Born on August 21, 1929, to a South African immigrant family of Indian-Muslim background, Ahmed Kathranda moved from the Western Transvaal region to Johannesburg to be educated because he was not allowed to attend any of the European or African schools. It was in Johannesburg, where he would meet the future leaders (Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, I.C. Meer and J.N. Singh) of the African National Congress (ANC). In time, Kathrada would become the most prominent Asian South African in the movement to end apartheid.
Affectionately known as “Kathy,” Kathranda joined the anti-apartheid movement in his teenage years through both the Youth Communist League and the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. At the age of 17, he openly resisted the “Ghetto Act,” which sought to give Indians limited political representation and define the areas where they could live, trade and own land. Organized by the South African Indian Congress, Kathrada was one of 2,000 people eventually arrested for their civil disobedience.
The urgency of eradicating racism in South Africa was further impressed upon him after he visited Auschwitz in the early 1950s. While he worked with several organizations and led many resistance groups over the years, it wasn’t until 1963 that he became known within the anti-apartheid movement. In July of that year, he was arrested along with his fellow activists (including Mandela) in a police raid on an ANC hideout in Rivonia, a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Evidence was found implicating the activists for sabotage, treason, attempting to start guerilla warfare and violent conspiracy.
The activists were convicted in the so-called Rivonia Trial, which lasted eight months and attracted substantial international attention, shedding light on the brutal legal system under apartheid. Kathrada, Mandela and six other defendants narrowly escaped the gallows and instead on June 11, 1964, they were sentenced to life imprisonment. Kathrada would spend 26 years and 3 months in prison—18 of them on the dark, damp and isolated Robben Island, surrounded by shark-infested waters off the coast of Cape Town.
In a 1989 New York Times interview, Kathrada explained that the political resisters had expected to be arrested and had prepared mentally. The prison and their guards, however, attempted to break the men, trying to “install into our minds that we would be forgotten in a few years’ time.” Kathrada went on to say that the guards “did everything to crush our morale.”
Once in prison, the activists found that apartheid-era segregation polices followed them. Mixed race convicts were given long pants and socks, while black convicts had to wear shorts without socks. For Kathrada, this just made him stauncher in his defiance. As he explained in 1989, “because we were so close to the oppressor, it helped to keep us united.”
They went on hunger strikes, tried to keep up with the outside world (by talking to new prisoners and reading smuggled papers) and Kathrada even earned four university degrees—two in history and two in African politics.
Kathrada and Mandela were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in 1982, and eight years later he was released (along with Mandela) at the age of 60. His connection and commitment to the ANC had only deepened.
Once out of jail, Kathrada served as a parliamentary counselor to President Mandela from 1994 to 1999 in the first African National Congress government. He went on to write several books, formed his own foundation, was a fierce advocate for human rights and even led President Barack Obama on a tour of Robben Island in 2013.
In honor his death, the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has ordered the country’s’ flags to fly at half-mast. Mr. Zuma also released a statement calling Athrada a “stalwart of the liberation struggle for a free and democratic South Africa.”
While Mr. Zuma showered Athrada with praise, in the last few years Athrada had vocally and openly criticized the president, pointing out the corruption inside his ANC-led government. He even penned an open letter asking the president to step down.
Admitted to the hospital earlier this month with a brain clot, Ahmed Kathrada died Tuesday in Johannesburg. He is survived by his legacy and his partner, and fellow anti-apartheid activist, Barbara Hogan.