Struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada: a man of balance

Kathrada 1 (2)

Anti-apartheid struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada holds a sign from the apartheid era saying only white people may use a lift in a building. Blacks had to use a separate lift allocated for “Tradesmen, non-Europeans, prams and dogs”. Kathrada died Tuesday morning

STRUGGLE veteran and South African hero Ahmed Kathrada’s death on Tuesday came just a few days after the furore about Western Cape premier Helen Zille’s controversial tweets saying that colonialism had not only brought oppression to Africa, but had also brought some good things, such as the principle of an independent judiciary and other pillars of a functioning state.

The two events are vastly different, but throw light on each other.

Kathrada, one of the accused in the Rivonia Treason Trial in 1964 who was jailed by the apartheid regime for anti-apartheid activities, and who spent many years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, brought some sanity to today’s climate of political correctness, a censorious atmosphere in which many things cannot be mentioned or debated because of the emotional reaction they provoke.

Apartheid is over, but what legitimacy do whites have here now? What are they allowed to say amidst the increasingly strident anti-colonial, anti-white rhetoric? The rageful reaction to Zille – a white politician who led the Democratic Alliance to becoming the official opposition in Parliament – illustrates the problem.

The argument over colonialism draws in other minority groups. South African Jews, for example, who came as immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s to escape Jew-hatred and poverty, at a time when the British Commonwealth was thriving. Are they also colonisers or do they belong here as Africans? The silencing of white voices and the refusal to allow rational public discourse on these issues is cause for serious concern.

Kathrada was a gentle man who dismissed hateful rhetoric against whites or others. In June 2012, he attended the funeral of world-famous Jewish palaeoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, with former president Thabo Mbeki and struggle veterans Tokyo Sexwale and advocate George Bizos. He saluted Tobias as a true son of Africa.

Consistent with his belief in human dignity and his love of Africa, Tobias had been a leader in the campaign to bring the Khoisan woman Saartjie Baartman’s remains home from Europe. Born in 1789, she had been taken there by colonisers and her naked body displayed for decades in the UK and France as a freak for people to gawk at. After she died in 1816, parts of her body were preserved in bottles and remained on display in a museum in France. After a request by President Nelson Mandela to the French government, these remains were brought back to South Africa in a box draped with a South African flag in 2002, and buried on Women’s Day in her birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Kathrada also confronted issues unpleasant for South African Jews, including those who blindly supported Israel no matter the topic. He participated in Israel Apartheid Week organised by BDS, alongside trade union federation Cosatu and individuals such as SA Communist Party Secretary-General Blade Nzimande and ANC National Chairperson Baleka Mbete. The event riles Jews who believe applying the apartheid label to Israel is false and anti-Semitic, which Kathrada certainly was not.

Another Jewish struggle veteran, Denis Goldberg‚ a Rivonia trialist who was sentenced alongside Kathrada, said emotionally after his passing: “We went through facing the gallows together‚ absolutely certain we were going to be hanged.” Goldberg went to prison in Pretoria; Kathrada went to Robben Island.

Kathrada had the balance to see through false rhetoric from whatever source, but with a humanity that made people listen. Last year he called on President Jacob Zuma to resign because of his violation of the Constitution‚ the theft of state assets and negation of “the values we stood for.” Sadly, Zuma is still in office.

What would Kathrada say about the meaning of freedom in South Africa today? One aspect is knowing you are welcome, no matter your race, ethnicity or religion.

This country has not yet come to terms with its multi-cultural identity and the role of minorities in it – whites, Jews or others. You can’t undo centuries of colonialism and apartheid in one generation. It is legitimate that black South Africans are seeking their African identity, as Jews seek their Jewish identity after their own centuries of persecution. Inevitably, ‘outsiders’ sometimes get offended.

If the new post-apartheid South Africa is to succeed, all sides need to aim at everyone being considered part of this diverse nation, despite the history. The silencing of figures such as Zille doesn’t help this cause. Kathrada and people of principle like him who had much to say about building this new country, will be sorely missed.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )



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