I am deeply saddened this morning to learn of the passing of Ahmed Kathrada, a true hero of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. For those that don’t recognize the name, he was sentenced along with Nelson Mandela and others at the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964 to life in prison, even though he was not a member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.
If you saw the film Mandela, you saw Kathrada being portrayed, especially in the absurdity of being allowed long pants in prison as an Indian while Mandala, Sisulu and the others had to wear short pants as black prisoners.
One day after Mandela became President I attended a formal dinner in the Parliament of South Africa. Kathrada was there. After we ate, my fellow Parsee, Frene Ginwala, the Speaker, asked all the guests to follow her for a tour of the Parliament. I noticed Kathrada stayed in his seat and so I decided to as well.
When all the others left, I walked over to him, introduced myself and asked if I could ask him a question. I asked him if the jailers on Robben Island really didn’t know that papers written by them were being hidden in the cleaning closet or if they knew but let it happen. He was intrigued that a foreigner would know enough to ask such a detailed question. It began a conversation that has lasted in my memory to today.
Other than giving me a blast about the Canadian Government’s attitude towards a visa for him (a matter he was quite angry about), we had an extraordinary discussion about history, apartheid, what happened at Robben Island, the personalities of his colleagues and the future of South Africa.
At the end of it, as we sat completely alone in the large room in Parliament, he offered to give me a memento. There was no one to ask for anything so he wrote a note to me on a napkin in a red pen. I have always had a personal policy of not asking for anything from the historical figures I have met (I must be the only person on the planet who met Mandela but have no photograph with him) but that napkin, which was a very encouraging and personal message to me, I treasure.
Ahmed Kathrada came out of 26 years of prison a profoundly calm man. He was one of the very few, perhaps the only person, who never asked for anything after apartheid was extinguished for his years in prison. It is a remarkable lessen in humility and selflessness. It is a mark of a truly extraordinary man who understood the meaning of sacrifice with no other motive to achieve a goal.
By Firdaus Kharas, a social entrepreneur and media producer who uses video and animation to better the human condition around the world.