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 6 of 10

Keys to Survival

You mentioned religious faith -- that you all continued to go to the services. How important was that, and in what ways was it important to your survival?

It was very important. First of all, just the contact with people other than warders was important itself. But, more important was they type of person who came to us, the clergymen, who were such fine human beings -- so sympathetic, so compassionate. With empathy for what we were in for. Their sermons (of course the sermons were also restricted), but within the restrictions they managed to convey to us the tremendous support that people had for us. Some of them, of course, would go further and slip in some news to us from time to time. But it was very important spiritually for us to attend any of these services and we did, regardless of the religion or denomination.

Education was also important. When you went into prison you did not have the opportunity to obtain degrees.

I went in with a Matric. In prison was the first time that I really did a university education. That helped immensely. I, if I may be a bit immodest, I was the first person on Robben Island to have a Bachelor's degree. I'm not now talking of people who already had come in with degrees, but I was the first one to have started a degree course and completed it. They would not allow me to go further than that. They allowed me eventually to do another Bachelor's degree, which I did. Again they would not allow me to go further. But after some years, they allowed me to do an honors degree. After I completed that I wanted to do a Master's. They wouldn't allow me. They allowed me to do another honors degree. So I did four degrees.

And what was the focus of your studies?

Eventually, I did an honors in African Politics and an honors in History. I did a dissertation, for instance, on the radicalization of black politics in South Africa. So I concentrated quite a bit on liberation history. And it was an eye-opener to me because outside we were so busy with the political work that we neglected knowledge about our own history.

So you began studying and gathering information about your various movements?

Oh yes. You see, I was in the fortunate position (we all were), we had Walter Sisulu, who was Secretary General of the African National Congress before the ANC was banned. Now there was no person in the world who was as knowledgeable about the history of the African National Congress as he is. And it wasn't written anywhere. So in prison as part of our education, that is, the African National Congress, everyone who came into our section of prison had to go through a certain syllabus. And they had to start off with Walter Sisulu on the African National Congress. We would then write this up and smuggle it to our colleagues in the other sections as part of our political activities.

So he would actually conduct lectures?

Yes, in small groups of three while we were at work. We would write that up and smuggle it to the other sections and they'd distribute it.

So you created a very viable dynamic political organism that was both a support group and an information-gathering tool that elevated the consciousness of your political movement in addition to helping you survive.

I can only talk of the African National Congress. There were other organizations naturally, but I was a member of the African National Congress. And what we did, right from the start, is to set up a congress structure, illegally naturally, within prison, with the aim of continuing our political work, maintaining discipline, political education, and so forth. So right from the start we did that, and continued right to the end.

As a political activist, what did you learn from this experience that was different from what you learned building a political community outside the prison wall?

Well prison is, in many ways, a university. You have to humble yourself because you are thrust into a community, most of whom you don't even know. They may belong to the same organization but they come from various parts of the country. So, while you're trying to retain your individuality, you have to be conscious that you belong to a larger social group. And you have to adjust to that. So it's a learning experience. You have to be very humble, very modest, and submerge your personal feelings in the interests of the wider community. That in itself is quite a thing. Generally, prison teaches you discipline, prison teaches you the advantage of physical work. Now, none of us had done manual labor (I'm not talking about small work), but we were made to work with picks and shovels. We didn't think it demeaning because they had identified that hard labor as a method of crushing us. And we said, "That is a challenge, and we are not going to allow ourselves to be defeated there." Anything -- we had decided that anything that impinges on our dignity as human beings, we are not going to allow them to do. And many of us were punished as a result. So right from the beginning, it was part of the same fight against apartheid -- to retain our dignity as human beings.

So it was an intense struggle about what this experience would mean, and your determination individually and as a group to prevail as part of the great political struggle.

That's right. We saw this as a challenge. Now unlike outside prison, where you could hold your little meetings in motorcars or private homes without being caught, in prison you are under surveillance for 24 hours. At night you had warders walking up and down. You dare not allow any weakness. You're not going to cave in in any way and give the enemy the satisfaction of knowing he has crushed you. So individually and collectively we had to encourage each other to maintain our spirits. And we succeeded. We defeated them. We managed to humanize many of them.

What is the lesson of this experience for other kinds of survival, not just political survival, do you think?

Well, the belief in the correctness of what you are doing is absolutely essential. All of us who were in the struggle and who were jailed were people who had already been activists. We knew the dangers we were facing. We believed in it. We were confident. We knew that one day we were going to win. That was absolutely essential, the sincerity on which you hang your beliefs.

Next page: Mandela and Sisulu as Leaders

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