The Ahmed Kathrada Collection

Michigan State University

Ahmed M. Kathrada is a veteran of the South African liberation struggle, one of the famous Rivonia trialists and a long-serving political prisoner on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor Maximum Prison. Kathrada was born of Indian immigrant parents on August 21, 1929, in Schweizer-Reneke in the then Western Transvaal. He became a political activist while still a teenager when he got involved in the activities of the Communist Party and the Transvaal Indian (Youth) Congress. In the 1950s, he participated in many campaigns of the Congress Alliance alongside ANC-leaders like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. He was one of the accused in the Treason Trial (1956 - 1961) against 156 leaders and activists of the liberation movement. After the banning of the ANC and other organizations in 1960, he continued his political activities in spite of detentions and increasingly more severe house arrest measures against him. He went underground in early 1963. In July of that year, he was arrested at the internal headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe at Rivonia. Although not a member of the military wing of the ANC himself, In October 1963 he became one of the accused in the Rivonia Trial, charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the state by violent means. At the end of the trial in June 1964, Kathrada together with Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Mlangeni, Motsoaledi, Mhlaba and Goldberg, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the next 18 year with his colleagues in the isolation section of the Maximum Security prison at Robben Island. In October 1982 he was moved to Pollsmoor Maximum Prison in Cape Town to join Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, and Andrew Mlangeni who had been moved there a few months before. With the exception of Mandela, the Rivonia Trialists were finally released in October 1989. While in jail at Robben Island and in Pollsmoor, Kathrada completed BA degree in Arts and Bibliography, as well as an Honors degree in History and African Politics. Following the unbannings of February 1990, Kathrada served in the ANC National Interim Leadership Committee and the Interim Leadership Group of the SACP. He gave up the latter position when he was elected onto the ANC National Executive Committee at its conference in July 1991. In 1994 Kathrada was elected as a National Assembly member for the ANC and in September 1994 he was appointed political advisor to President Mandela in the newly created post of Parliamentary Counselor.

The Ahmed M. Kathrada Collection consists of microform copies of his prison correspondence, personal notebooks and documents from his prison years, and the Pollsmoor Prison Library list. There is also a printed catalog available for the collection to assist the researcher. It is perhaps the most extensive personal collection of prison papers available for the apartheid years.

The largest part of the collection is Kathrada's prison correspondence, which dates from 1964 - 1989. In his 25 years in prison , Kathrada wrote some 950 letters and sent a large number of cards to family members and friends. He received some 850 letters and several hundred postcards. Most of these letters date from the 1970s and 1980s since in the early years at Robben Island the number of letters he was allowed to send or receive was extremely limited (only two a year in 1964 - 65 and four in 1966 - 67!). The collection contains more than 90% of his prison letters for the period of 1964 - 1974. A fairly large number of Kathrada's outgoing letters (i.e. the carbon copies he made) are missing as they were confiscated by the prison authorities at Robben Island and never returned to him.

Interference with prisoners' correspondence by the prison censors was a frequent and highly irritating feature of prison life, especially during the 1960s and 1970s at Robben Island. The prison letters of Kathrada show many examples of this censorship: incoming letters mutilated by scratching or even cutting out passages which were deemed "undesirable" or outgoing letters which had to be rewritten (sometimes more than once) for similar reasons. The letters that survived mostly deal with family and personal matters, general issues of a non-political nature, his studies, life in prison (although restricted), recollections from the years before 1964, etc. Kathrada and other political prisoners were not allowed to write to known political activists and censorship focused explicitly on political issues and information about the living conditions in jail, including the situation of his fellow prisoners. Yet the letters provide fascinating information on all these subjects; they especially give a rich and detailed picture of the person Ahmed Kathrada -- as a leading political prisoner of South Africa's main liberation movement, but above all as a thoughtful, caring, and compassionate human being, deeply committed to the universal struggle against racism and injustice.

The Ahmed M. Kathrada Collection is a gift from Mr. Kathrada. The original materials are held by the Mayibuye Centre for History and Culture at the University of Western Cape, which provided the microform copies, the printed catalog, and the preceding text.

The Ahmed Kathrada Collection
Special Collections Division
Michigan State University Libraries
East Lansing, MI 48824 - 1048

Inquiries about tours, the content, or access policies of the collections may be addressed to the Head of Special Collections at the address above.

Telephone: 517 - 355 - 3770; Fax: 517 - 353 - 5069.