Ahmed Kathrada (1929-2017): Nelson Mandela's prison mate was a quiet man and a towering figure

The anti-Apartheid leader, born to Indian immigrant parents, died on Tuesday in Johannesburg at the age of 87.

Ahmed bhai, as we called him, and Kathy, as his comrades from the anti-apartheid movement called him, was not “just a friend” of Nelson Mandela’s. He was much more. He was a significant part of the freedom struggle in South Africa and, as has been mentioned in obituaries following his death on Tuesday, he went to jail fighting for the rights of Indians in that country. The other part of the story of Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, what bonded them for life, was that they shared a prison cell on Robben Island,​ where the freedom fighters were imprisoned and put to hard labour breaking stones.

​There are interesting stories about this sharing of the prison cell. The cells were very small, barely 6 foot square, with a little vent right up ​with some bars. There was one cot. Why one cot for two people?

Indians were given a slightly better deal than black inmates. So, while Mandela could only sleep on a mattress on the floor, Kathrada had a cot. Similarly, there was another subtle discrimination in the kind of plates they were given. The black inmates ate from small tin plates while the Indian prisoners received proper plates. The tin plates later became precious commodity, trophies. And I was given one at a farewell party by a freedom fighter as an honour.

The Robben Island tin plate. (Image credit: Devaki Jain)
The Robben Island tin plate. (Image credit: Devaki Jain)

Blacks wore shorts, or what we call khaki drawers, while the Indians and whites could wear trousers. All this happened inside that small cell – two men jailed together but treated differently. Apartheid had to be seen close, as we did, to know how amazingly terrifying and vicious it was.

​Despite all these attempts at separating the races and creating conflict, Ahmed bhai and Mandela bonded. Ahmed bhai was a calm person who could actually educate Mandela. He was a councillor with immense knowledge and Mandela often acknowledged what a great role Ahmed bhai played in enabling him to survive those 26 years (together in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island) and grow by leaps and bounds as a leader.

Far from the crowd

Post-liberation, while Ahmed bhai was given an important role close to the president [Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994], his innate modesty and sense of self-respect inhibited him from the kind of rush that was taking place among others who came out of Robben Island. Everybody wanted a piece of the cake; the distribution of loaves and fish after the arrival of the new government was notorious for its crudity. Ahmed bhai kept himself away from all that.

Ahmed chai and Barbara Hogan, his partner and a practising lawyer, became good friends of my husband Lakshmi [LC Jain, who was the Indian High Commissioner to South Africa in the last year of Mandela’s presidency in 1999] and me when we were in South Africa. He was the one who was to take us to Robben Island, he was the one who introduced us to other great freedom fighters and people from the Indian community who had enabled the freedom struggle. We met Ismail Meer, Mandela’s lawyer, again an Indian, and his wife Fatima Meer, who was equally important in Mandela’s life as she was close to Winnie [Mandela’s wife] and was godmother to her children.

The decline of the African National Congress, the kind of crudity and dog fights that have been taking place for almost all of the last 17 years, that is since Mandela retired from the presidency (in June 1999), hurt people like Ahmed bhai deeply. There was nothing else he would discuss when we met. But one thing that seems to have given them a kind of solace, bitter as it was, was when Lakshmi and I described how the Indian National Congress had blemished itself in ways very similar to how the African National Congress was blemishing itself. The fight for loaves and fish and the undermining of chosen leaders. The breakdown of the political ethic that was happening in the African National Congress was no different from what happened to the Congress party over the decades.

He kept away from these struggles and factionalism, but you could feel his angst as you talked to him. In fact, in his condolence mail to me, when Lakshmi passed away, he wrote, among other things, “We will always remember with appreciation and joy the years of his stay in South Africa. However, it was his knowledge about India’s freedom-struggle that made an indelible impact on our minds.”

I met them several times in the 16 years that have passed since Lakshmi and I left South Africa, due to my several visits to that country, the last of which was in 2014. Barbara and he invited me to their flat for tea and we talked, as always, about what was happening in South Africa and then lamented on what was happening in India. What was happening in the sense of the slow withering away of the spirit of sacrifice and honesty in the freedom party or the parties that work towards the freedom of the country.

A very modest and a quiet man. He and Barbara never made a big splash about their role – an admirable quality in today’s time. Rest in peace Ahmed bhai, you have served your country and the world very well.

Devaki Jain is an economist and writer.

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