OPINION: The day I met Kathy

30 March 2017 - 16:26 By Emily Rizzo
Cherish Nicole Cobb, Ahmed Kathrada, Barbara Hogan and Emily Rizzo.
Cherish Nicole Cobb, Ahmed Kathrada, Barbara Hogan and Emily Rizzo.
Image: Supplied

Two months ago‚ I left the United States and arrived in South Africa for the first time. I came to this country as part of a study abroad program to learn about social and political transformation.

We were assigned to read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography‚ “Long Walk to Freedom.” Truthfully‚ before these readings‚ the only ANC members I knew of were Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. But Mandela’s descriptions of his peers in the liberation movement made me want to learn more about them‚ especially Ahmed Kathrada.

Kathrada‚ known affectionately as “Kathy”‚ played a vital role in the struggle‚ one equal to Mandela’s.

His intelligence‚ loyalty‚ and humor stuck with me as we landed in Johannesburg‚ near the location of the Rivonia Trials that sent him to Robben Island. I felt like Kathy was cheated‚ like he did not get enough public attention for his irreplaceable contributions.

Kathy excited me‚ as Mandela wrote about the intimate level of trust they had and Kathy’s organization of the secret communication system within the prison. Mandela is rightly praised by the world‚ but I wanted to know the man Mandela praised‚ his “right hand man‚” Uncle Kathy.

On our fourth day in Johannesburg‚ my class visited the Apartheid Museum. They were holding a book launch for Dikgang Moseneke and Albie Sachs’ new autobiographies.

Towards the end of the Q&A with the authors‚ I noticed that the event poster to the side of Sachs said: “The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation”. I stared‚ my foggy mind struggling from jet lag‚ wondering if that Ahmed Kathrada could really be the Kathy I read about.

Suddenly‚ the event hosts on the stage asked someone to “please stand up.” I perked up and turned to my classmates in search of similar excitement or confusion. I was unsuccessful.

An old man slowly stood up‚ holding his wife’s arm for support‚ and smiled. I mouthed the words‚ “Is that Kathy?” to my program director‚ Imraan Buccus‚ across the room. Imraan winked and nodded. It was he. I felt goosebumps. A man who gave 25 years of his life in the name of equality‚ a man who was imprisoned for standing against white supremacy‚ was standing in front of me‚ waving.

Kathy sat down and the event concluded. Everyone filed out of the same small doorway and down a thin walkway to the parking lot. I was about to pass Kathy on my left. I slowed down‚ stressing‚ trying to come up with the right words.

I felt like I had no right to waste his time with whatever insignificant utterance that was about to leave my white American mouth. I wanted to thank him for everything that he had done. At the same time‚ I felt like a phony‚ having only learnt of him a month ago and feeling the United States’ failures during apartheid in my heart.

I looked at him; face flushed‚ and said “good to see you”. I then tried to disappear.

I found my friend Cherish and told her I wished I could take a picture with Kathy but would never want to bother him again. Cherish laughed at my fear. The fiery four-foot eight woman from New York walked right up to Ahmed Kathrada.

She proceeded to ask if we could take a photo. He reacted as if Cherish was an old friend‚ and said‚ “I cannot say no”. We all laughed and he warmly shook our hands. I could not believe Kathy’s patience with us‚ two very obviously foreign people.

Kathy spent 27 years in prison because of the apartheid regime‚ because of white people around the world‚ and he was kind to me. He embraced us.

As I continue to learn more about his life and the freedom struggle in South Africa‚ the more I realize how lucky I was to meet this giant of a man before he left this earth.

While I have spent much time learning about the history of the ANC in the classroom‚ I have learned the most from the people I met in KwaZulu-Natal‚ specifically in Cato Manor. I lived in that township on the outskirts of Durban for six weeks.

The local people loved to share their political views with me‚ and of course I would always ask. Most of them were proud ANC loyalists‚ like my homestay grandmother host. When I asked her where she stood after watching the State of the Nation‚ she said‚ “No matter who is president‚ I am ANC. I am always ANC”.

I have been thinking of these people the past few days‚ thinking about what it means to them now that one of the greatest names of the ANC is gone. Kathrada was an image of hope and change‚ which has not been coming fast enough since apartheid for my new black Zulu‚ Indian‚ and coloured friends and family members.

So does this loss accentuate pre-existing feelings of dissatisfaction with the state of the country? Since losing this symbol of strength‚ do people like my grandmother feel that further change is farther away?

I know one thing for sure: many people‚ especially outside of South Africa‚ are now learning more about Kathy’s life and accomplishments‚ just from turning on their television sets.

I now live in a hostel in Cape Town and met a Scottish man who had never heard of Ahmed Kathrada before yesterday. But now more people like him are thinking about Kathy and the liberation movement’s ideologies.

Maybe people will think more about what it means to have an equal society‚ or will not laugh the next time their friend makes a racist joke.

Maybe those thoughts will turn into mobilization‚ actual action against systemic racism. Maybe losing Kathy will fuel people to continue his legacy and continue fighting for true democracy‚ equality‚ and destruction of white supremacy around the world.

I will never forget meeting Ahmed Kathrada‚ and more importantly‚ I will never forget what he did for South Africa and what he dreamed South Africa could be.

That is what I will carry with me as I continue to speak truth to power. I only found out about you three months ago‚ but thank you Kathy‚ for all that you have done.

* Emily Rizzo is on an SIT Study Abroad program in South Africa and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organisation that is supporting the next generation of international journalists.

- TMG Digital