Remembering Mandela With A Man Who Served In Prison With Him

When Nelson Mandela was sent to prison 35 years ago, as a prisoner of apartheid, seven others were convicted with him. Renee Montagne talks to Ahmed Kathrada, who was just 34 when he stepped onto Robben Island with Mandela.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We turn now to someone who knew Nelson Mandela well and indeed, lived through history with him. Ahmed Kathrada fought apartheid with Mandela, and was jailed with him in the notorious prison on Robben Island. He told us that when they were sent to the prison, they felt lucky to be alive.

AHMED KATHRADA: The life sentence was a bonus because until the very last day our lawyers and we ourselves expected the death sentence.

MONTAGNE: Kathrada was close to Nelson Mandela and also Walter Sisulu, one of the other leaders of the African National Congress. When we reached him by phone in Johannesburg, Ahmed Kathrada told us that back then Mandela made it clear political prisoners were no different than any of the others locked up there.

KATHRADA: He said we are no longer the leaders. We are ordinary prisoners. No preferential treatment, so and that is how he behaved whether he's scrubbing the floors, hard labor with pick and shovels. Thirteen years after we were on Robben Island he was offered to be released. He refused because he refused to be released on condition.

He said if you were to release me, release me without any conditions so that I can be free to go where I like.

MONTAGNE: You know, when you said that he refused any preferential treatment, there's a little story that when you first arrived, you were handed the clothes you'd wear, and because you were Indian descent, you were given long pants. And the black prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, older than you, were given shorts, like that boys wear.

KATHRADA: That's right. Clothing was equalized about three years after we were there. It's food that took longer. For instance, we were given a quarter loaf of bread as Indians and coloreds. He got bread for the first time after 10 years. But instinctively we wanted to refuse this, but he said politically you would be wrong to give up what you've already got.

We must fight for equality on a higher level, but you don't give up what you've got, and he proved to be right.

MONTAGNE: So then what did you talk about when you were all together there?

KATHRADA: Well, you know, we were deprived of newspapers for 15 or 16 years so we had to smuggle, we had to bribe, we had to blackmail, we had to do everything possible, but we kept ourselves informed, one way or the other. We even smuggled a radio, but when the battery went flat, we couldn't have a new radio.

But that's how we had to keep ourselves informed.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, what will you miss the most about your lifelong friend - as people know him with great affection in South Africa, Madiba?

KATHRADA: You know, I grew up what you could compare to an orphan. I had to be ripped(ph) away from my family at the age of eight to go to school all the way to Johannesburg, which is 200 or more kilometers away. So Walter Sisulu, over time, became my father and Mandela my elder brother. I could turn to Walter Sisulu as my father, and when he passed on I could turn to Mandela.

Now he is gone and I'm at a loss. Who do I turn to now if I need to turn to somebody, some elder person? There's a whole void in my life now.

MONTAGNE: For everyone out there who knew of Mandela, there's a great deal of sorrow, but there's also a certain celebration.

KATHRADA: Well, there's a lot to celebrate of his life as well. At the moment, of course, the whole country is in mourning, but sooner or later they'll realize under his leadership we achieved dignity. It was the greatest thing, just to be treated as equal human beings.

MONTAGNE: Ahmed Kathrada, thank you very much for talking with us.

KATHRADA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ahmed Kathrada was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. This is NPR News.

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