We are gathered here in the name of a giant. He is fallen but lives
forever because his spirit will live in the hearts and minds of many
generations to come, for Ahmed Kathrada was one for the ages.
Today’s event is dedicated to the memory of Ahmed Kathrada. I am here
to propose it is much more. Correctly recorded, memory provides a deep
sense of moral grounding and identity, providing inspiration and clarity in
times of great difficulty.
The times in which we live, and the deep challenges we see and
experience demand that today’s event is simultaneously a moment of
great regeneration, and inspiration.
Mkhulu Kathy’s is a life story that provides many lessons about what we
should ground our efforts if we are to build a deep democracy and a just
society. Today we are called upon to strengthen our democracy,
deepen democratic participation, fix our political and government
institutions, and build a modern, competitive, inclusive economy in which
all South Africans can build a better tomorrow.
Today I am going to talk about the pillars of that story and how they
inspire the work we must do next. These are:
Moral clarity and consistency, and
Commitment to action
Poverty and Inequality
Just weeks ago, the World Bank released a report in which, out of 164
countries, South Africa was the most unequal. 10% of the population
owns 90% of the wealth, with race and education accounting for 71% of
the reasons. If you are black, you are more likely to be poor and
unemployed. The same is true if you have limited or no skills
whatsoever, which happens to be most prevalent amongst black people.
In a few weeks, Statistics South Africa will release another grim report
on unemployment. In the latest report released in November last year, a
total 46% South Africans either could not find work or had given up
looking for work altogether. It is generally accepted that up to 60%,
sometimes more of the unemployed are under the age of 35.
This means we have a generation of people who have never worked,
and for whom long term economic prosperity will probably remain a
Therefore, we cannot be surprised when, in a desperate search for
opportunity and food, they are animated by a recent campaign to rid the
country of black and brown immigrants. I fear that left unchecked, we will
have an orgy of violence bigger than 2008 and July last year combined.
More crudely, we now have the possibility of poor black people
brutalizing one another – a shameful outcome were it to happen.
Also, in the country of towering moral giants like Ahmed Kathrada, Lillian
Ngoyi, Nkosi Albert Luthuli and Denis Goldberg, people who have been
repeatedly found culpable of wrongdoing feel emboldened to seek
election to leadership positions and get supported.
This is even when they shamelessly stole money meant for scared, sick,
dying people in the depths of a global pandemic. I fear our society is so
morally distorted they may get elected again and again.
With righteous indignation, insults dripping from their mouths, they and
their fellow travellers wag a menacing finger at our constitutional order
for daring to have mechanisms to hold them to account. Flanked by
thieves who want to remain unaccountable, they use the most
disgraceful language to attack black judges for doing the work our
Constitution obligates them to.
They are engaged in a concerted campaign to build a chaotic, corrupt,
and amoral society in which values mean nothing. They want a moral
jungle in which the law and moral obligation only apply to the weak or
poor, who will certainly get arrested and jailed if they dare steal toilet
This happens because the millions of capable, morally righteous people,
have opted to remain silent and leave the work of fighting for a better
country to the poor, the working class and the NGO sector.
That is unsustainable. Democratic accountability and national prosperity
are not outcomes we get after procuring the professional services of
political parties, journalists or NGOs that we turn around and insult when
they do the work we refuse to do ourselves.
So, I am not going to ask what Mkhulu Kathy would have done in a time
such as this. He ran his race well and lived a life of purpose. Instead, I
will say what lessons his legacy provides in this moment of inflection in
our national life, and what we must to honour his memory.
The first lesson relates to boldness. From Mkhulu Kathy we learn that
even for a boy who grew up on Schweizer-Reineke and left home
practically a baby, there is nothing bolder than a relentless sense of
national mission, wanting to create a different society with your own
What he took is a path that was certain to strip him of whatever little
privileges he could have had as a professional, and a South African of
Indian descent. And he lost it all, his freedom and nearly his life. He
knew it would come to that, but his sense of moral conviction and
outrage was bigger.
Our task now is to define a new national mission premised on a clear set
of values that represent the best of our national constitution and the
struggle that gave birth to it. We must fight to realize that mission.
There will be no messiah to save this democracy and its institutions, to
miraculously elevate morally upright people to leadership. These are all
choices that are realized through hard work, collaboration and sacrifice,
which we must now do if we do not want a failed democracy and a failed
The second lesson is about bravery.
In December 1956, Mkhulu Kathy spoke at the meeting of People’s
Defence Committee following the arrest of liberation leaders on charges
of treason. His words were prescient:
“We have said that the time is coming when we must begin to change
these things and that time is past for us to just sit. We want to change
this country into a happy country, a beautiful country. Instead of dividing
this country into group areas, we want all the people to live more and
more together, and if that is Treason, then tell Mr. Swart that as far as I
am concerned, as far as the people of South Africa are concerned, we
will continue to commit Treason. And no force on earth is going to stop
Treason carried the death penalty. Less than a decade later, he would
face the possibility of the death penalty, and do so bravely. Today we
have an inheritance, a democracy and a constitution that affirms our
right to be up and about, wanting to change this country into a happy
country, a beautiful country.
Mkhulu Kathy’s life story should tell us something about how we
measure progress. Fundamentally, we must measure progress by
whether we have eliminated racialized inequality, poverty, and
unemployment. We must look at whether the most vulnerable have
access to a clean, open, and accountable government that centres its
work on their happiness and well-being.
We will only have that government if we create and sustain it, when the
best of our society do not think public service is beneath them. Yes, our
politics is degenerate and corrupt but there is no other way out. We must
get in the fight and change it with a better idea, with better conduct and
moral clarity. None of this will be realized overnight, but long term gain
comes with painful sacrifices. That is what we learn from the life of
The third lesson is about moral clarity.
Mkhulu Kathy and his comrades knew that the benefits of their struggle
would also accrue to the very people that oppressed the people,
brutalized them and imprisoned them. Yet, they persevered. For
decades of hardship in prison.
And when he came out, and for the rest of his life he continued being up
and about, fighting for a happy country, a beautiful country. He shouldn’t
have had to, but he did, nonetheless.
Mkhulu Kathy’s legacy compels us to call a spade a spade. Having
moral clarity means not insulting thousands of years of history and
tradition, and centuries of moral struggle by suggesting that we must
support people even when they wrong society just because they are
black! Alternatively because they are comrades who fought in the
struggle, so they get a free pass to wreak havoc and not be held
Moral consistency means it is entirely possible and correct to condemn
George W Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of
the sovereign state of Ukraine. Moral inconsistency means that having
supported Putin in your actions, you are still not able to tell us which of
our sovereign neighbours should seek our permission before making
geopolitical friends. If you can’t answer that question, then our position
on the matter is morally inconsistent and disconnected from the heritage
we claim to hold dear.
Moral consistency means fighting through the pain of being a lifelong
member of the ANC, one who nearly lost his life under its colours, and
still be able to call out its president when he or she errs. It means not
mistaking blind loyalty for moral rectitude by engaging in whataboutism,
or attempts to silence those who choose to take a clear moral stand.
The final lesson I want to share is about commitment to action no matter
how difficult or long it will take. I don’t have to tell anyone in this room
that it was to be decades before the slogan, Freedom in our Lifetime,
was to be realised. It was decades of hardship and pain, and hard work.
A mission for our generation
My generation must be bold by having a strong sense of national
mission, to translate the values of our constitution into very specific,
tangible goals. In my view, which is shared by my colleagues at the
Rivonia Circle, those values are Freedom, Equality, Justice and
This is a mission for which no one is divinely anointed. It is a sacred duty
that is at the heart of our democratic social contract.
We must see these values as indivisible, and as the centre of our
politics. We must define freedom as the time when individual, family and
communal wellness and happiness define how we engage with politics,
and not power for its own sake so we can ask the people to bow to us
instead of serving them.
It is time for a new political framing, attitude and language that places
human development, safety, health and wellbeing at the top of our
national priorities. It is a language that is simple and grounded in the
lived realities of millions of South Africans rather than false notions of
ideological purity. At the Rivonia Circle, we call this Democratic South
Africa Version 2.0
How are people free when municipalities cannot carry out basic
functions, and public transport is expensive privately owned transport
used by the public? That transport is usually unsafe and forces already
downtrodden people to endure daily abuses from people who don’t see
them as clients whose need they need to cater to? How are people free
under such circumstances?
Therefore, we learn that being bold means wanting the very best, for the
least seen and heard.
Second, we learn that unless those of us who are fortunate enough to
have professional skill and the means to organize resources seek out
and work in solidarity with the marginalized, nothing, but absolutely
nothing will change.
There is no democracy or country on this planet that can sustain itself
and produce national prosperity when its most capable lock themselves
behind high walls and pretend that Twitter and Facebook are the real
world. Now is the time to engage with matters of public import directly
and consistently at all levels, beginning with community structures.
Participating does not have to mean protest or criticising the
government. Participating means deciding to own this country and its
challenges enough to want to do something about them yourself, and
directly influence political power outcomes in the process.
Our country has an abundance of talent and resources. What we lack is
the bravery and boldness to plot a national vision, bringing South
Africans from all walks of life. This is not new. The 1955 Congress of the
People was the same.
Just over 60yrs on we face yet another critical moment when we must
get together in the same way. The difference now is that we can call
upon the deep experience of thousands of activists who have carried
communities and families, and the many brilliant South Africans who sit
inactivated across our land and in the diaspora. We can change our
country’s destiny, but we can’t do that if we don’t take it into our hands.
In pursuing this work, we must avoid the temptation to pursue fake
miracle cures that promise much but will, in the end, bring more
disappointment to millions of South Africans who fight for hope every
We must challenge ourselves to be thorough and creative, to cut no
corners and to forever be diligent. Such an approach demands that we
reach for and accept a higher calling as an act of undiluted lover for this
republic we call home.
Lessons from History
49yrs ago, Amilcar Cabral was clear on the same – “Every responsible
member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from
others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of
others. Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose
lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures.”
So, no, printing more money to give to corrupt politicians to steal or
squander is not going to make the hardships of our compatriots go away
no matter how shrill the voices that say so are. However good, no policy
will lead to prosperity in a vast expanse of moral degeneration and lack
of democratic accountability.
Infusing an urgent sense of national mission, being bold and dreaming
big, and bringing South Africans from all walks of life to reimagine our
country, and to then fight for that new vision – is the mission we have
allocated ourselves at the Rivonia Circle. As a free country, the
outcomes we seek can only happen through deep and consistent
democratic participation, and a state whose very orientation is restoring
the soul of our nation.
Finally, I want to say that Mkhulu Kathy was only 34 when he was sent
to Robben Island for Treason. By then he was already battle-hardened
from years of struggle. It will be a shame if my generation fails to grab
the baton and run with it.
I do not subscribe to the view that the founding mothers and fathers of
this democracy sold out. They simply did what they could. If we want a
different future for ourselves and future generation, then we must fight
for it just as hard as they did.
As one historical figure once said, “Fate does not spare the man whose
convictions are not matched by his readiness to give them effect.”
We must prove our mettle now.