Ahmed Kathrada, icon of South Africa’s freedom struggle, dies

Ahmed Kathrada, the South African freedom fighter who spent 18 years in prison with Nelson Mandela, poses next to his comrade’s portrait at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, December 2013. Kathrada died on 28 March.

Dai Kurokawa EPA/Newscom

Ahmed Kathrada, a lifelong comrade of Nelson Mandela and one of the iconic figures of South Africa’s freedom struggle, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 87.

Kathrada began his resistance to oppression more than 70 years ago and did not stop fighting for the rights of people all over the world until the short illness that took his life.

“This is great loss to the [African National Congress], the broader liberation movement and South Africa as a whole,” Neeshan Balton, executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, said.

South Africa’s National Coalition For Palestine also mourned the man known affectionately as Uncle Kathy, as “one of South Africa’s greatest leaders” and a “staunch friend of the Palestinian struggle and the [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement.”

Life of struggle

At the age of 17, Kathrada was arrested for taking part in the Passive Resistance Campaign against racist laws targeting the Indian community.

While still a teenager, he met Mandela, who was then a law student in Johannesburg.

“He had this ability to relate to me, a high school kid, almost as an equal, wanting to know what my interests were, what I wanted to do and so on,” Kathrada recalled of Mandela in an interview with South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper.

While he had fall-outs with Mandela, Kathrada became one of the iconic group of freedom fighters who accompanied him on the long walk to freedom. Kathrada was among more than 150 members of the African National Congress acquitted on charges of “high treason” after a four-year-trial in 1961.

But he was arrested again in 1963 and tried along with Mandela and other ANC leaders at the famous Rivonia Trial on charges of engaging in armed struggle.

Kathrada recalled to the Mail & Guardian the “electric moment” when Mandela told the court, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

“The second moment that stood out for me was when we all expected death and the judge said life,” Kathrada added.

Kathrada spent 26 years and three months in prison, 18 of them on the infamous Robben Island.

He was released in October 1989 as the racist regime, under growing pressure from the liberation movement, unbanned the ANC and embarked on the path that led to the rebirth of South Africa as a democratic nation in 1994. He was elected to parliament and served as an adviser to President Mandela.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara Hogan, whom he met in 1990, shortly after she was released from prison, the first woman to be convicted by the apartheid regime of “high treason.”

A loyal member of the ANC, Kathrada more recently felt compelled to call on South Africa’s scandal-plagued president and fellow party member Jacob Zuma to resign. A measure of Kathrada’s undeniable stature, Zuma announced an official funeral in tribute to the late freedom fighter.

Support for Palestine

A key focus of Ahmed Kathrada’s continued activism was his unflinching support for the Palestinian struggle, admonishing those who shy away from truth-telling and clear solidarity.

“I remember how apologists for apartheid South Africa internationally tried to argue that the South African ‘situation’ was more complex than the ANC wanted to suggest,” he said in 2012.

“Our liberation struggle has many newfound ‘admirers’ – some who often colluded with the apartheid regime,” he observed. “They not only claim to have been part of the struggle but now want to give us lessons as to what it was about and how it should be applied to the Palestinian struggle for justice.”

His namesake foundation spearheaded a campaign calling on Israel to free Marwan Barghouti, who led armed resistance during the second intifada and was sentenced to several life terms.

It also supports Israeli Apartheid Week and promotes the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement for Palestinian rights.

In 2013, Kathrada wrote personally to Morgan Freeman, urging the Hollywood actor who portrayed Mandela – commonly known as Madiba – to withdraw from an event raising funds for Israel’s Hebrew University.

Kathrada wrote that when he first heard that Freeman would be participating in the event, “What immediately came to mind were the words of Madiba: ‘But we know too well that our freedom isn’t complete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’”

Freeman did not heed Kathrada’s call.

Kathrada sent this video to activists in Gaza during Israeli Apartheid Week in 2015, telling them that Palestinians can draw courage from the victory of South Africans.

Israeli apartheid worse than South Africa

When Kathrada visited Palestine in 2013, he called it the fulfillment of a “lifelong dream.”

But he said that he would have “hoped that it would have been to a free Palestine.”

“In our short stay here we have seen and heard enough to conclude that apartheid has been reborn here,” he told Palestinians in Ramallah. “In its reborn form it is however worse than its predecessor.”

“Our struggle in South Africa had one great advantage, and that was the worldwide support of civil society and many governments,” Kathrada said. “We are glad to witness the increasing support that your struggle is receiving.”

Ahmed Kathrada died in the same month that a UN body acknowledged for the first time a reality to which he was uniquely qualified to bear witness: Israel is guilty of apartheid.

“What Uncle Kathy stood for is the principled position of no compromise with inequality, no matter what the race or religion of the oppressor,” Haidar Eid, a professor and activist in Gaza who met Kathrada in South Africa, told The Electronic Intifada. “My interactions with him taught me what a freedom fighter is.”

A renewed commitment to activism to end Israeli apartheid will be the most fitting tribute to a man who lived his life as an example of tireless and principled struggle.

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