“You can have all the wealth, all the riches in the world, but it wouldn't mean anything without dignity, which is the most important thing in the world. Apartheid robbed our people of dignity and our biggest achievement is that, after 300 years of oppression, we have won dignity for our people,” said Mr. Ahmed Kathrada, addressing a group of school students celebrating Nelson Mandela International Day here on Monday.

Mr. Kathrada is a legend in South Africa along with his close associate Mandela, having spent 26 years in prison fighting against the tyranny of apartheid, 18 years of which were spent alongside Mandela on Robben Island.

It has been 17 years since the practice of apartheid ended and the transition to non-racial democracy took effect in South Africa. Mandela has long been acknowledged, in different ways, by the world, for his fight against this evil. The United Nations in 2009 declared the leader's birthday as Nelson Mandela Day and since then the world celebrates July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day.

“People all over the world celebrate Mandela Day today and I am honoured to spend this day with you,” he said, adding that the close association of India and South Africa goes back the 1650s when Indians arrived as slaves, then in the 1860s as indentured labourers or semi-slaves and then another wave of Indians migrated to South Africa as hawkers and traders, until in 1911 when a stop was put to Indian immigration.

“Our history doesn't end there, our freedom did not fall from the heavens, we have fought for it. Many brave men and women have given their lives for freedom, and were tortured and hanged for it. It is the duty of the young to remember the fight. With freedom comes responsibility. Educate yourself and take advantage of every field that is open to you and remember that it was not open to a lot of people before you,” he said, recalling restaurants, cinema halls, libraries and even lifts with signboards stating “ For whites only ” or even “ Non-Europeans and dogs not allowed.”

“Apartheid tried to reduce people to the level of animals.”

Many people have been inspired by the South African movement, especially their decision to forgive and move on.

“Our oppressors have no other home, they are as much a part of Africa as we are, we cannot tell our colonists to pack up and go home -- this is their home. There is no other way other than to forgive the enemy, to unite and build our country without hatred or revenge. But we must never forget our history.”

Apartheid had become a part of everyday life in South Africa, from whites and blacks being separated from the hospitals, where they were born, to the graveyards where they were buried. Every aspect of life was underlined by this separation, which followed Mr. Kathrada and his friends to prison.

“We were handcuffed in the middle of the night and taken to prison on an especially cold day.We were immediately told to get into prison clothes. I as an Indian was given long trousers, but Mandela as a black was given short trousers. I was given a loaf of bread everyday but Mandela was not. I was given more sugar than Mandela but lesser than our white comrade Denis Goldberg, who was kept in a separate building.”

“Every day of the prison sentence was spent expecting death. The struggles of our comrades on the streets and their sacrifice were a source of inspiration which kept us going. The prevention of death and our subsequent achievements were possible due to the support of the international community, especially India.”

In the apartheid era, blacks were regarded as labourers with no aptitude for math or science. As a result of that the education system in Africa is short of teachers. “I appeal to all you young people again, to make use of every opportunity and remember that when you are a doctor, lawyer or any other professional, other countries too will need you. ”

Mr. Kathrada's final message to the city's young was: “Remember your history; you have a duty to your parents, to yourself and to your country in order to make a success of yourself and your country.”