigured our society.

This conviction informed not only his ideological outlook and his political activism.

It also informed his character, his demeanour and the way he treated people.

He was unflinching in his determination to end racism in all its forms and manifestations.

He understood that as much as we needed to work with determination to eradicate the huge material inequality in our society – between black and white, between men and women, between rural and urban – we also needed to change the attitudes that have kept our people apart.

In this way, by challenging people to confront the seeds of intolerance, he believed that a truly non-racial society was possible.

For a person who sacrificed his youth to the struggle, Comrade Kathy found great satisfaction in engaging with young people.

He believed that they were best placed to build a new non-racial, non-sexist and united society.

He was inspired by their enthusiasm, their commitment, their confidence and by their ready acceptance of one another as equals.

He did not find them cynical or disengaged.

He found them teeming with ideas, ready to contribute and determined to take control of their own future.

He stood with university students as they demanded that fees must fall.

And he stood with them in front of the Union Buildings as the police fired stun grenades at them.

He admired these young people – their courage, their thirst for education and their determination to challenge complacency.

In the time since his passing, we have missed Ahmed Kathrada’s clear and consistent moral voice.

Throughout his life, he remained true to his principles.

This required not only that he challenge with all his being the iniquities of the colonial legacy and the apartheid reality.

It also meant, at times, that he confront his own comrades.

He could be critical without being abrasive.

He could disagree without being confrontational.

But he felt compelled to speak out – and to act – in defence of the values and the conduct of the movement in which he grew up and to which he dedicated his life.

He never took this responsibility lightly.

In a life full of difficult choices, we know that his decision to publicly call on President Jacob Zuma to resign his office was one of the most difficult and painful he had had to make.

He made the call not out of anger, nor of conceit.

He made the call out of a sincere concern for the state of the movement and the needs of the country.

He made the call because, as a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress, he understood that he was a custodian of the values and practices of the movement to which he had dedicated 75 years of his life.

He understood that he had a responsibility – like all of us do – to defend the unity, integrity and principles of the organisation.

It is a matter of deep regret to those of us within the leadership of the movement that, during his final months, Comrade Kathy should have harboured such grave concerns about the state of the ANC and the direction of the country.

He was concerned that the values that had sustained the movement for more than a century were under threat.

The spirit of sacrifice and selfless struggle was being replaced by the unrelenting pursuit of influence and material reward.

The camaraderie of prison and exile was fast fading as factional interests set comrade against comrade, leader against leader.

The interests of the people were being subordinated to the interests of a few.

He worried about the unity and coherence of the movement.

He worried about the ability of the movement to continue to unite all South Africans in the struggle for freedom from ignorance, want and hunger.

He like many others in our movement raised concerns that we should listen to and address.

As we gathered at the ANC’s National Policy Conference earlier this month, we reflected on the many fault lines within our movement.

We reflected on organisational weaknesses and failures of leadership.

We discussed the corrosive effects of power and money.

Perhaps for the first time, the ANC confronted the reality of a concerted effort to capture key institutions of the state and of our movement.

The Policy Conference did not solve these problems, but it has established a firm platform for the movement to correct its mistakes, to renew itself and to build unity grounded on principle.

The ANC has embarked on a journey of renewal.

It has resolved to work with diligence and humility to regain the confidence of the many people who have grown disenchanted and disillusioned.

We must recognise that many individuals and organisations that were once close to the ANC have moved away, concerned about the state of the movement and the country, convinced that the ANC does not have the means to correct itself.

Some, including the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, are bringing together various groupings to establish a broad front against state capture and corruption.

The anger of our people is real. The hurt is justified.

As the African National Congress, we need to have the political maturity to recognise that efforts to establish such a front is a signal of our shortcomings.

We need to engage meaningfully with the various forces that feel alienated so that we can re-establish relationships based on principle and a clear value system.

This is not the time to give up on the African National Congress.

Now is the time for all the forces that have been part of the democratic movement to come together again and work with the ANC to confront these problems.

We will not be able to decisively end state capture, we will not be able to comprehensively root out corruption, unless we are united.

It is at a time like this when we should unite and renew our movement rather than abandon it.

We need instead to channel our anger and pain and to focus our every effort on our ultimate objective – the unity of our movement and our country, the restoration of our values and the freedom of our people.

We know that, despite the grave misgivings he had towards the end of his life, Ahmed Kathrada remained hopeful.

He knew the great difficulties our movement had withstood over many decades.

He remembered the crises it had confronted and the many times it had prevailed.

He was aware that within our movement and among our people are women and men of conviction, of integrity, of courage.

These are people who are committed to selflessly serve the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised.

They are prepared to organise, to mobilise, to conscientise.

They are prepared to confront vested interests, expose misdeeds, rebuild democratic structures and respond to the cries of our people.

These are the people who, above all else, will work together for the unity of our movement and the renewal of its values.

Comrade Kathy remained hopeful because he knew that there would be a new dawn for the ANC. A better and stronger ANC.

He knew that our people are resilient, engaged and militant.

He knew they would not surrender their hard won gains.

He knew they would continue to strive together – sparing neither strength nor courage – until they have achieved their freedom.

As we begin this programme of tribute to Ahmed Kathrada, we are called upon to prove that his hope was well founded.

We are called upon to prove ourselves worthy of his trust and confidence.

We are expected to act now to unite the movement, unite the people and forge a social compact for meaningful economic and social change.

Our immediate and urgent task is to root out patronage, corruption, mismanagement, factionalism, materialism and greed.

To achieve this we must act together, with purpose and courage to restore the values of our movement.

As we remember the life of Ahmed Kathrada, we are called upon to strive with renewed purpose to achieve his vision of a new, and better world.

A world in which the intrinsic worth of each person is valued, respected and celebrated.

Ahmed Kathrada’s better world is a space in which no one is judged by the colour of their skin, the country of their birth, the name of their God, the language that they speak, the work that they do, or the person that they love.

This is a world and space in which no family goes hungry while another has more than they need.

A world in which no man can claim dominion over a woman.

A world in which no child grows up without the delight and the fulfilment of learning.

A world in which the guns have fallen silent and the colonised, the occupied and the oppressed have been liberated.

As we look back on the life of Isithwalande Ahmed Kathrada, we are bound to observe that the world is a far better place for his being.

It is a better place thanks to the struggles he fought, the sacrifices he made, the alliances he built, the friendships he forged, the people he inspired and the lives he touched.

The world is a better place because he refused a life of comfort and complacency.

Instead, he joined with others in the most profound of human endeavours – the struggle for the liberation of all people from all forms of oppression and exploitation.

As we remember one of the finest human beings any one of us will have the privilege to know, we are reminded of his moving eulogy at the funeral of Tata Nelson Mandela.

He concluded the eulogy with these words:

“When Walter died, I lost a father, and now I have lost a brother. My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to.”

With Uncle Kathy’s passing, we, the people of South Africa, lost a father, a brother, a constant companion and a moral guide.

When we walked through the valley of darkness, he was our light.

As we experienced pain, he was our comfort.

And when we were in doubt, he was our conscience.

Today, Uncle Kathy, we say to you, that were it not for your unflinching commitment, your generosity, your courage, your humour, your compassion, your fighting spirit, your ability to bring together all the people of our of this beautiful land, our lives too would be in a void.

We would be alone and adrift.

But because of the remarkable person you were, because of the many, invaluable lessons you taught us, because of what you have bequethed us, today we are full of purpose, we are full of determination, we are full of hope.

Your struggle, our struggle, the struggle of your people, continues. DM

Tribute by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to Isithwalandwe, Ahmed Kathrada at Rosherville Park, Schweizer-Reneke, July 22, 2017

Photo: Veteran South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada looks on during the ANC’s centenary celebration in Bloemfontein, South Africa, January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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