Alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, and Govan Mbeki among other African National Congress (ANC) members, Ahmed Kathrada was one of the famous prisoners of Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison who were locked up after being sentenced to life imprisonment at the now infamous Rivonia Trial.
After gaining freedom in 1990, the former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist served as a Member of Parliament. At his long-time friend’s behest, he also served as an advisor to President Mandela after he declined the offer of Cabinet Minister. Kathrada has further spent a lot of time mentoring politically-minded youths in the country.
Ahmed Kathrada Left Home At a Very Young Age In Order To Receive An Education
On the 21st of August 1929 in the Western Transvaal country town of Schweizer-Reneke, South Africa, Ahmed Kathrada was welcomed into the world by his South African Indian immigrant parents from Surat, Gujarat. He was the fourth of their six children.
As a result of the policies at the time in the area where he was raised, Kathrada was denied an opportunity to attend either European or African designated schools because of his Indian origins. With a determination to receive a proper education, the young man was left with no option but to pack up his bags and move to Johannesburg, 200 miles from his home, in order to go to school.
This racist policy, among others that affected people of Indian origin and other minorities, was what propelled him to become politically active at the young age of 12.
The Young Communist League of South Africa Gave Him a Platform To Launch His Political Activism
Influenced by the likes of IC Meers, JN Singh, Moulvi & Yusuf Cachalia, and Dr. Yusuf Dadoo – leaders of Transvaal Indian Congress, Ahmed Kathrada, who was simply known as Kathy, joined the Young Communist League of South Africa. He performed duties such as handing out leaflets and other volunteer work. He was also involved in the anti-war campaign of the Non-European United Front during World War II.
By the time Ahmed Kathrada turned 17 years of age, he left school to work full-time for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. The council came about as a result of the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act (also known as the Ghetto act), which was seeking to limit the political representation of Indians, as well as limit the locations where they could trade, own land, and live.
Kathy’s work with the council resulted in his first jail stint for civil disobedience. He was arrested and imprisoned alongside two thousand others in Durban jail because of their participation in the campaign. Following his release after spending a month behind bars, the young activist became very popular among his people and was thus elected as the Secretary-General of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress (TIYC).
Having made concrete strides towards fighting policies that were designed to undermine his people, Ahmed Kathrada decided to return to school as he enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand. He would also later spend some time in Europe working with different youth organizations.
Kathy’s Friendship With Nelson Mandela and Their Time Behind Bars
Sometime in the early 1950s, Ahmed Kathrada returned to South Africa to find that the Indian and African congresses had joined forces to fight the apartheid government of the country. It was around this time that he became very close to ANC leaders like Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.
On the 11th of July, 1963, after having been detained on multiple occasions for his continued political activities, Kathrada was arrested at the headquarters of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) in Rivonia. While not a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, he was charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government through guerilla warfare.
After what is now known as the Rivonia Trial, Kathy was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964. He would go on to spend the next twenty-five years of his life at the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison and Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison alongside his friends Mandela and Sisulu among others.
While locked up, Ahmed Kathrada acquired three Bachelor’s degrees; one in History/Criminology, another in Bibliography, and then an Honours degree in History and African Politics from the University of South Africa. He was unable to get a postgraduate degree because prisoners were not permitted to.
Release From Prison and Subsequent Political Career
On the 15th of October, 1989, Ahmed Kathrada and other Rivonia Trial prisoners regained their freedom. In the following year, he launched his political career by serving on the interim leadership committees of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party. In 1991, he was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee and was appointed as the head of ANC public relations.
Following the 1994 elections, Kathrada was elected as a member of parliament for the ANC. He was further appointed as a political advisor to the newly elected President Mandela. He remained in parliamentary politics until June 1999 when he retired.
Also See: Apartheid: The Beginning, What Happened, And When It Ended
Ahmed Kathrada was Married To Fellow Activist Barbara Hogan
In 1990, after he was released from prison, Ahmed Kathrada met and later married Barbara Hogan, a political activist who joined the ANC in 1976 after the Soweto Uprising. She was the first white woman in South Africa to be found guilty of high treason. As a result of this, she was sentenced to ten years in prison.
The Accounting and Economics degree holder from the University of Witwatersrand would go on to play a pivotal role in the restructuring of the ANC in her capacity as secretary of the PWV regional office. She would later serve as the South African Minister of Health from September 2008 to May 2009 and then as Minister of Public Enterprises from May 2009 to October 2010.
Kathrada and Hogan never had children of their own but her husband was said to be very fond of children, often spending time listening to them and answering their questions.
How Ahmed Kathrada Died
On the 28th of March 2017, Ahmed Kathrada died from complications of a cerebral embolism at a medical center in Johannesburg. He was aged 87.
In accordance with Islamic rites, he was buried the next day in a funeral that was described as “just simple”. Then South African President, Jacob Zuma, was not invited to the funeral but other veterans of the struggle for freedom like Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa were in attendance. The South African flag was flown at half-mast to mark the death of a fallen hero.