Another South African legend has gone. Ahmed ‘Uncle Kathy’ Kathrada, an unassuming, quiet man who has left South Africans with a legacy that’s immediate, not historical.
Born in 1929, two factors mark his life and his passing, as they did for Nelson Mandela: he was African National Congress through and through. And he was a non-racialist. The byline of the Kathrada Foundation, a non-governmental organisation he established, is to ‘deepen non-racialism’. This is something he believed in to his core, even as others around him began to argue for an Africanist approach.
He was saddened that others, in an attempt to advocate for “colour-blindness” or more strident African nationalism, watered down the noble value of non-racialism. He maintained that non-racialism was a radical solidarity that at its very soul had undoing structural and interpersonal racism, and wrote:
I would still insist that meeting the modern challenges of poverty, hunger, homelessness and so on requires an approach that has a non-racial outlook embedded within it.
Kathrada was arrested in 1963 – his 18th arrest for political activities – and sentenced a year later, along with Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders, to life imprisonment at the end of the Rivonia Trial. He was 34 at the time. After 1994 Kathrada was Mandela’s political advisor in South Africa’s first democratic parliament.
Retirement for Uncle Kathy meant more political work, multiple engagements, setting up school, university and youth affiliates of the foundation, and then more work after that. Money was of no interest to him, nor honours or headlines. And he set a pace that most failed to maintain.
Purity of political vocation
His dogged, lifelong pursuit of equality and non-racialism remind many South Africans of how low they have fallen in the shadow of his generation. His passing happened on the same night that the country’s Minister and Deputy Minister of Finance were flying back to South Africa, summarily ordered to do so by the president, to the sound of the currency plummeting and the economy reeling.
Uncle Kathy passing at the same time as the national economy is being sacrificed for cheap personal and political gain will perhaps provide the spark that says to all South Africans: enough! Stop the rot! He did not struggle, sacrifice, and be released from prison to work even harder, to allow it all to be stolen in front of their eyes.
Uncle Kathy had an uncomplicated wisdom that will far outlast his living years. He believed in the purity of political vocation, despite knowing the tendency for the office to be sullied by political vanities. He believed that the human spirit could transcend physical walls meant to divide and imprison. He loved children and believed in the possibility of remaking society through them.
Yet he always reminded those around him that change, freedom or an anti-racist society would never be “delivered” to South Africans. Rather it would have to be wrought through the values, responsibility and integrity of the people. Although he was well-read in the complex art of politics and sociology, he had a matter-of-fact attitude to the challenges the society faced and what was needed to tackle them.
Inspired at close quarters
Working closely with him at the Kathrada Foundation offered many opportunities to be struck by the profound simplicity of the task that lay before us in doing our bit to build an equal and non-racial society. He reminded us all that what people thought mattered, and that our work needed to be based on these realities (uncomfortable as they may be).
While we continued the academic pursuits of meanings and interpretations of race, non-racialism, anti-racism and identities he reminded us that if our deliberations did not ultimately inspire the kind of pro-active work that made the prospects of an African child better than her parents’ had been, we had ultimately failed.
For some time, he had refrained from public political discourse that may have been controversial, but in the past two years, his sense of integrity compelled him to publicly address the ANC – his party – leadership. He was the kind of man that was Exhibit A of the values imbued in the Freedom Charter. He was saddened that his party had become a shadow of its former glorious self, and had come to taint that historic document.
A year ago, Kathy wrote to Zuma, typically casting himself as merely “a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC and broader Congress movement since the 1940s” and admitting the pain that writing was causing him. He spoke directly to Zuma – and indirectly to South Africans:
The position of president is one that must at all times unite this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today for all South Africans. 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? If we are to continue to be guided by growing public opinion and the need to do the right thing‚ would he not seriously consider stepping down? I am not a political analyst‚ but I am now driven to ask: ‘Dear Comrade President‚ don’t you think your continued stay as president will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?’
And bluntly‚ if not arrogantly‚ in the face of such persistently widespread criticism‚ condemnation and demand‚ is it asking too much to express the hope that you will choose the correct way that is gaining momentum‚ to consider stepping down? If not‚ Comrade President‚ are you aware that your outstanding contribution to the liberation struggle stands to be severely tarnished if the remainder of your term as president continues to be dogged by crises and a growing public loss of confidence in the ANC and government as a whole?
I know that if I were in the president’s shoes‚ I would step down with immediate effect. To paraphrase the famous MK 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.
He will remain, for many a warm, wise uncle, who did not succumb to political limelight, but was unapologetic about his lifelong responsibility – in everyday, and intimate interpersonal ways – to the unfinished project of freedom and liberation in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. And never, ever afraid of asking the difficult questions, or stating the truth as he saw it.
Hamba Kahle Malume (Rest in peace uncle), you are dearly loved.
Dr Caryn Abrahams, senior lecturer at the Wits School of Governance and former head of research at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, contributed to this article