There is nothing that Ahmed Kathrada enjoys more than the sight of Joburg’s children going to school in the mornings. “It makes a wonderful impact to see these children moving around freely in all the areas – black and white walking together.”
The Struggle stalwart remembers how, as an eight-year-old, he was forced to move to Joburg from Schweizer-Reneke, over 300km away, because there were no Indian schools in the town for him to attend.
In Joburg, there were only two Indian schools. “At that stage one starts asking questions because, as children, we don’t know colour,” he says. “One questions why can’t I go to the school with my friends. So that’s the question of a youngster, and not politics.”
But more than 70 years later – 26 of those spent in jail for fighting apartheid – he marvels at the success of the democracy he fought so tirelessly to achieve. “When we see kids going to school, you know they’re so confident. When you go to the malls one of the nicest things you see is how confident our people are.
“Before, under apartheid, especially Africans, didn’t even have the confidence to go into the OK Bazaars.”
As South Africans marked Freedom Day last week, the City of Joburg voted unanimously to bestow the “Freedom of the City” on Kathrada, its highest honour, which he now shares with fellow ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Beyers Naudé, Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo.
“He (Kathrada) championed across the breadth and width of the city, across the entire spectrum, the core values that today make the city of Johannesburg a world-class African city,” reads a statement from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation after the announcement was made.
It was in Joburg that his political roots first took hold.
As a 12-year-old, Kathrada was introduced to politics when he joined a non-racial youth cub run by the Young Communist League.
“I felt at home because it was mixed, like my childhood,” he remembers.
Together with his comrades, Kathrada later campaigned on the streets of Fordsburg, organised the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown and held planning meetings as a “banned” person at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which later led to the famous Rivonia trial.
Together with his fellow Rivonia trialists, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour for trying to overthrow the apartheid regime.
His memories are centred on his flat in Market Street, “Flat 13”, where ANC meetings were held, and which remains intact for “sentimental reasons”.
“Market Street has special memories for me, very much so. That’s where I met Mr (Nelson) Mandela. Sometimes, after long lectures, he used to pop in there, occasionally spent the night there. For people in the townships, there was just about nowhere they could go, well, to relax, in the city centre. There were no toilet facilities.
“The flat became a place where people relaxed when they come to town. So all kinds of politicians, senior and junior, just liked to pop in when they wanted. Even Chief Albert Luthuli used to stay there. The Sisulu children, the Mandela children, all came to visit… There was a lot of fun. You know one had to make the best of life.”
But the pain of apartheid’s denigration endures. He remembers how, although his flat was just two blocks from the Joburg public library, he was barred from entering its doors.
“I saw the inside of a proper cinema, theatre and restaurant for the first time when at the age of 22, I went to Europe. The first time I saw these things in South Africa was at the age of 60 when I came out of prison.”
He says Joburg’s strength is its cosmopolitan face. “People did mix a bit more. A lot of the defiance against apartheid happened in the city… The worst thing during apartheid was for a black person and a white person to walk together. You hardly ever saw them together.
“Johannesburg was fairly safe. But in Pretoria, racism was so bad. If one happened to be walking in what some whites would regard as a white area, you were in danger of being assaulted. It was worse if you were walking with a white lady, or with a lady who looked white… then you were in trouble.”
For a time, Zoo Lake was open to Indian people, but not to coloured people. “Why? Nobody knows. Say a coloured lady, or an Indian lady, was wearing Western clothes, sometimes they’d say you’re not an Indian because you’re not wearing Indian clothes and the woman was not allowed inside.”
It’s the exclusionary whites-only signs that filled the breadth of the city that are burnt into his memory. “I remember some friends of mine were visiting white friends in Yeoville and there was a lift which had a sign that read ‘non-Europeans and dogs not allowed’.
“We just ignored it and went in. A white lady and her friends complained and told us: ‘Can’t you see this is for whites only?’ So I replied saying, that we don’t mind travelling with whites,” he recalls, with a laugh. “She was dumbfounded.
“Young people don’t believe this when we tell them – that there were these signs all over the show. They don’t know the past, which is our big challenge. It’s not just the born-frees. I meet adults, people aged 30 and 35, who don’t even know about the pass laws. The pass laws sent tens of thousands of people to prison.
“There are so many diversions for young people today. They can go to malls, and clubs are open for them, but we’re always trying to tell them that with freedom comes responsibility.”
Kathrada was among the youngest of the Rivonia trialists. On his lounge wall hangs a portrait of Mandela alongside him, and on another, a replica of the tin plate he ate his meals on during his incarceration on Robben Island.
On it Mandela has scrawled: “To Kathy, a remarkable comrade.”
“Well, I couldn’t call him (Mandela) my friend because he is my senior, so I regard him more as an elder brother and Walter Sisulu as my father.”
Like Mandela, Kathrada’s greatest joy is to be in the company of children. “One of the greatest deprivations in prison is that there are no children. I saw and held a child, literally, for the first time in 20 years in jail, by accident at Pollsmoor Prison.
“My lawyer had come to see me, but his three-year-old daughter didn’t want to stay in the car. It was completely overwhelming to see a child. She sat on my lap while I was supposed to be speaking to her father. Let me just say, there was no legal consultation.
“This makes a permanent impact even now, just to see kids. You’re trying to make it up, not deliberately, it just happens.”
He compares his surprise release from prison in 1989 like “coming to another planet”. “The head of prison told us he had just received a fax that we were to be released. The first question I asked was: ‘What is a fax?’ We had heard about the fax, but how are you supposed to conceptualise this piece of paper that gets to the other side? There were no ATMs, no microwaves, no computers.
“When we went to prison there was only one lane to drive in, but now there were two or three lanes. After my release, I was living in Lenasia and a friend told me to come to the office in town. He told me to just stick to the left lane. I did that – once. The taxis chased me out. I never drove again. It’s too stressful.”
Unlike his fellow trialists, Kathrada has now embraced technology, and tells how he likes to skype on his Apple Mac. “From the eight of us (Rivonia trialists), only two of us know how to work with computers, me and Dennis Goldberg. Madiba tried but gave up,” he smiles.
He does not venture much into the inner city anymore, and worries about the exploitation of streams of foreign nationals in the city.
But it’s the growth of Lenasia that astounds him most. “Lenasia is almost a city. You can be born in Lenasia, grow up in Lenasia, die in Lenasia, without ever having to come to Joburg. When we were arrested, there were gravel roads and a handful of houses in Lenasia.”
He is filled with hope for SA’s future.
“But one has to be realistic. We have a long way to go – we’re only 18 years old. I always point to America. They have had democracy for 300 years, but there is still racism. African Americans only got the vote in the 1960s.
“What we’ve got since 1994 is dignity, which is very important.
“You can now walk and live as equals protected by the law. Racism is a crime. On the other hand you can never forget there are millions of people who are still poor. And there is no dignity in hunger.”
Kathrada spends his time either abroad, or attending meetings and functions for his foundation. This week it was a visit to Robben Island – which he headed for two terms as chairman of its museum council – with Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patel.
Official visits to his former jail cell, where he spent 18 years of his life, are regular. “People ask me if I have nightmares about my time in jail. I don’t even dream about it.”
There is no recipe for longevity, he believes. “I don’t drink or smoke. I eat what I want. I walk every day. Either we go to Zoo Lake or if we’re in Cape Town, we drive to Seapoint and have a lovely walk along the sea.
“I don’t know if it’s a prison habit, but every day I get up at 5am. And I always have cold showers. There was no hot water in jail. You get used to it. I must end my shower with cold water, no matter if I’m in the coldest place in Sweden. It’s refreshing.”
He never misses an episode of Isidingo. “I don’t see all the soaps, but I must watch Isidingo every day. Even when you switch the channels, you see the black actors, white actors, the Indian actors. These things just don’t stop making a permanent impact on my mind.”