Ahmed Kathrada turns 87 on August 21. In this piece, Zaakirah Vadi, explores some of the recent social justice and political issues that the struggle veteran has committed to, continuing his legacy as one of the moral compasses of our time.
If there is a slogan that could embody the personality of Ahmed Kathrada, it would be ‘Viva la revolución’ or ‘Long live the revolution’.
After all, Kathrada joined the struggle as a member of the Young Communist League at the age of 12. He turns 87 on August 21, and shows little sign of letting up his activism.
His life as young firebrand, Rivonia Trialist, Robben Island prisoner, Parliamentary Counsellor to Nelson Mandela and a historian may be well documented. However, an analysis of his more recent years shows a distinct trend – a consistent, moral stance on particular matters of both national and international importance.
- Youth work
In his book, ‘A Simple Freedom’, Kathrada captures a quote by Daniel Webster: “If we work upon marble, it will perish; if we work upon brass, time will efface it; if we rear temples, they will crumble into dust; but if we work upon immortal minds, if we imbue them with principles, with the fear of God and love of our fellow men, we engrave upon those tablets something which will brighten to all eternity.”
Kathrada has understood that the ‘immortality’ of a country’s values and ideals rest with its youth. In the last few years, he has had hundreds of public engagements, many of them interacting with young people from South Africa and abroad.
The veteran has on numerous occasions emphasised the importance of youth work, impressing on young minds the value of understanding South Africa’s liberation history, and the contemporary relevance of ideals such as non-racialism. In a recent opinion piece, Kathrada said, “Today, we must realise that the fight for non-racialism, equity and equality is not short-term work, but generational work.” It is for this reason that his Foundation has a youth leadership programme that aims to develop “agents of non-racialism” in all sectors of society.
The #FeesMustFall movement was certainly watershed in that it put the struggles of young black students back on the national agenda.
There are numerous images synonymous with the various student protests across the country in 2015. But, if there is one that symbolises a continuation of the struggles of the past, to that of the future, it would be of Kathrada, greeting student leader Nompendulo Mkhatshwa in the University of Witwatersrand’s ‘Soloman House’. On the day, Kathrada had refused to take centre stage, indicating that there he was there just to show solidarity for the movement led by young people.
Later images would see the old man quietly standing at the Union Buildings alongside a mass of students who had gathered there ahead of the 0% fee increment announcement for 2016.
Kathrada has continuously urged South Africa’s youth to pursue their studies, as a duty towards “themselves, their parents and their country”.
- Calling on President Zuma to step down
Kathrada may well consider himself an ordinary “rank and file” member of the ANC, but his views earlier this year in the form of a letter to President Jacob Zuma, certainly hit home.
His call to the president to step down may not have been adhered to, but it resonated with the mood of the country following the Constitutional Court ruling that called on the President to ‘pay back the money’.
At the time, Kathrada wrote: “Now that the court has found that the President failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law, how should I relate to my President?” He ended the letter with: “To paraphrase the famous MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) slogan of the time, ‘There comes a time in the life of every nation when it must choose to submit or fight’. Today I appeal to our President to submit to the will of the people and resign.”
Kathrada faced criticism from some for penning the piece, which he himself admitted was an ‘agonising’ process, but the stance was in keeping with his lifelong commitment to the ideals enshrined in our Constitution.
On the reverse end of the coin, his recent campaigning for the ANC in Gauteng did not find support from all quarters, but again, it was reflective of his lifelong commitment – this time to his political home.
- Freedom of the press
In 2014, Kathrada was photographed with a sign that read, ‘Journalism is not a crime – #FreeAJstaff,’ at Al Jazeera’s offices in Johannesburg, calling for the release of journalists detained by the Egyptian authorities.
At the time, Kathrada said, “I believe press freedom is very, very important in any country, including our country. It is one means where democracy is protected against any violation.” Kathrada noted that when he was in prison, South African law prohibited any mention in the media of political prisoners.
In 2016, South Africa’s own public broadcaster banned images of violent service delivery protests and has since been criticised for a myriad of other issues, including the firing of journalists who did not ‘toe the line’. Recently, Kathrada met with two of the journalists, expressing his solidarity and lauding them for their stance.
He once again reiterated, as he did in 2014, that “wherever there is an attack on press freedom we are unhappy and critical about it”.
- International solidarity
Several weeks ago, Kathrada had a meeting with Pastor Evan Mawarire, founder of Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag campaign.
Kathrada listened to the Pastor’s overview of issues in Zimbabwe and said that when masses of people took to the streets striking against a government, it cannot be ignored. Drawing lessons from other struggles, he had a message for ordinary Zimbabweans: “…Regardless of what they have to go through, the struggle for justice must succeed.”
Kathrada’s international solidarity extends to his support for the people of Western Sahara against occupation, as well as for democracy in Swaziland. Recently, Kathrada also met the leader of the Free West Papua Campaign, Benny Wenda.
The Robben Islander’s solidarity is best captured though, through his ongoing support for the Free Marwan Barghouthi and All Palestinian Political Prisoners campaign. Kathrada continues advocating Mandela’s view that South Africa’s freedom is “incomplete” without the freedom of the Palestinians.
Kathrada’s legacy continues to inspire
Just recently, in a discussion with young people at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, MK veteran Laloo Chiba described what ‘revolution’ means. “What do we understand by revolution?” he asked. “It is a qualitative change in a forward direction.” Consequently, a revolutionary would be someone who consistently takes forward a progressive struggle.
Ahmed Kathrada has shown, that age cannot put a cap on being a revolutionary – be it in the form of public letters or protests, or quiet ‘back stage’ solidarity. He embodies both the progressive struggles of our past and the present. It is hoped that his legacy will remain an inspiration to the revolutionaries of the future. Long live the values of Ahmed Kathrada!
* This piece was first published in the City Press on August 21, 2016.