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 4 of 10

Life as a Political Prisoner (part 2)

So in a sense, this concerted effort to create a community among your fellow prisoners was exactly what the South Africans thought they were denying you by putting you in prison.

Well that was their biggest mistake, but it was a Catch-22 situation for them. When we arrived on Robben Island, we were mixed with criminals, or common-law prisoners, as we called them. They placed the criminals there for the purpose of spying on us, making our lives difficult. But what happened, in fact, was that we politicized them. So they removed the criminals from us. And they kept only the politicals together. So they had the choice of either splitting us into non-political prisons and we politicize the others, or keeping us together. So they chose to keep us together as political prisoners.

How did you get information from the outside world? I would imagine that, in addition to projects like this, it was very important for you to know what was happening in the movement, what was happening in the international community in terms of responding to events in South Africa, and so on.

Again, we had to devise innovative methods. But as I said, we'd beg, borrow, steal, bribe, blackmail, anything. If I may give you an amusing but very relevant method of how we succeeded on one occasion: we were regular church-goers -- Christian, Hindu, Muslim, any. The president encouraged us to attend all services, and we did. And Brother September was a pastor who was coming regularly. And one Sunday, one of the prisoners asked Pastor September whether he, the prisoner, could lead a prayer. And of course the pastor was very enthusiastic about it. And at a certain stage, the prisoner asked the congregation to close their eyes, which we all did, and another prisoner tiptoed to Pastor September's suitcase, opened it, retrieved the Sunday Times, closed it. And we had today's news today. So as I say, we used any method to get news and we kept ourselves informed. Quite well informed.

Tell me about your contacts with the outside world with regard to personal correspondence. Did you keep abreast of what was happening to family and friends when you were in prison?

They made it very difficult. We were allowed to write one letter and receive one visit every six months. Kathrada in an open prison cell That's for the first few years. And then it became one in three months. And then it improved. But it was restricted to what they described as "family matters," so that the correspondence had to be very, very restricted. We were restricted to 500 words and if you exceeded 500 words sometimes they'd literally cut it with a scissors or blacken it out, in addition to blacking out whatever they considered undesirable. I received a letter in November, 1964, which was not given to me. It came from my brother. I got that letter 18 years later when I was transferred to a prison in Cape Town, Pollsmoor Prison, where five of us were transferred. The objectionable part, which they considered, was a sentence which said, "There has been a change of government in Britain: Wilson and the Labour Party have now come in to power." That was considered news that should be withheld from us. This is an indication of how strict the censorship was. So we just had to keep ourselves informed. And we succeeded. We were punished several times when we were caught. But we managed, because as politicians we had to keep ourselves informed. We also developed codes. I had classic examples of letters coming in with huge windows cut out. What they left in was the coded stuff, which is what we wanted. What they cut out we don't know and it was not important. But all the coded stuff which gave us the news we wanted was left inside.

And were they just concerned about what they considered to be political stuff? Or were they trying also to deny you personal news about family that might make you feel good?

They did try to crush our spirits. For instance, President Mandela ... now we were not allowed newspapers, but every time there was a problem and his wife was arrested or banned or banished, they would cut out that little piece and leave it in his cell while we were at work. And that's the type of thing they did use from time to time.

I guess an experience like that would make you feel awfully helpless.

It does. It does. But fortunately, again, we had the benefit of the presence of people like Mandela, Sisulu, who are elderly people. And when they saw that a certain prisoner's spirit was at a low ebb, they'd come and console them.

So you would see each other every day?

Oh yes. We were working together. At night we were locked up in separate cells. There was no communication, we were not allowed. But during the day we were working together with picks and shovels at a quarry, a lime quarry. That's when we were able to talk.

Can you give me a specific example when you were counseled by President Mandela, or one of your colleagues, because of an experience you were going through personally?

No, fortunately for me I did not experience that, though some of my colleagues did. Very few did, and they were always there. And President Mandela, being a lawyer, he also had to act as a lawyer giving legal advice. Now that again, because we were separated from the rest of our colleagues who were kept in the general cells, they'd smuggle themselves in or they'd smuggle in a letter for legal advice. Because there were social problems like divorces and family problems, and so forth. And he had to constantly be advising them.

At the time of your release there was a story in the Star about the apartment that your friends kept that had been your home before you went into prison. Tell us a little about that. That loss of a sense of place, and your feelings about the fact that this apartment was kept.

Well, what had happened is that I was given about 3 - 4 hours' notice to leave my apartment, to leave everything, and I had stayed there for about 17 or 18 years. To leave everything and go underground. So this friend of mine happened to be there and I called him and told him, "Now please keep this flat, it's yours." Of course it's a rented flat. And I went to prison. But some years later I got news from visitors and from this young lady who told me that the flat is being kept for me. And of course I said thank you very much, but there was no hope of release. So I forgot about it. This continued until we were released. My friend came to see me with the same message in prison that, "Look, the flat is yours, we are keeping it for you." When I came out, the first thing he did is come to me and he said, "We'll move out the moment you want this flat." I said, "I've got a flat now. I don't need it, but if you're going to leave, there is a sentimental attachment; I'd like to have it back." And he moved out. But before I moved in, this young lady, who was my godchild, Jamilla, ordered her father not to allow me into the flat until she says it's ready. And, after about two weeks I was allowed in only to find that she had furnished that flat with new furniture. Everything. Fridge ... the lot. And that was a tremendous gesture.

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