Skip Navigation
Of Apartheid, Prison, and ParliamentSharon Gelman (R) and Malcolm-Jamal Warner (L) of ANSA introduced Kathrada. (Photos by Kevin Matthews)

Of Apartheid, Prison, and Parliament

Mandela prison-mate and adviser Kathrada remembers indignities suffered, stresses victories won in democratic South Africa.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

You can't harbor hatred. Negative emotions such as these hurt the people who harbor them most.

A legendary figure in the story of South Africa's liberation from 350 years of white rule, including more than four decades under the racist legal framework known as apartheid, Ahmed Mohammed Kathrada spoke Nov. 10 of the achievements of the country's 11-year-old representative democracy.

In a talk sponsored by the James S. Coleman African Studies Center (ASC), Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), and the Colloquium on South Asian History and Cultural Studies, Kathrada also touched on his 26 years of imprisonment on Robben Island along with anti-apartheid leaders Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. And he highlighted some of the less remarked features of the system that separated non-whites from whites and oppressed both non-whites and women. From 1994 to 1999, Kathrada served as an African National Congress (ANC) member of parliament and an adviser to President Mandela. He had been the only person of Indian descent tried and convicted in the infamous Rivonia Trial of 1963–64.

The subject underlying his talk was memory: its value, its uses, and its relationship with forgiveness. Kathrada's role has evolved from resisting to rebuilding to remembering South Africa. His current mission seems to be to get the remembering right. In putting together his new book, Memoirs, Kathrada said that he acted as an arbiter of memories, sometimes making corrections provoked by the accounts of others.

"Some have come forward and corrected me. Some of those corrections I have accepted; others I have not. It's a question of debate: 'My memory is better than yours,'" he said, winning laughter from the audience on a serious point.

When Kathrada, popularly known as "Kathy," rose to speak, the UCLA audience of about 80 people gave him a standing ovation. He acknowledged warm introductions from ASC Director Allen Roberts, ANSA Executive Director Sharon Gelman, and ANSA member Malcolm-Jamal Warner, best known for his role as Theo Huxtable in the 1980s hit "The Cosby Show." Warner read excerpts from Memiors that provided a sense of the courage and commitment required of non-whites who persisted in their struggle for freedom.

From Pass Laws to Dignity

Kathrada identified laws restricting people's movements, especially the Pass Laws and Curfew Law, as "the most inhumane and callous form of apartheid." These laws applied chiefly to blacks, tens of thousands of whom were imprisoned for violations. Many other features of apartheid—separate post offices and railway cars, few and segregated movie theaters and libraries, and so on—were also designed to humiliate Indians such as Kathrada as well as Coloreds. Indians and Coloreds occupied middle ranks in apartheid's rigid hierarchy, Kathrada explained.

Treatment in prison varied according to the racial definitions. As an Indian, Kathrada wore long pants instead of shorts and was given more food than black prisoners. He noted that Dennis Goldberg, a white resister convicted in the Rivonia Trial, was imprisoned apart from the others.

"Literally from the cradle to the grave there was separation."

With the launch of democracy in April 1994, Kathrada said, the country regained its dignity. To begin with, South Africans who could travel abroad were no longer ashamed of their passports. Women, previously excluded from the upper echelon of the civil service, took up cabinet posts and ambassadorships. Freedom of worship was also granted in a constitution, adopted in 1996, that Kathrada called "one of the most enlightened in the world." Among other provisions, the constitution protects people of all sexual orientations and grants universal rights to food, housing, and basic services.

The "principal requirement" for "a unified South Africa," Kathrada said, was forgiveness.

"You have to forgive," he said. "You don't forget the oppression, humiliation, suffering. … You can't harbor hatred. Negative emotions such as these hurt the people who harbor them most."

Kathrada expressed gratitude for the role of "civil society in America and in other parts of the world" in bringing down apartheid. He said that the world responded to the ANC's call to isolate the government in Pretoria. The comments came in the midst of a student-led campaign to divest UC funds from companies doing business in Sudan over atrocities being committed in the western Darfur region.

On the other hand, Kathrada told the audience, "History will tell you that your government at that time, together with the government of Israel, helped apartheid South Africa develop the nuclear bomb." South Africa dismantled its nuclear program under pressure from the United States and other countries just prior to the transition to majoritarian democracy.

Land Question

Kathrada acknowledged that the ANC government's attempts to redistribute land and otherwise rectify the lingering effects of white rule have moved slowly, leading to impatience. "We have to identify the neediest of the needy, the poorest of the poor," he said, adding that women still "bear the brunt" of inequities.

In response to a question on the slow pace of land redistribution, Kathrada said that the apartheid system's legacy was largely to blame. "Africans," he said, "were not allowed to learn skills" and did not learn math or sciences in school. Meanwhile, whites passed on to whites the "expertise" needed to run mechanized farms.

After any sudden redistribution of land, therefore, South Africa "would have to beg the world for food; at the moment, we are exporting food," Kathrada said.

African Studies Center