Starting with this issue, NRI Achievers proposes to every now and then feature some of the more iconic among our Indian Diaspora, who have carved a place for themselves under the sun, doing their adoptive land proud, and while doing so, doing India proud as well. We start with some of the truly more iconic personalities, all of whom battled all odds to serve their communities, societies and countries, and hugely succeeded. Read on …
Ahmed Kathrada, the doyen of anti-apartheid activists among PIOs in South Africa, passed away following brief hospitalization in Johannesburg in March this year, at the age of 87. Kathrada attained iconic status with his relentless fight against the apartheid and the racist regime run by the white minority in South Africa. In the struggle for freedom, democracy and liberation from the apartheid, he suffered imprisonment along with other South African legends Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. In all, he was imprisoned for 26 years and three months.
Born in the then Western Transvaal province in 1929 to Mohamed and Hawa Kathrada, a Bohra couple who had migrated to South Africa from Surat in the western Indian state of Gujarat a decade earlier, Kathrada had his schooling in Johannesburg’s Indian High School, where he was primed to play a future role in the growing freedom movement under the influence of Yousuf Dadoo and Cachalia brothers of Transvaal Indian Congress.
His baptism into political activity began at the tender age of 12 in 1941, when he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa. Five years later, he left the school to join the Traansvaal Passive Resistance Council to take part in the campaign against the blatantly racist Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, which had legalized discrimination against Indians in matters of political representation, land ownership, habitation and commerce. For this activism, he was charged along with 20 other accused in the Defiance Campaign Trial that earned him his first imprisonment for a month in a Durban jail. This experience led him to get elected subsequently as the head of the Traansvaal Indian Youth Congress, which sent him as a delegate to the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in 1951. His leftist affiliation led him to stay on in Europe for months and visit Poland and Budapest for participation in student and youth events.
Kathrada maintained a close association with ANC (African National Congress) leaders Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu in the fight against apartheid. He was charged with treason for his political activity but acquitted in 1960 after a four year trial. The South African government banned anti-apartheid organizations including ANC in 1960 and Kathrada was detained several times and faced house arrest. He disappeared in early 1962 to carry-on the anti-apartheid activities underground, but was arrested in July 1963 near Johannesburg and accused along with eight others of attempts to overthrow the government. And after the infamous Rivonia Trial he was sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment and was sent to the notorious Robben Island prison. The other leaders who were given similar sentences included Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. He was released in 1989 after 26 years in jail. In prison, he educated himself and obtained several academic degrees. He quit the Communist Party in July 1991 when he was elected to ANC’s National Executive Committee. In the first ever free elections in South Africa in 1994, he was elected as a Member of Parliament and given the position of Political Adviser to President Mandela. He quit politics in 1999. His wife Barbara Hogan was until recently a Cabinet Minister.
One remarkable feature of Kathrada throughout his life was his bold articulation of his beliefs and questioning others’ viewpoints, only to absorb what he thought was good in them. This trait had pitted him quite early in his life against many contemporaneous leaders including then emerging leader Nelson Mandela, who dismissed the young Kathrada “as being barely 21 and like all youth, keen to flex his muscles“. But that verbal exchange laid a foundation for the development of a life-long mutual respect and collaboration between the two in fighting apartheid and liberation of South Africa from colonialism.
Ahmed Kathrada received a number of honours. The ANC bestowed upon him its highest honour, the Isitwalende Award, when he was still in prison. His ancestral land, India, honoured him with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award and made him the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2006. Elinor Sisulu, daughter-in-law and biographer of Walter Sisulu, leader of the African National Congress, calls him “one of South Africa’s greatest liberation heroes.” President Zuma, who did not see eye-to-eye with Kathrada on various matters, decreed the South African flag be flown half-mast throughout South Africa on the day of his funeral and postponed his Cabinet meeting to allow the members to pay their respects at the funeral. He praised him for serving South Africa “selflessly throughout his adult life”. He declared a special official funeral for him. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Peace Nobel Laureate described Kathrada as “a man of remarkable gentleness, modesty and steadfastness,” adding that he was one of the “people of highest integrity and moral fibre who through their humility and humanity inspired our collective self-worth-and the world’s confidence in us.” Kathrada addressed Mandela as his “elder brother,” who in his foreword to Kathrada’s book “Memories” wrote, “Ahmed Kathrada has been so much a part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could not allow him to write his Memories without my contributing something”.
At the funeral service organised by Kathrada’s family, priests from Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Jewish faiths offered prayers. Strangely, in the politically charged atmosphere that is obtaining currently in South Africa, Katrada’s family advised Zuma against his attendance at the funeral though his ministers and a former President attended. Zuma, in deference to the family wishes, stayed away from the burial ceremony.