Ahmed Kathrada pays tribute to Nelson Mandela
Madala, as you light-heartedly started calling me some years ago, it both grieves me and inspires me to write this to you now, with the hour of your death still a fresh wound in our peoples’ hearts.
We called each other ‘Madala’ – old man – it became our standard form of informal address. To me it signifies mutual trust, respect, liking and close comradeship. In a wider sense, this one word brings out much more. It encapsulates the foundation of the very qualities that set you apart from other men.
Foremost is your sincere and consistent ability and skill in relating as equals to fellow beings from all walks of life – royalty, peasants, prime ministers, business people, presidents, workers, scientists, the illiterate, children, men and women: you treat, and regard, all as equal and equally deserving of respect, decency and dignity. You embodied the epitome of respect for your fellow beings, and the ability to relate easily to every strata of society.
This outstanding quality reminds me of my first encounter with you in 1945 or 1946 at Ismail Meer’s Flat 13, Kholvad House in Johannesburg. What sticks in my memory is: Here I was, a mere 16 or 17-year-old high school kid, and you at university. There were just a handful of students at Wits University who were not white. And my meeting with you became special. Our little time together was sufficient for me to boast to my school mates about this university student who showed so much interest in me, my studies, my interest in sports and future plans. He put me completely at ease and made me feel part of their adult conversation.
Little could we visualise then that this little meeting was to be the beginning of an increasingly closer relationship, not only with me, but with Flat 13. Your visits became frequent. During the Treason Trial, and specifically in 1960, there was dramatic change in the status of Flat 13. Oliver Tambo was sent into exile, resulting in the closure of the law firm of Mandela and Tambo. Now, what had been your occasional use of Flat 13 was transformed into your full-time law office.
I’m almost sure Long Walk to Freedom confirms what had been a couple of clients a day increased to a point where all three rooms were occupied! You jokingly said that was when I threatened to evict you. I cannot guess for how long this would have continued had you not gone underground soon after our acquittal in the Treason Trial.
Your abundant reserves of love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality and justice continually served as a source of enormous strength to me and so many millions of people around the world.
Perhaps for me these qualities were all the more profound for I know the depths of self-sacrifice and personal pain that were so easily missed beneath your ever-present and sincere smile. Yet your smile, which lingers still, was always from the heart, never forced or used for expediency’s sake, and the great joy you took in the world around you, especially in children, was unmistakeable. Most of all you symbolise, and always will, collective leadership, reconciliation, unity, forgiveness, nation-building and a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa.
One of your very important qualities that stands out is your self-confidence and absence of pettiness. An important example of this is your attitude towards opposition parties; they are not enemies but political rivals. We could work together on issues that would be in accordance with our basic aim of devoting our time and resources towards the upliftment of the needy. An obvious and most important example was when all political parties, including the Nationalist Party were invited to the Congress of the People in 1955.
It is for these qualities that, in your illness and death, you once more unite a huge diversity of people in the goodwill, good wishes and prayers of the people of our country, and, indeed, of the entire world. In these qualities you continue to bring unity to a world so often torn apart by intolerance, by discrimination, by injustice, by the violence of poverty, and by fear and mistrust.
Your power to inspire and bring out the good in people grows with each year that passes. I believe it is an incomparable gift, given at immeasurable personal cost, that will continue to cast a bright light in a world often beset by uncertainty and complex moral choices, both nationally and individually: a lodestar for leaders of substance and courage.
Indeed, your strength lies in your ability to reflect on your experience with honest and open eyes, to see where you may have made misjudgements and to adapt to changing circumstances. Your openness to change and the collective guidance of the broadest collective of colleagues has fuelled the bright star of your leadership and the reach of your influence.
From bringing youthful leadership to members of the ANC Youth League, a role that challenged you to reflect on the limitations of policies of exclusivity and polarity (for instance, your anti-Communism and opposition to united action with other liberation organisations) you saw the value of working with a diverse range of people with a range of beliefs, committed to the greater good, both within the ANC and beyond. You also adapted your views and strategies to changing circumstances, for example, shifting the terrain of the struggle from peaceful resistance to an armed struggle, always taking care to ensure that targets were legitimate structures of oppression and that respect for the sanctity of life was maintained.
Later, in prison, you and fellow members of the High Organ took the lead in uniting the prisoners across the artificial divisions of party-affiliation against the common foe, the prison administration. The qualities you embody provided a wellspring of strength when you emerged victorious from the prison gate with the world as your audience.
Despite the heavy expectations of you, you exceeded South Africans’ greatest dreams in providing vision, lack of self-interest, cohesion, peace, love and a multi-faceted national identity to a country rent asunder by years of socially-engineered hatred and fear. It is on record that you initially declined the ANC’s decision for you to be its Presidential candidate, explaining that the position would be more suitable for a younger person, male or female. When you eventually agreed, you made it clear it would be for one term only.
Your term as President and your gracious departure only built on the unshakeable foundations of what you have forged. South Africa, Africa and the world embrace you. In death you once more challenge people from every strata, religion, and position to think about how their own actions do and can change the world for better or worse. We hope that the challenge will always be met with commitment, humility and integrity. The goodness in you resonates with and amplifies the goodness in others.
It is with this ever present in my mind that I will always remember you.
We have known each other for 67 years, and I never imagined I’d be witness to the unavoidable and traumatic reality of your passing.
My visit to you in hospital was filled with an overwhelming mixture of sadness, emotion and pride. At the same time it was profoundly heart-breaking and brought me to the verge of tears when my thoughts automatically flashed back to the man I grew up under. How I wished the day never came when I had to confront the reality of the tall, healthy and strong man with a commanding presence reduced to a shadow of yourself.
You have left us to join the ‘A Team’ of our struggle: Chief Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo, Jack Simons, Moses Kotane, Bram Fischer, Monty Naicker, JB Marks, Helen Joseph, Rusty Bernstein, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Professor ZK Matthews, Beyers Naude, Lilian Ngoyi, Ma Sisulu and Michael Harmel.
Your inevitable death can never take from our country and the world the values and ideals which you symbolise and shared with us. You are the last of the A-Team to leave us. I again feel the way I did on the night of May 5, 2000, when I was informed of the death of our very dear Tyopho, as we lovingly called Walter. To me, over the years he had become the father I had lost in 1944. I could, and did turn to him for the most personal advice. Now I have lost you, my older brother, comrade and leader. I feel bereft and lonely. To whom do I turn for solace, comfort, and advice?
I had the enviable privilege of being alive and walking the earth with you through the bad times and the good. It has been a long walk, with many challenges that at times seemed insurmountable. And yet we never faltered, and the strength of leaders like you and Walter always shone a light on the path and kept our destination and our people’s future in view.
For invaluable leadership, courage, inspiration and foresight I feel fortunate to have been with you and Tyopho in the three major court cases of the 1950s and 1960s – the Defiance Campaign Trial of 1952, in which we were convicted and sentenced to nine months suspended for two years; the Treason Trial of 1956 to 1961, which would have sent us to jail had we been convicted and the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 for which we were sentenced to life imprisonment.
However, it was at the Rivonia Trial, when our lawyers and we, the accused, expected that we would receive the death sentence and be hanged, that your exemplary courage, foresight and leadership came to the fore.
You opened the defence case with what has become a universally acclaimed historical address to the court of law. You set the trend of the defence case. In the face of the death sentence you proudly and unflinchingly proclaimed our political beliefs. You did not apologise, nor did you plead for mercy. And you added – if the death sentence is imposed, we should go down in a cloud of glory.
I cannot complete these reminiscences without recalling the almost three decades of our prison years. Considering the manifold deprivations, and the temptations, prison life brings out the best and worst in human nature.
Here again I must recall your exemplary leadership, which you continuously and rightly reminded us was part of a collective. Shortly after our arrival on Robben Island you told us: “We are no longer leaders; we don’t make policy, we don’t give instructions to comrades outside of prison.
Our leaders are Chief Luthuli, and our exiled leaders – Oliver Tambo, Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Yusuf Dadoo etc. They make policy, they give instructions. We are prisoners and the prison leadership’s task is the welfare of fellow prisoners. The first requirement is to stamp our dignity. We do not tolerate vulgarity or insults by prison warders. We will work as much as we can, and refuse to be driven to fulfil quotas. No matter how hard it is, we should use our time fruitfully. We should continue with our political education. And we should also pursue our studies.”
In your commitment to prioritise the welfare of fellow prisoners, you typically hid the anguish, the anxiety and torments you were experiencing, most especially with regard the irreparable damages inflicted on your closest loved ones. Your deep personal suffering was the cost of your moral commitment and political dedication to justice and equality.
While we caught glimpses of this pain in prison, when you had news of the untimely and unexpected death of your eldest son, and your mother, for example, you shouldered the burden of suffering alone. Not until recently did we for the first time get some insight into what you at times endured. In a letter to Winnie, whose torture and detention you were powerless to prevent, you wrote:
“In June I learnt for the first time you had been confined to bed for two months … is your silence due to worsening of your health?”
And in another letter to her you wrote:
“The crop of miseries we have harvested from the heart-breaking frustrations of the last 15 months are not likely to fade away easily from the mind. I felt as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeal you are going through.”
In spite of such suffering and humiliation you never showed any signs of lessening your concern for the welfare of your fellow prisoners: your empathy and compassion were a wellspring to all, This calibre of leadership defined what you and your colleagues brought to negotiations with apartheid leaders, which were entered into with the forward-looking spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation and nation-building. Once more, you placed the greater good above all else.
You never deviated from the principles that we were expected to uphold in the period of adversity. It is that which enabled us to weather the most trying times in prison, and emerge unshaken. The prisoners upheld your example of refusing to ask for preferential treatment, except for health reasons.
In 1977, 13 years after our imprisonment, you were offered release provided you live in the Transkei. Your reply was: “The whole of South Africa belongs to black and white, and I will not be prepared to be confined to a tiny Bantustan.”
You could have easily asked for exemption from pick and shovel work. You did not. You carried out all the prison chores like the rest of us. You took part in all the hunger strikes. When treatment for a severe back problem left me strapped down on the bed for close to 10 days, you spent many hours daily at my bedside to comfort me.
When almost all of us went down during a flu epidemic, you helped to carry out our toilet buckets, wash them and put them in the sun.
In 1982, after 18 years on Robben Island, five of the seven Rivonia Trialists were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. For the first time we were together in one large cell.
In 1985, after you returned from hospital you were moved to a single cell, and not allowed to have any contact with us. You have often said what you missed the most about prison life is the time to be alone and think. Therefore you appeared to welcome this isolation. Undoubtedly it was this opportunity to think that led you to take the bold step to talk to the enemy. This was consistent with ANC policy to mobilise the combined pressures of the main pillars of the struggle, namely:
• The mass struggle in the country (as evidenced by the activities of the UDF and Cosatu)
• The ANC’s underground activities in the country
• The increasing international pressure to isolate apartheid South Africa in order to force the enemy to the negotiating table
It was seemingly even bolder to start talking to the other side without even attempting to consult your closest comrade Walter Sisulu who was just a floor above you!
However, it now transpires that you did not want to talk to Walter or anyone else. You, being a super democrat, feared that if three of the five of us opposed any talks with the enemy you would have felt obliged to obey the majority.
When you did start talking to the other side, you made it perfectly clear that as a prisoner you did not have the mandate to negotiate. You were merely attempting to persuade the Government to negotiate with the ANC leadership in exile. But in order to facilitate talks, the Government would have to agree to three conditions, namely:
• The release of all political prisoners
• The unbanning of all political organisations
• Allowing the exiles to return
After several years of talk, the government released the remaining Rivonia men on the 15th of October 1989. By the early 1990s all political prisoners had been released.
On the 2nd of February 1990, President de Klerk announced that you and all other political prisoners would be released; that all political organisations were unbanned and that exiles would be allowed to return.
Fast-forward to April 1994, when all the people of South Africa – black and white – voted together for a new, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.
I’m fully aware of your repeated reminders that you are part of a collective. And more importantly the issue that deeply worried you in prison was:
“The false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint.”
You also said:
“I wanted to be like an ordinary human being with virtues and vices.”
Having noted your sincerity and honesty, it is however impossible to alter the historically and universally acclaimed position that makes you the symbol of non-racialism, of reconciliation, of forgiveness and the undisputed founding father of the new South Africa.
While we may be drowned in sorrow and grief, we must be proud and grateful that after the long walk paved with obstacles and suffering, we salute you as a fighter for freedom to the end.
Farewell my elder brother, my mentor, my leader. With all the energy and determination at our command, we pledge to join the people of South Africa and the world to perpetuate the ideals and values for which you have devoted your life.