Ahmed Kathrada : a biography

By

K. Chetty (Documentation Centre)

Ahmed "Kathy" Kathrada was born on August 21, 1929, in Schweizer Reneke, a small town in the Transvaal (now Gauteng Province). While he was schooling in Johannesburg, he came under the influence of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and the Cachalia brothers, leaders of the freedom movement. His political work began in 1941, at an early age of 12 when he joined the Young Communist League. He handed out leaflets at street corners for the League. He later joined the Communist Party of South Africa and during World War II , he was involved in the anti-war campaign of the Non-European Front.

At the age of 17 he left school to work full-time in the offices of the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. At the time, in 1946, the South African Indian Congress had launched the Passive Resistance Movement against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, commonly referred to as the "Ghetto Act". The Act sought to give Indians limited political representation and defined the areas where Indians could live, trade and own land. The act was vehemently opposed. Kathrada was one of the 2,000 volunteers imprisoned in that campaign and served a month in a Durban jail along with other ardent resisters such as Monty Naicker, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Dr Goonam, George Singh, Mrs Gool, M D Naidoo and others. This was his first jail sentence for civil disobedience .

Kathrada was a foundation member of the Transvaal Indian Volunteer Corps and that of its successor, the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress. He was soon elected its President.

While a student at the University of the Witwatersrand and as chairman of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress, Kathrada attended the World Youth Festival in Berlin, 1951. He was elected leader of the large multi-racial South African delegation. He remained overseas to attend a Congress of the International Union of Students in Warsaw , Poland and it was during this trip that he visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz, which impressed upon him the urgent need to eradicate racism in South Africa. He finally travelled to Budapest and worked at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth for nine months.

As the alliance between the African and Indian Congresses developed, Kathrada came into close contact with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, J.B. Marks and other African leaders. The signing of the Dadoo-Naicker-Xuma Pact in 1947 strengthened the Alliance : which comprised of the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People's Organisation and the South African Congress of Democrats. Kathy worked tirelessly to promote joint action as a leader of the Youth Action Committee co-ordinating the youth wings of the African, Indian and other Congresses.

In 1952, Kathy helped organise the "Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws", launched jointly by the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress. The Defiance campaign targeted six unjust apartheid laws, amongst them being the Pass Laws, stock limitation regulations, the Group Areas Act, the Separate representation of Voters Act, the Suppression of Communism Act and the Bantu Authorities Act. The Government was called upon to repeal these laws by 29 February 1952, failing which the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress were to launch a joint campaign of Defiance.

Kathrada was one of the nine thousand people from different races, who defied the new apartheid legislation and subsequently courted imprisonment. He was among a group of twenty officials who were charged with violating the Suppression of Communism Act and organising the Defiance Campaign. He was given a suspended sentence of nine months. In 1954, he was served with banning orders prohibiting him from attending any gatherings. These bans curtailed his overall participation in politics, but it did not deter him.

In 1955 when Indian schools in Johannesburg were moved out of the city to a segregated location of Lenasia, some 22 miles away, he helped organise the Indian Parents' Association , and was duly elected its secretary. In the same year, he helped organise the multi-racial "Congress of the People" which proclaimed the "Freedom Charter", a policy document of the Alliance. Kathrada served on the Alliance's General Purpose Committee.

Kathrada was arrested for treason in December 1956, in a nation-wide swoop. 156 leaders of the freedom movement were arrested. The trial lasted from 1957 until March 1961 but Kathrada nevertheless continued his political activities. Eventually all 156 leaders were found not guilty. Kathrada was restricted to the Johannesburg area in 1957 and following the Sharpville massacre in 1960, he was detained for five months during the State of Emergency. In 1961, Kathrada was arrested for serving on a strike committee that opposed Prime Minister Henrik Verwoed's plan to declare South Africa a Republic.

On December 1962, Kathy was subjected to "house arrest" for 12 hours a day. He went underground and continued attending secret meetings at Rivonia, the underground headquarters of the African National Congress. It was there that he was arrested with other leaders of the underground movement in July 1963. That was his 18th arrest on political grounds. He was tried with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg and other leaders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964. They were charged with organising and directing the Umkhonto we Size ("Spear of the Nation"), the military wing of the African National Congress. Kathy was found guilty of committing specific acts of sabotage. At the age of 34, in 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island and was later moved to Pollsmoor Prison. He was released on 15 October 1989, at the age of 60. On his release, he was given a heroes welcome in Soweto where he addressed a crowd of 5 000 people. Kathrada remarked that. "I never dreamed I would be accorded such status."

Sechaba, the organ of the African National Congress, describes Kathy as 'brave as a lion' and 'absolutely fearless'. Walter Sisulu writes 'Kathy was a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old' . He pursued his academic studies while in prison and today Kathy holds two bachelors degrees, an honours in African politics and an honours degree in history. The highest possible award, the Isithwalandwe Award was bestowed upon him while he was in prison.

Kathrada became Acting head of the ANC's Department of Information and Publicity, head of Public Relations and elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC in 1991. He was elected as a member of Parliament in 1994, during South Africa's first democratic elections. He also served as a Parliamentary Counsellor in the office of the president and thereafter he took leave of parliamentary politics in June 1999. Today, he serves as the Chairman of the Robben Island Museum Council and that of the Ex-Political Prisoner's Committee. He would be long remembered as a symbol of Indo-African alliance and as a champion of democracy and human rights.