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 8 of 10


In the end you were all vindicated, this belief in yourself. Which leads me to a question. What were your feelings when you realized that you actually were free? I know you believed that you one day would be free and that the struggle would be worth something.

They never tell you beforehand. In our case, on the 10th of October, 1989, President DeKlerk, who was president at the time, announced on television that the following eight people would be released. They didn't say when. They then transferred us to Johannesburg. In Johannesburg Prison they never told us when. On a Saturday night, October 14th, they came to us and said, "We have just received a fax to say that you are going to be released tomorrow, Sunday." Our first question was, "What is a fax?" We didn't know what a fax is. So, although the cultural shock was lessened when they allowed us television in 1986 after 22 or 23 years in prison, the cultural shock was lessened by the television, video, and newspapers which were allowed. But we never ever could, sort of, get used to everything that came new. I had a little hobby where I wrote down notes of new things and I filled eight pages of it. Even now I come across things that are new to me.

So it would be fair to say that, in material things, you may have been like Rip Van Winkle, asleep or unaware. But in matters of the spirit you were very much alive, in terms of the human contact within the prison, and because of the information system you had set up.

Yes, that would be true. That would be very true, that material deprivations, material ignorance was there. But the comradeship, the camaraderie, the human relationships, they were tremendous. I mean, those were lasting. There's a special type of relationship one cements and strengthens in prison. Last year we had a reunion of 1250 ex-prisoners. It took place on Robben Island. And it was just too emotional to see the close bonds, which were not confined to organization, they thrust across the spectrum as political prisoners.

And you are now taking a leadership role in efforts to provide for former prisoners. You've been specially designated by President Mandela. Tell us a little about the fund which you're leading.

At this reunion that took place last year, when 1250 of us were present, while it was a very joyous occasion, it was marred by the presence of some ex-prisoners, colleagues, who came in tatters, literally, with a string for a belt. Some of them came hungry. Not all of them, but a sizable number. Some on wheelchairs, one without a wheelchair -- he was carried. And the day after the reunion, we elected a committee of ex-political prisoners of which I am chairperson. Two months ago, President Mandela launched a fund to bring about some relief for ex-political prisoners. The fund was launched at a premier of the film "Mandela," which was made by Jonathan Demme from L.A. And that was the world premier. It is going to be shown in L.A. and other places as well, again in aid of political prisoners. So our mission here is part of what President Mandela launched, and we come here with his blessings to collect funds for ex-political prisoners. We are in a better position, some of us being in Parliament and so forth, some in the Cabinet. But quite a number are not, they are absolutely destitute.

And is there a way that people who see this or read the transcript of this interview can help? We can advertise an address, if people want to send funds.

Yes, fortunately for us there is an organization based in L.A. called Artists for a New South Africa (9000 West Washington Boulevard, 2nd Floor, Culver City, CA 90232; telephone 310-204-1748, fax 310-815-0457). They've been very, very helpful to us in many respects. Kathrada and Mandela shaking hands in front of a doorway They've provided thousands and tens of thousands of books for the children there. And here they are our hosts. And they have helped organize fundraising events in about seven cities here, which we are attending.

Let's talk about the experience that you and President Mandela and others have had, to move from imprisonment, to experience freedom, and then to take the reins of power. Was it easier than it might seem because of the political work that you were doing?

We moved into it as novices, because we were never allowed to vote. The first time in my life that I saw what a ballot paper looks like was before our election, on a visit to Germany to observe an election there. That was the first time I saw what a ballot paper looks like, and that applies to most of us. So when we were elected, it was a completely new experience to us. It still is new. I mean, many of us have not yet adjusted from struggle to governance, including myself. Very often we make our speeches in Parliament as if we are still in the struggle days. The adjustment takes a little time. But fortunately for us, we have got a very, very able team in the Cabinet. Although they are novices, they have adjusted quickly to their responsibilities and almost all of them are doing very well. Of course the President remains an inspiration to us, as President of the country, maintaining the closest contact with the Cabinet and Parliamentarians, and he continues to inspire us.

In addition to developing political skills even while you were in prison, because what you've just described is really building a political community, building human relations, and so on, I sense that you come out of prison with a sense of wonder about certain things, almost childlike. You mention Mandela's and your concern for children. You mention just now the experience of seeing and being able to vote. It must be quite an emotional thing for you to see for the first time things that those of us on the outside just take for granted.

Well, when it comes to the politics of it, just to give you an example, the elections in 1994 where tens of thousands, millions of our people queued up for hours and hours and hours. Now when I voted, I was also in a long queue. The police sent a bomb alert because of a phone call they had received. Not one person was prepared to leave. It was the first time in their lives they were voting, and they said nothing is going to scare them from voting. And they voted. So there was that determination that this was what we had been deprived of all of our lives, and now that we have fought and won this very right to vote, nothing is going to keep us away from the polls. And all South Africa had that experience. People voted in their millions and brought the ANC to power.

So it's as if people from all over the world can look to South Africa and say, this is the experience of having freedom for the first time and actually using it and doing something with it.

Well, we are not so presumptuous as to advise people how to go about their struggles, but we can relay to them what our experience has been, during the negotiation stage, the compromises we had to go through in drawing the new constitution, and where we are today. We can speak about it but we cannot advise people what to do.

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