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Mainstream, VOL LV No 19 New Delhi April 29, 2017

Tribute to Ahmed Kathrada and Excerpts from an interview he gave in February 1991

Sunday 30 April 2017



Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, who passed away at the Medical Center in Johannesburg on March 28, 2017 at the age of 87, was one of the best known freedom fighters of South Africa who waged a steadfast struggle against the aparthied regime and had to suffer long years of imprisonment in the Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison alongwith Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Billy Nair, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba and Denis Goldberg, all of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial which ended in June 1964. He was released in 1989.

Following his release and the removal of the aparthied regime, Kathrada came to India as a leading figure in the African National Congress of South Africa at the beginning of 1991. That was his first visit to India to attend a seminar in New Delhi. At that time, on February 22, 1991, the self-effacing and unassuming Kathrada, who was by then a member of Parliament representing the ANC, spoke to Smriti Vohra (The Times of India) and Sumit Chakravartty (Mainstream) in a wide-ranging interview which was published in full in Mainstream (March 16, 1991).

While remembering him on this occasion, we are publishing excerpts from that interview as a token of our sincere tribute to his abiding memory. 

Excerpts from Ahmed Kathrada’s interview (February 22, 1991)

SV: Could you kindly tell us about your background a bit?

AK: Yes, I’II come to that. My father comes from India, from the Gujarat province. He left India at the turn of the century. I was of course born in South Africa. I grew up there, had my schooling there, politics, everything I did in South Africa.

SV: Professionally, were you working before you were imprisoned? What were you doing prior to your prison life?

AK: Before I went to prison I just did my matriculation. Then I did not study anymore. But in prison I studied.

SV: And what did you study?

AK: In prison I did four degrees: I did BA in History and Criminology. Then I did a Bachelor of Bibliography in African Politics and Library Science. Then I did a BA Honours in History and a BA Honours in African Politics.

SV: Are you married?

AK: No, I am not.1

SC: You were imprisoned in 1962?

AK: No, we were arrested in 1963 and sentenced in 1964.

SC: Mandela was arrested earlier, in 1962, wasn’t he?

AK: He was arrested in August 1962 on another charge for which he got five years of prison sentence. It was a lesser charge. By the time of our arrest he was really serving his five-year sentence. Then of course he became prisoner Number One in the Rivonia Trial which all of us faced. And then we all got our life sentence together.

SV: And when were you released?

AK: We were released with Walter Sisulu in October 1989, that is, four months before Mandela was released.

SC: Would you like to share with us any striking reminiscences of your prison life? In 1979 the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding was presented to Mandela. Oliver Tambo came to receive it. He, Mandela, had in fact written a very moving letter to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Do you have anything to say about it? Did you come to know about it?

AK: Yes, of course, I knew it. We were all staying together. Not in one cell. But we were staying in the same building and working together till he was isolated from us at the end of 1985.

SC: You were in Robben Island for sometime?

AK: We were all in Robben Island for about 18 years.

SV: What kind of work were you made to do?

SC: Hard labour?

AK: Yes, hard labour. You know, pick and shovels. We were doing that for 12-13 years.

SV: This was for how many hours in a day?

AK: For about eight hours. Pick and shovels—in a quarry. Then we had to do other work also, some of it lighter work. And then in 1982 five of us with Nelson Mandela were transferred to a prison in Cape Town. So the last years of our prison life we spent in Cape Town, in the Pollsmoor prison.

SV: There too you had to engage in hard labour?

AK: No, there we did not have to work at all.

SC: Were the conditions in Robben Island really very bad? Very difficult?

AK: No, no. You know, it was very difficult in the beginning. The first years were bad. Then conditions improved. And after sometime one gets used to, acclimatised to any condition. It worked both ways: on the one hand, there was a material improvement in the conditions; but at the same time you, on the other hand, get used to the conditions in which you are put to.

SC: Did you have to undergo any kind of torture?

AK: Well, that’s important. You see, Robben Island has got two sections: one section where the bulk of the prisoners stay—at the beginning there were about 1500. You know, straight big cells, 50-60 prisoners staying in a cell; and then there is a smaller section which has got single, small cells (for 25 prisoners) were we stayed. We were never allowed contact with the bulk of the prisoners. There was complete separation.

We were 25 of us in all in that section, in single cells. That’s where we spent all our time in Robben Island.

SV: That’s where the important political prisoners were kept?

AK: Well, a bit high-profile people. Not always confined to that. But some of the high-profile people were there. Now, we were never physically tortured or assaulted. Not by the police nor by the prison authorities.

That was not the same about the rest, about the other prisoners who were very badly treated: assaulted, tortured.

SV: Was it a mixed kind of prison? Were there White prisoners as well?

AK: No, we have While political prisoners. But under South African laws Whites are kept in Pretoria. When we were sentenced, there was one White prisoner but he was kept in Pretoria jail, never brought to Robben Island.

SC: Robben Island is meant only for Blacks and the Coloured?

AK: For Indians, Africans and the Coloured.

SC: As for the other prisoners you mentioned, were they not granted the status of political prisoners?

AK: The South African Government still does not admit that we were political prisoners. As far as they were concerned, we were common criminals. They always say that there is no such thing as a political prisoner in South Africa. But in fact they recognised us as such without saying so. That didn’t mean that they made our life in prison any easier. In fact in some respects they made our life tougher. For instance, if you are an ordinary criminal, you are allowed to buy newspapers, you are allowed a radio. We were denied all that. For 16 years we didn’t have newspapers or radio which the common criminals had. It was only in 1980 that we were allowed newspapers.

SV: Were you in solitary confinement? What was it like?

AK: Well, you see, for offences within prison one gets solitary confinement. I was given six months of solitary confinement. This type of punishment was generally related to our attempts to get newspapers or books which are prohibited. It was in that connection that I was given six months solitary confinement.

How is it like? You are put in a cell all alone. Not allowed to talk to anybody. Not allowed to read anything. You are brought out for just half an hour in the morning and half-an-hour in the afternoon. And then you get locked up again.

SC: No hard labour?

AK: No, not when you are in punishment, solitary confinement.

SC: What did you do to get this punishment? Trying to smuggle in some papers?

AK: Well, in this particular case I was tyring to smuggle in books.

SC: Was Mandela also sentenced to solitary confinement at any time?

AK: No, he was never in solitary confinement.

SV: Doesn’t solitary confinement drive people insane?

AK: It can.

SV: How did you cope with that?

AK: Well, I suppose, I had to. It’s difficult to say now, but somehow or the other I survived it.

SC: This was in the initial years of your prison life?

AK: I was sentenced to solitary confinement in 1972 or 1973, that is, almost ten years after I was sent to Robben Island.....

SC: The assimilation of Indians in the movement seemed to be slightly less in the past. Or was it a wrong impression that we had?

AK: No, no, I don’t think so. You see, the Indians are by and large supporters of the African National Congress. But you may not find very many of them visible. However, any opinion surveys that you may have among them will show that by the large they support the African National Congress. We have had the Indian Congress there which were allied to the ANC. Nobody else, no other organisation, can claim that they have the support of the Indians. The majority support will still be with the ANC.

But that doesn’t mean that you have got their membership necessarily. However, the support is there and of course the membership is growing all the time among Indians. The ANC, as you know, has been an all-African organisation just as we had the Indian Congress, African Congress, Coloured Congress, White Congress. The ANC itself changed its constitution fairly recently opening up to all—Whites, Indians, etc. But they were still in exile when this happened. So it will take a bit of time for substantial numbers of people from other communities to join it.

SC: But the wealthy sections of Indians who want to maintain the status quo, would you call them a very small minority?

AK: Well, you have got a small section of very wealthy Indians. Now they miss nothing. They are not very worried about the one man one vote, you know. They want stability so that their way of life continues. But even they are getting interested in the African National Congress.

Previously they were just saying ‘no’ to anything related to the ANC. They can no longer afford to take that position because the ANC has taken the centre-stage of politics of South Africa. And everybody knows that no new system is going to work without the ANC. So, although those affluent Indians will not join the ANC, but they are very interested in it and a lot of them are sympathising. But they don’t do it openly.

SC: Which means that they have come to realise that the ANC would become the ruling party at some stage or other in the future?

AK: They are accepting that. I am not saying necessarily that they welcome the idea. Many of them do, others don’t. Some of those will go and join de Klerk.

SC: But they accept the reality?

AK: Yes, they accept the reality. I mean, I have personal experience with a very wealthy class who previously would have nothing to do with us, just ridicule us. But no longer. They are now taking very seriously the ANC.

SV: I have one question, it’s sort of personal. How did you get to know that you would be released? How did you feel? And what did you immediately do?

AK: Over the years there had been many rumours from time to time that there will be releases and so on. We tended to dismiss them because they were all rumours and nobody took them seriously. So that when the latest rumour of our release came we just laughed at it. People outside took it seriously, we didn’t.

Eventually on October 10, 1989 President de Klerk announced over the radio that eight people were going to be released. And within a week thereafter we were released. That’s about it. He didn’t announce that we would be released on a certain date, say, after a week. He just announced that we would be released after formalities are completed. Now in prison completion of formalities can mean one day or 10 years. But we also knew that Mandela had been already having discussions with the authorities and they had assured him that we would be rleased soon. In fact we happened to be visiting him that day when de Klerk announced our release. Earlier in the day we were with him. At night before we went back to our prison—you know, he was separated from us—they didn’t take us back immediately to our cells but took us to some other quarter where they put on the TV and we heard the news.

SC: Just by way of information: are you a member of the Executive of the ANC?

AK: Well, you see, for all intents and purposes I am. But here again, it’s a constitutional matter.

SC: But you are also connected with the South African Communist Party?

AK: Yes. But let me explain to you. The ANC has had no elections. It has been a legal organisation only for a year and at our Conference last December, which was the first Conference of the ANC in South Africa, we did not have any elections.

SC: It was a Consultative Conference?

AK: Yes. So there is a machinery which was set up that makes us in fact Executive members of the ANC. But technically we are not elected.

SC: But at the same time you are in the South African Communist Party?

AK: Yes.

SC: What is your designation there?

AK: I hold no office-bearer’s post there.

SV: What emotions did you feel at that moment when you heard the announcement of release?

AK: Well, when we heard the announcement the wardens were more excited than we were.

SV: Were they White warders?

AK: Yes. Black warders were not allowed to be anywhere near us.

SC: Were they quite cooperative?

AK: There again, you know, human beings that they are, they started off being very tough but after you have been in touch with a person for a very long time you start developing a relationship of friendship....

SV: Yesterday you said that if freedom was coming it was not because de Klerk was becoming more humanitarian but because the Black resistance movement has a kind of resilient character. Can you say something of the tenacity of the movement?

AK: Take this very Group Areas Act under which the Whites were given certain areas to stay in and Indians and the Coloured had other specific areas. The situation in the Black areas became so difficult that first of all, in ones and twos people started moving to the White areas and then in tens and twenties. Today you find the previously all-White suburbs have just become mixed and one of these suburbs exactly now is only Black whereas previously it was all-White.

SC: What is it due to?

AK: Because of necessity.

SC: Is it due to the deterioration of economic conditions as well?

AK: Well, no. You see, the government has stopped building houses for Africans many years ago. And there is overcrowding. In fact it is not due to deterioration of economic conditions so much. But in this particular case it is because of better earning by clerks, etc. Let’s say, they are working in an office with Whites. They become friendly with the Whites. They tell one of the Whites: “Look, hire that flat in your name.” So the White hires it. Then this man moves in, then his wife moves in. That’s how it started.

SC: Would it be correct to say that racial discrimination now is minimal at the mass level?

AK: Are you speaking of racial attitudes? Yes, racial attitudes are changing.

SV: What about inter-marriage?

AK: That was one of the things they were fearing all these years. That’s why they brought forth this law on mixed marriage. But there are no mixed marriages in large numbers. There are only a handful. No flood of mixed marriages. In the past, you know, there was a law called Immorality Act whereby you couldn’t have any sort of relationship across the colour lines. That has gone. There are no mass mixed marriages. It happens here and there. But...

SV: That means segregation is still there within the psyche. Perhaps they thought that once they are freed of chains the people would go and do what they were not supposed to do.

AK: That’s what they thought. But it doesn’t happen that way.

Now, as I was saying, people started occupying these places. They didn’t stay in towns, they worked there. So these White friends of theirs said: “All right, I’II hire the flat in my name, but you’II have to pay me.” People paid out of friendship. This arrangement started growing so that it reached a stage where the law and the landlord just stopped even considering having White nominees. They just started hiring places. So people started moving in tens of thousands into these areas. It doesn’t mean the majority of South Africans. Because we have a huge popu-lation. But certain all-White areas as they existed before the Group Areas Act were abolished as they became mixed. So what I am saying is that the authorities were forced to accept a de facto position that was already existing.

Similarly, they used to have apartheid on beaches, in libraries, parks. People just stopped going there in their thousands. Now these people don’t have the capacity to prosecute or imprison tens of thousands of people, so they had to close their eyes.

SC: So was it the tenacity of struggle which really changed the situation?

AK: That’s what I say. It is pressures of this type, the resistance movement, strikes, boycotts—all kinds of things that worked. For instance, in some places the Whites tried to resist the opening up of parks, libraries. So what did the Blacks do? They stopped buying at White shops. And when they stopped buying at White shops, the Whites were forced to rethink. Because the buying power of the Blacks is increasing all the time by virtue of the population.

SC: What about the sanctions? The sanctions also had some effect, didn’t they?

AK: Oh, yes, sanctions had a tremendous effect. All the pressures, both local and international, resulted in a change.

SC: And the changing international scenario, did it have some impact? The onset of detente, etc?

AK: Well, it did. It was not uninfluential. The whole detente atmosphere also had a greater impact on our government. Because all these years they were resisting to talk to us saying: “We don’t talk to terrorists.”

This resistance could not be sustained in the face of the detente pressure.

Yes, there was this pressure, this detente pressure, but the main pressure was the struggle inside the country of our people....

SC: On the Gulf war the other day you spoke of the double-standards of the West with regard to their differing attitudes towards White and Black regimes. Could you kindly elaborate on that?

AK: First of all, I must say that the ANC policy is that we do not condone the invasion of Kuwait. In other words, we don’t say that we are pro-Saddam. We believe in the sovereignty of nations, that no nation must carry out aggression against another country. If a conflict arises that conflict must be settled peacefully. That’s our belief. But having said that we believe that because of the changes in the world we have got now one superpower which has arrogated to itself the task of being a world policeman. It has bludgeoned the United Nations into this action.

We say they use double-standards. There have been countless resolutions passed against apartheid in the UN; they didn’t do anything. If they were serious they could have blockaded South Africa and brougtht South Africa to its knees peacefully. They were not interested.

On the question of Namibia, South Africa all along defied the United Nations with the blessings of the West.

On the question of Palestine, there are resolutions calling upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. America does nothing.

But when it come to Black regimes, they find it easy to act. Historically, they threw the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In Iraq they are experimenting with the most modern military hardware in their possession.

SC: So you think it is a racist reaction?

AK: Very much so. I say Grenada, Panama, blockade against Cuba—all were the handiwork of the US. In fact the other day I read some figures that there have been 200 to 300 local wars since the Second World War and America has been involved in half of them, and not a single one of them is against the Whites. They have been involved either through the CIA or through any of their other agencies—but not against White regimes. So it is a racist thing, apart from these theories of the designs they have in relation to oil in the Middle East.

SC: You were critical also of some of your friends in the socialist countries and others who have been trying to review their relations with South Africa.

AK: You are speaking of the former socialist countries.

SC: And also there was a tinge of regret with regard to the role of the Soviet Union.

AK: No, there were others who were saying that, not me. They have said that the Soviet Union is forcing us to go slow on nationalisation, forcing us to abandon armed struggle.

We do not agree with that. Nobody forces us to do anything. We are an independent organisation. We feel it is an insult to accuse us of having our policies made for us elsewhere.

And it is not true that the Soviet Union has lessened its support to the ANC. What has happened is that in the glasnost era voices which were not heard before are now being heard. You see, the Soviet Union now has organisations like the Africa Committee which believe that the ANC must change its line. But there is also the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee which, as also the Government of the Soviet Union, is with the ANC. So we are trying to correct that impression.

SC: But Hungary and others have taken a different course.

AK: But they are no longer socialist countries.

SV: One last question I have. How do you feel after being in prison for 27 years? Such a large chunk of your life spent behind bars...

AK: First of all, when you get into a struggle like that, are engaged in illegal activity as we were, when you go underground as we were, you know that you are taking certain risks. It is going to mean anything depending on what type of risks you are taking. So that you are already psychologically prepared.

When you go underground one thing you know for certain that you are not going to last forever—if you are underground and politically active you are going to get caught.... so that when you get caught it doesn’t come as a shock to you.

When you are in prison you are carrying on the same struggle in a different terrain, in some ways harder, in some easier. At least when you are sitting in prison with all the hardships, you have got the protective walls, you have got the warders looking after you, you have got your food, you have got your shelter. The people outside who are carrying out the struggle, haven’t got that protection. They are part of the same struggle. So you always think that there are people who are worse off than you are in the same struggle. In that way it becomes bearable. You accept that situation.

SC: Now, what are your projections for the future?

AK: We are very hopeful, we are confident of the future. We know that it’s a very bumpy road ahead. But we also know that freedom is on the horizon. We are not prepared to set a time-scale. But we know what we have been struggling for is going to be achieved regardless of the roadblocks along the way.....


  • At the time of the interview, in February 1991, Kathrada was not married. He subsequently married Barbara Hogan, who was South Africa’s Minister of Public Enterprises.
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