Ahmed Kathrada spent twenty-six years and three months of his life as a political prisoner, the unjust result of his dedication to defying South Africa’s white minority apartheid regime. Eighteen of these years were spent in the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison and the Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town, where he and Nelson Mandela, along with other anti-apartheid leaders, were condemned to serve life sentences of hard labor. This was the verdict of the infamous Rivonia Trial, where Kathrada and his comrades were found guilty of committing acts of sabotage for their involvement with Umkhonto we Sizwe. While imprisoned, Kathrada recounts that for the first six months they were put to work breaking stones with hammers. They were then transferred to the prison’s lime quarry, and worked there for over a decade. Their conditions were meant to break their resolve, but instead imprisonment united Kathrada and his allies and fueled their sense of defiance. At no point in his long career as a political activist was Kathrada deterred by the powers that be. No matter how harsh their punishments, his will to bring about a more just world and his vision for a liberated South Africa remained steadfast.
Kathrada first entered the world of political activism in 1941 at twelve years old, when he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa and distributed leaflets on street corners on their behalf. At the age of seventeen, Kathrada became more substantively involved in politics and joined the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council to work full time in the Passive Resistance Movement against what was known as the “Ghetto Act” (the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act). This Act aimed to limit Asians in South Africa’s political representation and defined the areas where they could live, trade and own land. As a South African Indian, this issue was personally significant for Kathrada. Opposition to the act was widespread, but ultimately he and 2,000 other participants were imprisoned for their participation in the resistance movement.
This short, one-month sentence was only the first of many. After this experience, Kathrada went on to become a founding member of the Transvaal Indian Volunteer Corps (TIVC) and its successor, the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress (TIYC) – both were branches of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). Kathrada’s active role in the SAIC brought him into close contact with the African National Congress (ANC) and its leadership. The SAIC and ANC began to collaborate on their anti-apartheid activism, and Kathrada’s activism earned him the attention of South African authorities. In 1954 he was prohibited from attending the gatherings or activities of a number of activist organizations. He did not comply, continuing to engage in active civil disobedience, and was arrested several times. In 1956 he was charged with High Treason along with 156 other Congress activists. All were acquitted at the trial’s conclusion in 1961. Then in 1962, he was placed under house arrest for 13 hours of every day and on weekends. Again, he did not comply, and brought his political work underground. Finally, in 1963, he was arrested at the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC’s military wing) and charged with attempting to overthrow the government in the Rivonia Trial. He was given a life sentence.
While in prison, he obtained four university degrees, and along with his friend, ally, and joint prisoner Nelson Mandela, continued to quietly organize and resist the confines of the prison’s rules, which continued to perpetuate racial inequalities.
His release from imprisonment ultimately came on October 15, 1989, 26 years after entering. At the age of 60, Kathrada rejoined public life.
His post-imprisonment life contained a return to political activism, but also to legislative work and cultural engagement for post-apartheid truth and reconciliation, education, and memory. Between 1994-1999, he was a member of South Africa’s Parliament and a political advisor to President Mandela. He served on multiple councils, working on cultural preservation and non-racialism, the latter of which then became the core mission for the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, launched in 2009.
Kathrada passed away in March of 2017 at 87 years old, but sustained an active political life until the end, continuing to speak out and holding the South African government accountable. As recently as 2015, a student recalls seeing Kathrada at youth-led a protest on the lawns of the Union Building in Pretoria. Neither prison nor old age took Kathrada’s drive from him. He remained committed to creating a more just world for all 75 years of his political life.
As Kathrada said in his first speech to the UN, “Racism shaped our history and I would say, that of the world, and it guides the present in powerful ways. It continues to dictate and influence the types of people we live near, go to school with, who we become friends with, fall in love with, marry, hate, fight, and kill. It also influences our decisions about which people we help or neglect in times of need. In short, “racism squanders human potential.” In this spirit, engaging the country’s Born Free generation in its quest to improve their situations and strengthen the country’s institutions, the Foundation has dedicated itself to activities aimed at shifting frames that enable racism and – much as he and other anti-apartheid leaders had developed an alternative vision of South African society – has committed to envision a non-racist world.