Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela and later served as a leader and a voice of conscience of the African National Congress, died March 28 at a hospital in Johannesburg. He was 87.
His nonprofit organization, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, announced his death. He had recently undergone surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain.
The son of Indian immigrants, Mr. Kathrada dropped out of school as a teenager in the 1940s to devote himself to the liberation struggle — first for South Africa’s marginalized Indian population, and then, joining forces with Mandela, for the country as a whole.
The two met in the mid-1940s, shortly before the white-supremacist National Party began formalizing rules that dictated where black Africans, mixed-race “coloured,” whites and “Asians” such as Mr. Kathrada could live or work.
When Mandela was starting out, he wasn’t very interested in allying with people of other races because he felt it was an African struggle. Mandela’s views changed, he said, in part by seeing people such as Kathrada risk jail time or worse for acts of civil disobedience.
Beginning with his arrest for protesting the “Ghetto Act” of 1946, which restricted the rights of Indians to own land, Ahmed Kathrada was at or near the centre of seemingly every major anti-apartheid action of the era, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign that he helped organize with Mandela and other leaders of the
ANC and its Indian counterpart, the South African Indian Congress.
After 69 black protesters were shot by police officers in the northern city of Sharpeville in 1960, the ANC, outlawed and branded a terrorist organization, responded by launching a wave of bombings directed at government property.
On July 11, 1963, Kathrada and about a dozen other ANC leaders were swept up in a police raid on the organization’s secret headquarters, a farmhouse in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, and charged with 221 acts of sabotage for conspiring to “ferment violent revolution.”
The trial riveted the nation, in part because of a three-hour courtroom speech by Mandela, who was already in prison but faced new charges linked to alleged ANC bomb plans found at the Rivonia farmhouse. He called for “a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony . . . an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Instead of receiving death sentences, Mandela, Kathrada, ANC deputy Walter Sisulu and six others were sentenced to life in prison.
Kathrada spent 18 years at Robben Island, an Alcatraz-like compound off the coast of Cape Town, and eight more at nearby Pollsmoor Prison. Robben, he told the NPR program “Here & Now” in 2013, “was a microcosm of apartheid as it existed outside.” Performing forced labor at a limestone quarry on the island for about a decade, he was granted an outfit of long pants and socks. Black inmates such as Mandela were allowed to wear only short pants, and even in the winter were forced to work without socks.
Despite the hardship, Kathrada used his prison time as a political training ground, discussing organizing techniques with Sisulu, with whom he shared a cell for several years, and helping Mandela draft and then smuggle his memoirs to the outside world. Supported by money from his family, Kathrada also completed four bachelor’s degrees in history and African politics.
“The prison was also a place of relative safety. Unlike on the mainland, he said, “no policeman could come to Robben Island and start shooting at us. . . . Others, people we knew closely, [were] tortured to death, shot, assassinated. We were safe.”
Kathrada was released in 1989, after negotiations that resulted in the official recognition of the ANC and the country’s first open elections. Kathrada was elected to South Africa’s Parliament in 1994 and served five years as parliamentary counselor to Mandela, who was elected president.
He expressed little bitterness about his prison sentence, or about apartheid more generally, and later became a sort of diplomatic tour guide on Robben Island, showing foreign dignitaries his cell at the prison.