Even in death, Kathrada is a blessing to his country
Ahmed Kathrada died just as the ANC reached its nadir, but his final act helped bring about the change he yearned for
It is not difficult to imagine what Ahmed Kathrada would make of the extraordinary political changes in South Africa over the past few months. His most fervent wish before his death was to see Jacob Zuma leave the presidency in order that the dignity of the office be restored.
Kathrada was a news junkie of sorts, his daily routine punctuated by reading newspapers from front to back and watching news bulletins.
When Kathrada regained consciousness from surgery to remove clots from his brain last March, one of the first things he asked was: “What’s in the news?”There certainly has been news since his passing at the age of 87.
In fact, two days after his death and the day after his funeral, Zuma executed one of the most malicious acts in his time as president, in defiance of the ANC and in service of the Gupta family.
While the nation was still mourning the passing of a struggle icon, Zuma reshuffled his cabinet in the dead of night. The axe fell on Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas in the Finance ministry, provoking mass outrage.The chairperson of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Derek Hanekom, was also fired.
Kathrada’s funeral a year ago to the day is what launched the resistance movement against Zuma. His letter to Zuma, imploring the then president to step down, was read by former president Kgalema Motlanthe.
Kathrada’s pain and distress at watching the decay of the organisation he sacrificed his life for and the democratic government he helped build was evident in his letter.Zuma never responded to the letter, but in an interview with the SABC in December he said he believed the letter had been faked. Zuma said Kathrada would “not have written such a letter to me” and claimed that the language suggested that others had influenced him in his “advanced age”.
These comments revealed how little Zuma knew about Kathrada and his convictions, and that even at his “advanced age” he was erudite and his own person.
The high emotion around Kathrada’s death and the cabinet reshuffle gained momentum during memorial services around the country. While Zuma was still politically strong then, civil society reorganised itself to lead the rebellion against state capture.All this built towards the moment Cyril Ramaphosa became ANC president in December, prompting a process of rapid political change.
In February, Kathrada finally got his wish when Zuma surrendered to political pressure and resigned.
Someone who knew Kathrada well, fellow struggle icon and a board member of his foundation, Sophia Williams de Bruyn, said at his gravesite on Wednesday that he would be “in his element about the change of guard”.De Bruyn said Kathrada was “very displeased” when he wrote the letter to Zuma and the changes in political leadership had brought relief and given hope for the country.
She said it was important to carry on Kathrada’s work to keep his legacy alive.
While the Kathrada Foundation has a range of programmes to do precisely that, including his lifelong mission to fight racism, there remained some unfinished business when he died.Kathrada had hoped to take Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema to Robben Island to pass the torch and his memories to the new generation of political leaders in the country. While he did not get to do that himself, his foundation took Malema and Maimane, along with senior leaders of the EFF and DA, on separate tours to the Island last year.
But there is one wish that remains unfulfilled.
Kathrada had wanted to tell love stories.
He was a hopeless romantic and was fascinated with the idea of people being in love. He found his great love, Barbara Hogan, after she was released in 1990 after 10 years of imprisonment for high treason.But it was not their love story that Kathrada wanted to write about as he was quite shy talking about his own relationship.
Kathrada wanted to add chapters to his memoir to write about three great loves he had witnessed in his lifetime: Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Laloo and Luxmi Chiba, and Braam and Molly Fischer.
He believed these couples were “made in heaven” because of their “absolute devotion and affection to each other”.
He was not able to do this before he died last autumn.
But there was one love story that was evident in the life Ahmed Kathrada lived, that of a man and his country. There was much pain and suffering but there was also enduring passion and great triumphs.
And now, a year after his passing, there is finally peace.