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 5 of 10

Life Without Children

Tell us about your goddaughter. Her name was Jamilla. When was she born and how old was she when you got out?

We were sentenced in June of 1964, when we arrived on Robben Island. Just a few weeks after we were sentenced, our lawyer came to see us (Advocate Braum Fischer). And he came with a message from my friend Kodgi to say that his wife was expected to give birth in December of that year, and would I please suggest some names. So I suggested a girl's name and a boy's name and Jamilla was born on December 1, 1964. As a teenager she started writing to me little childhood letters and that continued. And then she came to visit me.

And how old was she when she came to visit you for the first time?

Well, you know, children were not allowed to visit us. That was one of our greatest deprivations. Until they were 16. It was only in 1986 or so that, for the first time, they allowed children under 16 to visit us. So she had to wait until she was 16 to visit me.

And what were your feelings the first time you saw her?

Well, I cannot describe that feeling. Unfortunately, there was a glass barrier between us so we had to see each other through that glass and talk to each other that way.

In some of your writings, you emphasize that not having family and children around was one of the greatest sacrifices that those of you who were in prison endured.

Yes. Most prisoners would say that the greatest deprivation was the absence of children because it's an unnatural world without children. In 1982 we were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison --

This would be toward the end of your --

1982, we were transferred. And the last seven years we spent at Pollsmoor. Of course the president was further isolated from us. At a certain stage during our stay at Pollsmoor, we were moved to the women's prison where a whole section was set aside for us. And there we could hear children. Even children crying was a sensational experience for us. And the laughter of children, and the mothers looking after their children. We could just hear all that and it was a wonderful sensation. And that is when, after 23 years, a lawyer friend of mine had come to see me. And his little girl was with him and she wouldn't remain in the car. She was three. So the warders relented and allowed her. It was the first time I held a child after 23 years. It was quite an experience.

How does your mind work in dealing with the reality of being away from children? Is this an area where you say that this sacrifice is something one endures for the political struggle and in the end it balances out? Or you just don't think about it?

I suppose that everyone loves children, but the deprivation makes one's fondness for children even greater. Although the president would have done what he is doing now, one of the first things he did is to establish a children's fund to which he donates 1/3 of his salary every year, 1/3 of his salary toward this fund. It is also an indication of his tremendous affection toward children. And I suppose that applies to all of us.

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