Posted on Friday, 06 December 2013 11:03

Ahmed Kathrada on his close friendship with Mandela, Madiba

By Crystal Oderson in Johannesburg

Known as ‘Kathy’, Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela stayed firm friends through the struggle and beyond. Photo©AP/SIPAAs the world mourns global icon, Nelson Mandela's death, tributes pouring are telling the story of a remarkable man. But what was it like to spend time on Robben Island, sharing a life long friendship with Mandela? Ahmed Kathrada spoke to The Africa Report's Crystal Orderson about meeting Mandela, his time on Robben Island, his friendship with Mandela and his legacy to the world.

Ahmed Kathrada, affectionately known as Kathy, had known Mandela since the 1940s. From an early age Kathrada was an activist and when the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) started to work together against the country's apartheid regime the relationship between him and Mandela became very close.

People keep on asking us what made him the leader. So here's my explanation: He was born of royalty, as a chief, so from childhood they are taught leadership, so he already had training

In 1964, together with Mandela, Walter Sisulu, another of Mandela's closest comrades, and seven others, Kathrada was convicted in the Ravonia Trial. The trial, which took place between 1963 and 1964, saw 10 ANC leaders tried for 221 acts of sabotage. Mandela and Kathrada were convicted and imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1985.

Johannesburg meeting

The soft- spoken Kathrada who now spends his time working with young people said he met Mandela in Johannesburg in the 1940's. Kathrada describes Madiba (Mandela's clan name) as a friend and comrade. He said he met the charming Mandela in downtown Johannesburg at a friend's flat.

"I was still at high school and he used to wear a blazer and look very smart. In those days if you saw someone who wasn't white wearing a blazer you would be in awe".

During this period the two became close and were later part of the Rivonia trial for their political activity. Kathrada said their lawyers told them to "prepare for the worst" case scenario. They were all expecting the death sentence.

"At the Trial, Madiba said we must fight it as a political trial. And when there's a death sentence you don't appeal! And he made that famous speech – our speech – which we all approved first. He was speaking on behalf of all of us when he said, "This is what I fought for, hope to achieve, and if need be, I'm prepared to die". Kathrada said these words kept them inspired throughout.

Years on Robben Island...

The two with other senior ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment to Robben Island.

"Madiba was regarded as the leader when we got to the island. The first thing he said when we landed there was, "We are no longer leaders; we are ordinary prisoners. And he behaved like an ordinary prisoner.

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Kathrada said Mandela was a very fit man, "he was stronger than all of us because he was also a boxer. You'd see him on the floor polishing"

Discrimination on the basis of skin colour was rife on the Island with Indian prisoners receiving preferential treatment. Kathrada recalls, "as an African prisoner he had to wear short trousers, even in winter! They offered him exemption, but he said no".

Kathrada said all these characteristics played a big part in Madiba's leadership qualities. "Naturally the leadership was there for us".

They were released in 1990 and in 1994 and Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first post-apartheid President.

What became of their friendship?

Kathrada said when Madiba became president he was appointed to his office as an advisor. It was not a job he wanted, but Mandela persuaded him to take it after he had declined an offer to be a cabinet minister.

Kathrada recalls that even Mandela was a reluctant president. "He had expressed reluctance to be President, because of his age but when the ANC national executive insisted that he was the candidate, he accepted".

The first democratically elected black President was adamant that he would only stand for one term, which he kept till the end.

The two remained in contact even after Madiba's retirement. "Before he got sick I saw him regularly, and he enjoyed it because he liked to talk about the past, about people, and we could tease each other".

Kathrada said even when Mandela got sick; he used to visit him at his Houghton home and had free access.

After a long friendship with Mandela, Kathrada said what he most admired was Mandela's personality. "He could relate to kings and queens and prime ministers, but did not look down on less educated people, or youngsters," said Kathrada.

"People keep on asking us what made him the leader. So here's my explanation: He was born of royalty, as a chief, so from childhood they are taught leadership, so he already had training".

Lasting legacy

While the world remembers the icon's legacy for his comrade the main legacy is what he wanted for all South Africans who bore the brunt of the apartheid legacy.

"We have achieved quite a bit, but there's a lot to be done. We can only be satisfied when we are sure that every child goes to bed with a full stomach, in a proper house, gets up in the morning smiling with a proper breakfast, proper clothing and goes to school. When that happens, then we can say we have achieved, we are satisfied" - Nelson Mandela: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: 18 July 1918- 5 December 2013

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