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 7 of 10

Mandela and Sisulu as Leaders

Tell us a little about the men you were incarcerated with -- President Mandela, whom you were close to and who was there with you. Give us some insights that emerged from this unique experience that you had with him.

Well, when you talk about President Mandela, you cannot leave out Walter Sisulu. They complement each other. They are two different characters but you cannot talk about the one without the other. President Mandela was highly respected, admired. But Walter Sisulu was a father figure, loved as a father he is loved. Across the political spectrum, in prison everybody would regard him as a father. Now these are wonderful human beings. For instance, I'll give you an example or two.

In 1974 there was an epidemic of flu where most of us collapsed. It was so serious that we couldn't really get up and we were sleeping on the ground, of course. Now, President Mandela was one of three people who did not succumb to this flu. Our cells did not have flush toilets. We had buckets. President Mandela and the three others, every morning, would go from cell to cell, take our toilet buckets, empty them, clean them, bring them back, bring us water, bring us food -- whatever food we could eat. Mandela and Kathrada at Robben Island, fall of 1996 That was an example.

Then, on a more pleasant level, I had a severe back problem and for a week they put me under traction. Now they did not take me to a hospital, they put me in a cell next door under traction. That immobilized me for ten days. President Mandela and one or two other friends made it their duty to come and sit with me, to remove the toilet, to wash me, to feed me. That's the type of thing. He never asked for any favors. Now both these gentlemen, they could have asked for exemption from work on grounds of age; they never did. They could have asked for exemption from hunger-strikes (and we had many hunger-strikes in prison). They never did. They never accepted anything that would have placed them above or away from the rest of us. They treated themselves as ordinary prisoners. Their families were under constant harassment, but they never allowed their personal problems to cloud what they considered their duty toward the fellow prisoners. In that sense, they were absolutely wonderful human beings, very caring for other people. And that is now reflected when President Mandela becomes president of the country.

So it doesn't surprise you at all, the universal acclaim with which he is held throughout the world?

It is surprising the extent to which he is revered throughout the world. We have now gotten used to it, naturally, but it was absolutely amazing.

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