'Memoirs' of the Fight Against Apartheid Farai Chideya talks with South African activist and former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada about his new book, Memoirs, which details his life fighting apartheid alongside men like Nelson Mandela.

'Memoirs' of the Fight Against Apartheid

'Memoirs' of the Fight Against Apartheid

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Farai Chideya talks with South African activist and former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada about his new book, Memoirs, which details his life fighting apartheid alongside men like Nelson Mandela.


For years, Ahmed Kathrada wondered aloud what his nation, South Africa, would look like without apartheid. Most of his thinking took place behind bars alongside fellow ANC activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. Ahmed Kathrada and his fellow political prisoners were sentenced to life on Robin Island in the early 1960s for plotting against the apartheid government. Like Nelson Mandela, Kathrada served more than two decades in prison. After apartheid, he was elected to South Africa's multiracial parliament. Ahmed Kathrada's story is chronicled in a new autobiography, titled simply "Memoirs." The longtime activist is currently on a tour of the United States. He joins me now in studio.


Mr. AHMED KATHRADA (Activist): Thank you very much for having me.

CHIDEYA: Thank you for joining us. Now let's paint a picture of the South Africa that you grew up in. In the 1950s, because of the apartheid laws, people of Indian descent, like yourself, and people who were Africans, black Africans, were living in somewhat separate worlds. How did you get involved in multiracial politics, particularly with Nelson Mandela?

Mr. KATHRADA: Nelson Mandela was a fellow law student of two people I knew. But he was already one of the leaders of the African National Congress Youth League at the time, and I was already active in the Indian Youth Congress. So we met both socially and politically. And that must have been just a little past the mid-'40s.

CHIDEYA: Now you are someone who got involved in politics at a very young age, in your early teens. How did your parents feel, once they learned about your political activities? What did they tell you about taking care of yourself, for example?

Mr. KATHRADA: Their main concern was that I had opportunities to study. And they were looking forward to one member of the family going into a profession. But when I got involved, there was an Indian leader, a very prominent Indian leader, called Dr. Dadoo, highly respected. And they said, well, they've given me over to him. And if he thinks I should do this, that and the other, I should do it.

CHIDEYA: Now if you look at the life of Gandhi, he did years of activism in South Africa. It was his first sort of field of play for really working on non-violent resistance. But in your book, you mention that between Gandhi's stay in South Africa and the time that you were growing up and getting involved, there was a shakiness in the Indian community's devotion towards pursuing change of the government.

Mr. KATHRADA: Yes. You see, soon after Gandhi's departure, the then-leadership of the Indian Congress in South Africa were conservative. They did not believe in non-European unity. They sought little crumbs from the white table until the late '30s when Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naiker returned from Scotland after having completed their medical careers, and they started the sort of radicalization of Indian politics.

CHIDEYA: Catch us up to the Ravonia(ph) trial. Who were you when you were in the farmhouse in Ravonia and the police invaded?

Mr. KATHRADA: I was underground, together with Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki. These were three members of the national executives, the most senior people in the ANC. Mandela was already in jail. So all three of us were underground working. And Ravonia itself was a secret hideout specially bought by the organizations to do illegal work, illegal meetings and so forth. And that's where we had met on the 11th of July '63, when the police pounced on us.

CHIDEYA: What were the charges in your case?

Mr. KATHRADA: The charges were sabotage and high treason, because among the eight of us were four members of the National High Command, which was a military wing of the ANC. The charges related to placing bombs at apartheid buildings--you know where, where there were the Europeans-only signs and so forth. But of course care had to be taken that no harm is done to human beings. And we were found guilty of about 200 acts of sabotage, which didn't mean that we ourselves did it. It was...

CHIDEYA: You authorized it.

Mr. KATHRADA: ...recruits of the armed wing.

CHIDEYA: When did it hit you, once you were in jail, that this was actually a life sentence and that you could die in that jail?

Mr. KATHRADA: Well, we knew that life sentence for political prisoners was meant to be life. For common-law prisoners, their sentence is generally about 15 years.

CHIDEYA: What about those long years in prison? You shared a cell at certain points with up to four other people. You were constantly around leaders like Walter Sisulu. What did that time do for you in the most positive sense and in the most negative sense?

Mr. KATHRADA: Well, let's deal with the latter one first, the negative. They were mission-educated people. They don't share the type of jokes we are used to, but that didn't make it impossible. We were transferred after 18 years on Robin Island. This is the first time that we were staying together in the same cell. On Robin Island, it was single cells. And the last three to four years, Walter Sisulu and I shared a cell, just the two of us. And that was the most profitable, most fruitful of my prison experiences because that was a man who knew the history of the liberation movement like no one else did.

CHIDEYA: You were still a very youthful and very vital man after having spent so much time in prison, coming out and being a member of the South African parliament. You talk very movingly in the book about the loss you felt when Walter Sisulu died.


CHIDEYA: How do you feel now that, as with the civil rights generation in America, South Africa is going to lose many of its heroes in the coming decades?

Mr. KATHRADA: I personally miss Walter Sisulu more than anybody else. Even before prison, during prison and after prison, I looked up to him as a father. Not only that, his family had adopted me as a son. And that closeness remained right up to his death. So as a human being, as a political giant, I had the greatest love for him.

CHIDEYA: Finally, given the fact that you have recorded your story in "Memoirs," and there's so much more to it than we are able to talk about today, and you talk about the need to present a new South Africa with a new South African history, what single thing, if you had to distill the essence of your experiences, would you want to leave as a gift to South Africa's children?

Mr. KATHRADA: We would want the coming generations not to forget where we came from, where we are, and the responsibilities they bear for the future. Basically, when we said the doors of learning shall be opened, we want them to take fullest advantage of that so that they can take their places in the new South Africa in every sphere.

CHIDEYA: Ahmed Kathrada is author of the new book "Memoirs." A foreword by Nelson Mandela is included with the book. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KATHRADA: Thank you very much for having me.


CHIDEYA: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon is back on Monday. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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