Ahmed Kathrada Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Alongside Nelson Mandela: Reminiscences of a former political prisoner under Apartheid; Conversation with Ahmed Kathrada, 11/8/96 by Harry Kriesler

Photo by S. Beth Atkin

Page 2 of 10

Political Career

And what age are we talking about, when you could say you became a political person? Maybe very, very young?

Well, I started distributing leaflets at the age of eleven or twelve, and putting up posters and writing slogans. The elder people asked us to do that, and we thought it was exciting to do it.

Gandhi had done some of his first political struggle in South Africa. Were you influenced by his story? Was it well known in the Asian community?

Oh yes. Well, not only in the Asian community, in the liberation struggle itself. Not only in South Africa, but in other parts of the world, where organizations adopted his methods -- not necessarily his philosophy. And that's what has happened in South Africa. The method of passive resistance to racial laws -- in 1946, for instance, the then-government (which was not the nationalist government, incidentally, it was the government of the so-called "world statesman" General Smuts) introduced another one of a very harsh legislation against Indians' ownership and occupation of land. It further tightened restrictions. And the Indian Congress, at that time, decided to call upon volunteers to defy that law. Now that meant that volunteers had to travel to Durban, to an identified place which was reserved for whites only, and to occupy it. And court imprisonment. So I was about just over seventeen when I also became a volunteer, occupied that piece of land, and that was my first experience with prison. At the age of seventeen, I served a month's imprisonment for defying that law.

And you fell into leadership roles in these organizations?

Well, after some time, in the youth organizations, yes. And then, of course, I graduated to a senior organization.

And these were, in essence, organizations of the Indian community.

We had congress organizations among the Indian community, the African National Congress. Then later on the coloured congress, and later on we had a white congress. But eventually the ANC opened its doors to everybody and we all became members of the ANC. But that was many years later.

We in the United States are re-learning how communities come to live with each other. So at this age you must have had a number of experiences of dealing with different ethnic communities that had to coalesce around these political issues. Tell us a little about some of your early experiences of dealing with the black congress and the congress of the colored people.

I was in a fortunate position. I came from a very religious family, so that from childhood we were taught to respect all people as equals. And because I could not go to school in Schweizer-Reneke, this little rural area where I was born, my father got the principal of the African school to come in the afternoons and teach me until the age of eight. So already we were respecting him as a teacher. And I did not have to re-learn anything when I came to Johannesburg. We automatically mixed when we came across people of other race groups. It was just a natural thing. Because we grew up not only with Africans, but with little white kids as well. So it was not difficult at all to adjust.

Next page: Life as a Political Prisoner

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