Good morning, Sanbonani, Nameste, Assalaam Aleikom, Vanekun, Goeie More
Cde Programme Director, Members of the Kathrada Family, Distinguished Guests, Comrades and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen.
On the occasion of Comrades Kathy’s 88th birthday tomorrow, I feel enormously privileged and honoured to read out what he once said as chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council, and I quote:
“While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil; a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weaknesses, a triumph of the new South Africa over the old…”
Kathy and I first met in 1954, and over the past 6 decades, he was my friend and comrade, my hero and leader, my elder brother and political mentor, and my fellow prisoner for nearly 18 years, in the maximum-security section of the maximum-security prison of Robben Island, called the B Section. Over the years there were about 28 to 30 prisoners in that section from different racial groups (exceptWhites), belonging to a variety of political organisations..
It was the specific aim of the prison authorities to break our spirits and our morale, and they attempted to do so by implementing regulations and conditions designed to humiliate us, causing pain, suffering and depression. But irrespective of our different social and cultural backgrounds and different political ideologies, we had one thing in common that united us, namely, the prison authorities.
And collectively, we were determined not to be intimidated and humiliated, and resisted every attempt on their part to break our spirits and morale. This is what Robben Island represented and what Kathy summarised as Triumph – that of courage and determination; the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of evil; and that of largeness of spirit over small minds and pettiness.
After his release from prison, Kathy made nearly 300 trips to Robben Island with personalities from all walks of life – presidents and prime ministers, politicians, royalty, from the world of entertainment, personalities from the business sector, from non-profit organisations, important philanthropists and world-renowned sporting personalities. The list is endless.
What they have said about Kathy is indicative of the man that he was. What follows are representative samples;
Actress Alfre Woodard: Ahmed Kathrada took me by the hand and led me into a place so small, I couldn’t imagine how it could have held dreams so immense.
Barack and Michelle Obama: “…we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”
Denzel Washington about Kathy: “He reminded us of what is possible when good people take committed action: they actually can change the world.”
Sharon Gelman, Writer and Executive Director of Artists for a New South Africa: “I have begun to understand the nature of a person who can walk free from prison with his heart intact, ready to reconcile with his oppressors for the sake of the greater good.”
Basetsana Kumalo, TV Presenter and Philanthropist: It is important for the ‘born-frees’ to understand and appreciate that a lot of blood sweat and tears went into building this democracy.”
Anant Singh: Film producer & CEO of Videovision Entertainment: “The most striking feature was his quiet dignity, with no remorse for the 26 years in prison and the lifetime he spent fighting for our liberation.”
Rashid Seedat and Razia Saleh: Head of the Gauteng planning Commission, and Senior Archivist at the Nelson Mandela Foundation: “It is a testament to the spirit of the prisoners that they were able to transcend their daily hardship and retain their commitment to their political mission.”
Prof. Marcelette Williams quotes Kathy: “On the one hand, we had to learn tolerance, patience, adjustment, courage, resistance. We had to adjust to the practices, the idiosyncrasies of fellow- prisoners who came from various backgrounds – religious and cultural. On the other hand, we had to resist the efforts to humiliate us and to deprive us of our humanity. We succeeded in all this.”
Niclas Matseke, CEO of Swedish Postcode Lottery: “Although Robben Island bears the scars and pain of its terrible past, it truly symbolises the most beautiful aspect of post-apartheid South Africa: reconciliation.”
These quotes have been randomly selected to convey their thoughts and impressions of Kathy.
I would like to conclude this brief input by saying that certain perceptions need to be modified. Robben Islanders and other political prisoners are usually looked upon by our people as heroes and heroines of our struggle for Liberation. This is perfectly understandable. But the real heroes and heroines are those who were left behind – the mothers , wives and daughters who had to keep the home fires burning. And equally important, the activists upon whose shoulders fell the heavy responsibility of carrying on the struggle from the underground under the extremely difficult circumstances at the risk of torture, imprisonment and assassinations. These are the real but unspoken heroes and heroines of our Movement.
Harsh as the conditions in prison were, we received three meals a day, whereas 17 million people go to bed hungry every day. And although we slept on a cold concrete floor on two thin mats and 2 or3 thin blankets with no pillows. sheets and pyjamas for 15 years before we received beds, it would do well to remember that millions of our people continue to live in informal settlements ait the mercy of inclement weather.
I thank you.