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 3 of 10

Life as a Political Prisoner (part 1)

Tell us the circumstances under which you finally found yourself in prison. You were banned during this period, and you were finally put on trial.

After 1946 I was sentenced a number of times. But there were three major trials in which I was a co-accused with President Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In 1952 there was a trial of 20 Congress leaders in the Defiance Campaign, where this time the African and Indian Congresses jointly defied some racial laws and almost 10,000 volunteers were imprisoned. Then there was a marathon Treason Trial from 1956 - '61. Again I was co-accused with President Mandela and Walter Sisulu. And in the end, in 1961, there were 30 of us left and we were acquitted. And then, of course, the Rivonia trial. Again with Walter Sisulu and President Mandela and others. This time we were sentenced to life imprisonment, most of which we served on Robben Island together.

And how old were you when you were finally sent to Robben Island?

Thirty-four.

And you were released in what year?

Kathrada revisits Robben Island prison yard, fall of 1996 I was released in October of 1989.

So you were in prison how many years, all told?

26 years.

Let's talk a little about that because it's an extraordinary experience. How does one survive for such a long time? We'll go into particulars as we talk, but let me ask you that first.

Well, it's a state of mind that's important. It's also a sense of humor that is very important. We were doing illegal work with the organization that deployed us. Others were deployed to go into exile. Some of us were deployed to work underground in South Africa. So I had to break my house-arrest order to continue with my political work.

And banning meant, in essence, that you couldn't leave your house, you couldn't engage in political action.

That was the house-arrest order that we got in 1962. But prior to that, in 1954, we were already banned from taking part in any political activities or from attending gatherings. So these were renewed from time to time. But in 1962 came the house-arrest order, which confined us to our homes -- in my case, for 13 hours per day. We broke that order and went underground.

And in prison, you said, it was a state of mind.

What happens is that when you do political work, illegal political work, you know that sooner or later you are going to be arrested. So that when the arrests came, naturally they came with a shock, because you feel very secure after awhile, but afterwards you adjust to it. And we had been to prison before. So that's important. You go into prison with a positive state of mind. It's part of the struggle in another terrain. There are other aspects of life that made the life more tolerable. First of all was the knowledge that your comrades outside of prison were undergoing worse treatment, harassment. Many of them had been killed while under police detention. Others were killed in armed combat. Others were killed in letter bombs and parcel bombs. You are in prison, you are protected. And the knowledge that the struggle is continuing -- as important as that is, is the knowledge that the international community has united as never before in any struggle behind the struggle of our people in this country. All those factors kept us going. And the knowledge, of course, the confidence, that one day we were going to win.

You and your colleagues, this core group, were all imprisoned at Robben Island. Tell us a little about that, the physical situation that you were in.

Well, we were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. And the intention of the authorities, which they made clear in so many words, was to crush our spirits, to isolate us completely from the outside world. A senior officer said, "In five years time, nobody will know the name Nelson Mandela." The laws at the time, the prison conditions -- we were not allowed news of any sort, our letters were heavily censored, our visits were censored. We were allowed to write and receive one letter every six months. So they tried to isolate us from the world community. But we had to find ways and means of keeping ourselves informed and maintain contact with the outside world illegally, which we succeeded in doing.

Tell us how you did that.

Oh, we had to use various methods. Let me just give you one example. The autobiography of the president, A Long Walk to Freedom, was written in prison clandestinely. The process was that the president would write, he'd pass it on to me for my comments, I'd read it to Walter Sisulu for his comments, write them, hand them back. And then they were handed to two of our experts in small handwriting.

Experts within the prison?

Yes. And they reduced it to small handwriting. They constructed a photo album, which looked like it was factory-made, only it had very thick covers. So those 500 pages of the President's writing were reduced to about 50 to 60 pages. And those pages were on very thin rice paper and concealed in the covers. These had to be transported out of prison. In 1976, Mac Maharaj was leaving prison.

This was one of your colleagues?

Yes. He served 12 years. He was leaving prison. He transported them from prison outside. And, we got a signal from him as arranged that when it reaches London he should tell us, "It has reached." Significantly, Matt Maharaj, who had transported it out of prison, is now Minister of Transport.

Let's go back a minute. Did the prison unknowingly supply a pen?

Well, we were studying. You see, the manuscript we had buried in plastic containers -- it was discovered. And we were punished for that, the three or us -- Mandela, Sisulu , and myself. The punishment was because we had abused our study privileges by doing something other than studies. By using a ball-point and paper. They should have been used for study purposes and we used them for this. And we were deprived of our studies for that.

And what was the document written on? You said rice paper?

Rice paper is very thin, yes.

But this was paper that was provided for your studies?

Yes.

So this project, a collaborative effort, must have been one of the activities that made life meaningful in this incarceration.

Well, this was one of many projects. I mean, there were major debates among ourselves. And because our particular group of prisoners, about 20 - 25 of us, were isolated from the rest of the prison community, completely isolated, we had to maintain contact with our people inside the prison and with our people outside. So we had to devise ways and means of doing that. And also devise ways and means of keeping ourselves informed of news. We had to smuggle news, beg, borrow, steal, bribe, anything to keep ourselves informed. And we succeeded.

Next page: Life as a Political Prisoner (part 2)

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