A tribute to Ahmed Kathrada
We are called upon to unite the movement
Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe Ahmed Kathrada was a humble freedom fighter and a remarkable human being, a person of extraordinary courage and boundless compassion. Like others of his generation, he was shaped both by the tumultuous epoch through which he lived and the popular movement to which he belonged. But Kathy also had intrinsic integrity, a readiness to serve others and a willingness to sacrifice his own well-being for the good of others.
He was made to suffer for his convictions. He entered prison for the first time at the age of 17. He was banned and placed under house arrest. Like his fellow Rivonia trialists, he spent nearly three decades in the harsh, unforgiving isolation of an apartheid prison cell.
Despite all that he endured and witnessed, he harboured no bitterness. He understood the destructive power of hate, how it cripples society and corrodes the soul. He had seen its malignant effect at close quarters – in the streets of Schweizer-Reneke, among the bones of Auschwitz, in the slums of Johannesburg, behind the walls of Robben Island.
He also understood the awesome power of reconciliation, how human solidarity could overcome prejudice and intolerance, and how compassion could overcome indifference. He was convinced that the human impulse to love, respect and cherish is infinitely more powerful and abiding than the narrow chauvinism that disfigured our society.
This conviction informed not only his ideological outlook and his political activism, it also informed his character, demeanour and the way he treated people. He was unflinching in his determination to end racism in all its forms and manifestations. He understood that as much as we needed to work with determination to eradicate the huge material inequality in our society – between black and white, between men and women, between rural and urban – we also needed to change the attitudes that have kept our people apart.
In the time since his passing we have missed Ahmed Kathrada’s clear and consistent moral voice. Throughout his life he remained true to his principles. This required not only that he challenge with all his being the iniquities of the colonial legacy and the apartheid reality – it also meant, at times, that he confront his own comrades.
In a life full of difficult choices, we know that his decision to publicly call on President Jacob Zuma to resign his office was one of the most difficult and painful he had to make. He made the call not out of anger, nor of conceit, but out of a sincere concern for the state of the movement and the needs of the country.
He made the call because, as a loyal and disciplined ANC member, he understood that he was a custodian of the values and practices of the movement to which he had dedicated 75 years of his life. He understood that he had a responsibility – like all of us do – to defend the unity, integrity and principles of the organisation.
It is a matter of deep regret to those of us within the leadership of the movement that, during his final months, Cde Kathy should have harboured such grave concerns about the state of the ANC and the direction of the country. He was concerned that the values that had sustained the movement for more than a century were under threat. The spirit of sacrifice and selfless struggle was being replaced by the unrelenting pursuit of influence and material reward.
The interests of the people were being subordinated to the interests of a few. He worried about the unity and coherence of the movement. He worried about the ability of the movement to continue to unite all South Africans in the struggle for freedom from ignorance, want and hunger.
As we gathered at the ANC’s National Policy Conference earlier this month, we reflected on the many faultlines within our movement. We reflected on organisational weaknesses and failures of leadership. We discussed the corrosive effects of power and money. Perhaps for the first time, the ANC confronted the reality of a concerted effort to capture key institutions of the state and of our movement.
The Policy Conference did not solve these problems, but it has established a firm platform for the movement to correct its mistakes, to renew itself and to build unity grounded on principle. The ANC has embarked on a journey of renewal. It has resolved to work with diligence and humility to regain the confidence of the many people who have grown disenchanted and disillusioned.
We must recognise that many individuals and organisations that were once close to the ANC have moved away, concerned about the state of the movement and the country, convinced that the ANC does not have the means to correct itself.
Some, including the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, are bringing together various groupings to establish a broad front against state capture and corruption. As the ANC we need to have the political maturity to recognise that efforts to establish such a front is a signal of our shortcomings. We need to engage meaningfully with the various forces that feel alienated, so that we can re-establish relationships based on principle and a clear value system.
This is not the time to give up on the ANC: now is the time for all of the forces that have been part of the democratic movement to come together again and work with the ANC to confront these problems. We will not be able to decisively end state capture or comprehensively root out corruption unless we are united. We need to channel our anger and pain and to focus our every effort on our ultimate objective – the unity of our movement and our country, the restoration of our values and the freedom of our people.
We know that despite the grave misgivings he had towards the end of his life, Ahmed Kathrada remained hopeful. He knew the great difficulties our movement has withstood over many decades.
He was aware that within our movement and among our people are women and men of conviction, integrity and courage, who are committed to selflessly serve the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. They are prepared to organise, to mobilise, to conscientise. They are prepared to confront vested interests, expose misdeeds, rebuild democratic structures and respond to the cries of our people. These are the cadres who, above all else, will work together for the unity of our movement and the renewal of its values.
Cde Kathy remained hopeful because he knew that there would be a new dawn for the ANC. He knew that our people are resilient, engaged and militant. He knew they would not surrender their hard-won gains. He knew they would continue to strive together – sparing neither strength nor courage – until they have achieved their freedom.
We are called upon now to prove ourselves worthy of his trust and confidence. We are expected to act now to unite the movement, unite the people and forge a social compact for meaningful economic and social change.
Extract from tribute by Cyril Ramaphosa to Isithwalandwe Ahmed Kathrada, Schweizer-Reneke, 22 July 2017