Ahmed Kathrada and the Vaal

The late Mr Ahmed Kathrada.


Yunus Chamda writing in his personal capacity:
Ahmed Kathrada’s passing away on 28 March 2017 was a significant moment in South African history. Kathy’s funeral itself, and the political nuances, some subtle and others overt, at the funeral reflected the life of a man who was mild and gentle, and yet equally unflinching and courageous. After Kathy’s release from prison in 1989, I was very fortunate to have had frequent contact with him, and after my appointment to the Board of the Kathrada Foundation, our contact was very regular until the very end. I always felt the need to use my association and friendship with Uncle Kathy, as a means to giving as many people of the Vaal access to him whenever possible. Between 1994 and 2017, Kathy made numerous visits to the Vaal to attend various events, to make social visits to family and friends, and for formalities such as receiving the Freedom of Sedibeng in January 2016.

Shortly after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, it was Kathy that introduced me to Madiba in Lenasia. My standout memory of the early encounters with Kathy was during a meeting with the late Feroza Adams at the ANC HQ at Shell House in the early 90’s. A member of the public called Shell House, and the call was put through to Kathy. As we left his office for our meeting, he was busy engaging the caller in a very patient and dignified way even though the caller was being hostile. We returned to his office over an hour later. Kathy was still on the phone patiently explaining the idea of a non-racial and democratic society! I guess 27 years in prison does alter ones perception of time.

During the signing ceremony of the South African Constitution in Sharpeville on 10 December 1996, we had announced that Madiba will be awarded the Freedom of the Vaal. The arrangement was that he would come back to receive the award. By early 1999, there was no confirmation of when this was to happen. Then I received a letter from the Presidency informing us that due to Madiba’s term coming to an end, and the huge demands on his diary, that it was not possible for him to come to the Vaal to receive the Freedom Award. Instead it was to be handed over to Mandela in Pretoria. Without my asking, Kathy intervened, and suddenly we had a date from the Presidency and the Award happened on 25 May 1999 at Kwa-Masiza stadium. On the day itself I realised that I had not invited Kathy to the event. I always said I must apologise for the oversight, but never got to do it.

Kathy was often asked what did he miss the most while on Robben Island. He always said, that he missed children more than anything else. Every opportunity he had to be with little children was special to Kathy. He loved having them on his lap. [pic 02 below] Whenever he was at my home, we plonked the little ones onto his lap and he loved it. He loved his visit to the Roshnee Pre School on 09 June 2011 [pic 03]. He also placed great emphasis on Youth Development and the Kathrada Foundation has been running several Youth Development Programmes since its inception. Young people from the Vaal such as Flora Ramokgopa, Lerato Dlamini, Nicolene Tamana and many others others have been participating in the Kathrada Foundation Youth programme. [pic 04]

The Kathrada Foundation was established 9 years ago. It took a group of us almost two years to convince Kathy to establish the Foundation in his name. He repeatedly rejected the idea. He only succumbed once we made it clear that the Foundation would be about promoting non-racialism and will be as much about the people he worked with in the struggle, than about him as an individual. The Foundation was established in 2008 and Cyril Ramaphosa was the first Chair of the Board of Trustees. [pic 05]

During my term as the Municipal Manager at Sedibeng, we arranged to take the Management team to Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia which is now a heritage museum. On 08 June 2010 Kathy agreed to personally give us the guided tour of Liliesleaf . [pic 06] Fellow Robben Island prisoner Laloo Chiba agreed to arrange a visit to Robben Island for the Chamda/Saloojee family. Laloo ‘instructed’ Kathy to join us. You couldn’t get better tour guides of Robben Island than Kathrada & Chiba. We assembled a coffee table book with the photographs of the tour. Kathy contributed a personal, handwritten message to the book. When I collected the note at his flat in Killarney, he had written 3 drafts and he wanted know if it was Ok and if I’m not happy with his final version, he would re-write it! That was Kathrada, ever so concerned and considerate.
In 2015 when the Sedibeng District Council resolved to Award the Freedom of Sedibeng to the remaining survivors of the Rivonia Trial, Andrew Mlangeni, Dennis Goldberg and Ahmed Kathrada, we agreed to inform each of them in person. We visited Andrew Mlangeni at his home in Soweto. I met with Dennis Goldberg at his home in Hout Bay. Mayor Modisakeng and I visited Kathy at his flat in Cape Town. [pic 07] Eddie Daniels, another ex-Robben Islander was at the flat when we arrived. Kathy had a great sense of humour and he teased everyone all the time. At the flat he kept moaning that a framed photograph of himself with Bill Clinton kept going missing. He wanted me to please print him another copy. He blamed his wife, Barbra Hogan for the missing frame… then he quipped, that with Eddie Daniels around anything could go missing. Mayor Modisakeng was so amused!

Kathy, together with Andrew Mlangeni and Dennis Goldberg were awarded the Freedom of Sedibeng on 15 January 2016. [pic 08] At the Gala event at the Emerald Casino, we urged Kathy to make a speech on behalf of the recipients. He passed the opportunity on to Dennis Goldberg to do the honours. That was typical Kathy. That morning, Kathy with Dennis laid wreaths at the Sharpeville Memorial. [pic 09]

Kathy never forgot his family and friends. Whenever he came to the Vaal, he tried to fit in a visit to his friend and fellow Congress activists, Dr Abdul Haq Patel. [pic 10] Since early this year Kathy wanted us to arrange a visit to his cousin ‘Khus Khalla’ in Roshnee. Sadly he passed away before we could do it. When he was in the Vaal, he also took time to visit people who were ill. Kathy was always himself irrespective of who he was with. Whether he was with young students or with royalty, he was consistent in his demeanour and approach. On 05 July 2010, we were asked to accompany Kathy to Robben Island with the Prince of Sweden. We observed that consistency at first hand. [pic 11]

One frustration that people often vented at public meetings was that they wanted him to speak out about the current state of affairs in our country. I recall on 19 August 2015 when we accompanied Kathy to the University of Free State, many young students pushed very, very hard during the Q&A session for Kathy to comment on current political issues. Kathy provided very generalised responses. I must confess, in my own mind I was saying to myself, ‘say what’s on your mind Kathy’, you have earned the right to speak your mind’. But Kathy thought things out very, very carefully before he acted. He also consulted very broadly. Yet, when we thought that Kathy’s views on contemporary South Africa would die with him, on 31 March 2016 he spoke out in his now infamous letter to President Jacob Zuma. Even some close to him were taken aback at the forthright nature of the letter.

I saw Kathy several times at the Donald Gordon hospital in his last few days. He was often sedated and we never got to speak. Kathy first took ill in Cape Town in mid-February 2017. On his return to Johannesburg, it was arranged that my wife, Amina, and I would visit him at his Killarney flat on 25 February 2017. With his wife Barbra Hogan, the four of us sat with him in his bedroom and had several hours of undisturbed, unhurried and private time. I even consulted him and Barbra about my decision to resign from my job. Kathy was in excellent form and in good spirits. He told us story after story, even when we were ready to leave, he said, “one final story”… we heard about three more before we left. Amina and I took him some ice-cream. Kathy loved ice cream!

Despite my own health challenges, I was at the Donald Gordon hospital until midnight with fellow Board Trustee, Sahm Venter during his final hours. We helped with the many dignitaries that came all day long to visit Kathy. Winnie Mandela was there during the day. Thuli Madonsela visited him as well. Premier David Makhura and most of his MEC’s including Paul Mashatile visited. Kathy was very close to the Sisulu family and Max arrived in the evening as did Essop Pahad and his wife. We took a little time to brief the current Chair of the Kathrada Foundation, Derek Hannekom, of the plans that were in place should Kathy pass on. We had to activate those plans on 29 March 2017. In a live broadcast, South Africa and the world witnessed as Kathy was laid to rest at Hero’s Acre at Westpark Cemetery.


Pic 02 – Mr Kathrada with little Zaynab Ahmed, Muhamad Ahmed and Miriam Chamda Ahmed

Pic 3 – Mr Kathrada with the children at the Roshnee Pre School

Pic 04 – With Vaal youth participating in the Kathrada Foundation Youth Programme.

Pic 05 – Members of the Board of the Kathrada Foundation (August 2008) Standing (L-R) Cyril Ramaphosa, Ignatius Jacobs, Derek Hannekom, Ismail vadi, Yunus Chamda, Barbra Hogan, Sahm Venter, Neeshan Balton, Sayed Mia, David Makhura, Prema Naidoo. Seated (L-R) Zarina Motala, Sophie William De-Bruin, Ahmed Kathrada, Lindiwe Sisulu.

Pic 06 – The Sedibeng Management Team at Liliesleaf farm. (L-R) Sorrious Manele, Jeff Rademeyer, Morongwe Mazibuko, Brendon Scholtz, Ahmed Kathrada, Mostsumi, Nkiti Shumeni, Khulu Mbongo, Yunus Chamda, Thomas Mkaza

Pic 07 – Sedibeng Executive Mayor, Cllr Busisiwe Modisakeng with Mr Ahmed Kathrada at his flat in Cape Town.

Pic 08 – Mr Kathrada addresses the 2016 Sedibeng Mayoral Awards

Pic 09 – Mr Kathrada and Denis Goldberg flanked by Mayors Modisakeng and Mofokeng at Sharpeville.

Pic 10 – With fellow Congress activists, the late Dr Abdul Haq Patel

Pic 11 – With Prince Carl of Sweden following a visit to Robben Island.


* The writer of this article, Yunus Chamda, is a former Mayor of the Lekoa-Vaal Metro and former Municipal Manager of the Sedibeng District Council. He was also seconded as MM to Emfuleni but recently resigned from his long career in the Vaal’s Local Government to pursue a new career path. His diligent work and behind the scenes contributions to grow the Vaal’s economy, and to better the living conditions of residents during his years of service, are acknowledged and appreciated by many – Editor




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