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Ahmed Kathrada, Anti-Apartheid Activist in South Africa, Dies at 87

Active in leftist politics since his teenage years, he came to prominence in July 1963, when he was arrested with other anti-apartheid activists in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg where the South African Communist Party and the armed wing of the outlawed African National Congress had purchased an isolated farm to use as a meeting place. Among those arrested with Mr. Kathrada was Walter Sisulu, secretary general of the A.N.C.

That October, Mr. Kathrada was indicted on charges of trying to overthrow the government, start a guerrilla war and open the door to invasion by foreign powers. Mr. Sisulu was also indicted, as was Mr. Mandela, who had been in prison since 1962, but who faced new charges after the authorities found documents at the Rivonia farm linking him to the A.N.C.’s armed wing.

The Rivonia trial, which began in April 1964, became a signature moment, partly for a three-hour speech in which Mr. Mandela told the judge that he was “prepared to die” for “the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”


Mr. Kathrada guided President Barack Obama on a tour of Robben Island in 2013. “They did everything to crush our morale,” Mr. Kathrada said about the treatment of prisoners during his incarceration. Credit Madelene Cronje/Mail and Guardian, via European Pressphoto Agency

Eight defendants — including Mr. Mandela, Mr. Sisulu and Mr. Kathrada — were convicted on June 11, 1964, of plotting a “violent revolution” and were later sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. Kathrada spent 26 years and 3 months behind bars, 18 of them on Robben Island.

The inmates’ time in prison was something of a political education: Mr. Sisulu later recounted that they learned that only pressure, from at home or abroad, would help bring about an end to apartheid.

“It really confirmed our belief that the South African authorities do not suddenly undergo a change of heart,” Mr. Kathrada said in 1989.

Mr. Kathrada said that the men had suspected they would be arrested and had prepared psychologically, but that the isolation of Robben Island, in cold, shark-infested Atlantic waters off Cape Town, was intended to break them. “From the security police to the prison authorities, they tried to instill into our minds that we would be forgotten in a few years’ time,” Mr. Kathrada said. “They did everything to crush our morale.”

For the first six months, he said, the prisoners were put to work breaking stones with hammers. Then they were sent to work in the prison’s lime quarry, performing hard labor for more than a decade. At one point, Mr. Kathrada said, Mr. Mandela and Mr. Sisulu were put on a meager ration of rice gruel as punishment for supposedly not working hard enough.

Mr. Kathrada said that initially he and the mixed-race convicts were issued long trousers, while black convicts like Mr. Mandela and Mr. Sisulu had to wear shorts without socks.

Mr. Kathrada recalled one night when the guards, “many of them very drunk,” awakened the convicts, stripped them, and forced them against the wall for a rough search, during which he said Govan Mbeki, released in 1987, nearly suffered a heart attack. But Mr. Kathrada said they were spared the brutality that was inflicted on less prominent prisoners.

The men insisted that the intended humiliation only stiffened their defiance. “Because we were so close to the oppressor, it helped to keep us united,” Mr. Kathrada said. They went on hunger strikes to force concessions.


Remembering Robben Island

Ahmed Kathrada recalls his time in prison on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

Photo by Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

They tried to keep up with events outside by talking to new prisoners, reading smuggled letters and “begging, stealing and bribing” to procure information. “Political prisoners give top priority to keeping themselves informed,” Mr. Kathrada said, but they sometimes went without news for several months. They communicated sporadically with the A.N.C. through messages passed among other inmates.

“In prison, the best comes out and the worst comes out as well, because of the deprivation and suffering,” Mr. Kathrada said. He joked about having to live with Mr. Sisulu’s taste for pop music in their last three and a half years as cellmates. While in prison, Mr. Kathrada obtained four university degrees, two in history and two in African politics.

In 1982, Mr. Kathrada, Mr. Mandela, Mr. Sisulu and two fellow activists were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.

Mr. Kathrada was 60 when he was freed, in October 1989. He left no doubt that his loyalties to the African National Congress had not waned. “We will carry out whatever the A.N.C. wants us to do,” he said.

Mr. Kathrada later became a member of Parliament. He is survived by his partner, the anti-apartheid activist Barbara Hogan, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1982 for treason against the apartheid government. He worked on several books, and he led President Barack Obama on a tour of Robben Island in 2013.

Though Mr. Kathrada remained loyal to the A.N.C. — he served on the party’s National Executive Committee and ran its public relations department — in recent years, he criticized the scandal-plagued Mr. Zuma, who has been in office since 2009.

Last April, Mr. Kathrada called on Mr. Zuma to resign, after the country’s highest court found that the South African president had violated his oath of office by refusing to pay back public money spent on renovations to his rural home.

Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada was born on Aug. 21, 1929, in Schweizer-Reneke, a small town in northern South Africa, the son of Muslim Indian parents who had emigrated from what is now the state of Gujarat in India. As a child, he joined a club run by the Youth Communist League, his introduction to politics. At age 17, he took part in a “passive resistance campaign” organized by the South African Indian Congress and was one of 2,000 people arrested on the charge of defying a law that discriminated against Indians.

Chosen to visit East Berlin in 1951 for a youth festival, he toured Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp in Poland, before returning to South Africa. In the 1950s, he was arrested several times and placed under the scrutiny of the authorities for his political activities.

Source: NYT > World

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