‘I was with him for 26 years’

Ahmed Kathrada, who was on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, recalls his famous co-prisoner’s eternal optimism.

Updated - May 12, 2016 05:16 am IST

Published - July 21, 2015 12:05 am IST

Special Camaraderie: “Throughout, Mandela retained hope, confident that sooner or later, the battle for equality would will be won.” Picture shows Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada.

Special Camaraderie: “Throughout, Mandela retained hope, confident that sooner or later, the battle for equality would will be won.” Picture shows Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada.

As the world celebrated Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18 — Mandela’s birth anniversary — the air of mystery surrounding his long years of imprisonment is slowly being lifted. Mandela once called his time in prison “a long holiday”, a picture belying a life of denial and discrimination. For 10 years, Mandela was denied bread, his food was rationed, and he had to wear a humiliating uniform. Yet, according to new accounts of his time at Robben Island, where he spent 18 years in detention, Mandela was a picture of positivity.

Ahmed Kathrada was his fellow prisoner for 26 years. Prisoners with brown skin, many of whom were of Indian descent, were given preferential treatment over black prisoners. For instance, they wore trousers, while Mandela was only permitted to wear shorts. Yet, there was a sense of common cause and camaraderie. Mr. Kathrada and other prisoners would happily share their bread with Mandela and rejoiced when, three years into detention, Mandela was allowed to wear trousers. Throughout, Mandela retained hope, confident that sooner or later the battle for equality would be won.

These and other moments of joy and companionship were shared by Mr. Kathrada in a telephonic conversation with The Hindu . Mr. Kathrada also spoke of his latest book Triumph of the Human Spirit , in which he has written about his 300 visits to Robben Island as a tour guide since his release in 1990.

He is also updating his book No Bread for Nelson Mandela. “I am writing about our prison days. I was there for 26 years, Mandela for 27. I know him from 1962,” he says.

Mr. Kathrada, whose ancestors hailed from Surat, says Mandela’s personality came to the fore when hostilities were at their peak. “Mandela remained optimistic all along. When the Defiance Campaign and other movements of boycott were launched, it was with the sense that they would be successful. One does not expect immediate results. Success takes time. As an Indian you would know freedom cannot be attained in a matter of a year or two. We took heart and inspiration from the Indian struggle,” he says. “We understood that the protest had to be continuous. In South Africa, the Defiance Campaign helped in rousing public opinion. For instance, before the campaign, African National Congress had 5,000 members but following the campaign the numbers rose to over 1,00,000 members.”

Prisoners with brown skin, many of whom were of Indian descent, were given preferential treatment over black prisoners.

Mr. Kathrada and others were arrested in July 1963 in Rivonia, Johannesburg, after which the famous Rivonia Trial began in October that year. The accused were charged with sabotage and attempts to overthrow the government by violent means. The trial ended a year later, after which Mr. Kathrada was sentenced to life imprisonment along with Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Billy Nair and others.

“For 26 years, eight of us of were together. We were sentenced to life imprisonment. When we reached the prison, Mandela was already there. As we interacted, I realised that he was a natural leader of leaders. He had already emerged as a force to reckon with in the early 60s,” he says. In the Defiance Campaign, whose aim was to get rid of six unjust laws, Mandela was the chief leader, Mr. Kathrada explains. “Thousands of volunteers were taken prisoners. It made no difference to the Apartheid government. In a prison trial, most were found not guilty. The case went to the Supreme Court. Mandela went underground and continued his political work. He was arrested in 1962 on a tour of African countries and England for mobilising support for our struggle. He continued his work underground for a year, got solidarity and financial support in England.”

Mr. Kathrada reveals that when all the important leaders were in jail in South Africa, the African National Congress policy was to continue the struggle with the support of the world, especially India and other countries. “The aim was to force the government to come to the negotiating table. Mandela started talking to the government from prison. One of his demands was to release all political prisoners, legalise the urban spots, and allow exiles to come back. The government acceded to all the requests. The ANC was allowed to function. It was in the 60s and was a big moment for us back then.”

Looking to India Mandela and other leaders drew inspiration from India’s non-violent path to freedom, he says. “The enemy does not concede anything in a hurry. Our struggle took a long time. Contrary to what many people believed, we had a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.”

Mr. Kathrada left school when he was 17 to join the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council to work against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, which was popularly called the Ghetto Act. The Act, like many piecemeal concessions given by the British to Indians during the freedom movement, sought to give Indians limited political representation and defined the areas where Indians could live, trade, and own land. It was during the phase of increasing association between the African Congress and the Indian Congress that Mandela became close to Indian leaders.

Mr. Kathrada is hopeful that the path shown by Mandela is the one that South Africa will follow in the years to come. “We are only 20 years old as a democracy, but we have made considerable progress. Most of the children are now in schools; clinics and hospitals have been established. Electricity and sanitation have reached a majority of the population. Yes, challenges remain: we have hunger and poverty. But at the level of ideology, yes, it has percolated down to everybody.”


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