UJ mourns Uncle Kathy: Ahmed Kathrada 1929 – 2017

Lala ngoxolo qhawe Ahmed Kathrada

Today the University of Johannesburg mourns the passing of a son of the South African soil and a leader who lived a life of courage. Ahmed Kathrada walked a long journey to freedom with the great leaders of our country, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and may others. Kathrada’s passing can best be described in Maya Angelou’s poem: “When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants lumber after safety.”

Kathrada’s life journey was a vibrantly painted canvas of energy and commitment to a vision of a free South Africa and deep enduring commitment to non-racialism, dignity for all and an abiding commitment to the values enshrined in our Constitution. Born in Schweizer-Reneke, a small rural South African town in 1929, his move to Johannesburg at a young age signalled the beginnings of activism. From the Defiance Campaign, Congress of the People Campaign, the Treason Trial, the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and the Rivonia Trial, Kathrada demonstrated that he was a man of calibre. In 1952, Mr Kathrada was in a group of 20, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, who were sentenced to nine months in prison with hard labour, suspended for two years for organising a Defiance Campaign against six apartheid laws. In 1956, he was among the 156 Congress activists and leaders charged for High Treason, in a trial lasting four years, after which all the accused were acquitted.

While they were on trial in 1960, the ANC and PAC were banned. In July 1963, the police swooped on Liliesleaf Farm where Kathrada and other ‘banned’ persons had been meeting, leading to the famous ‘Rivonia Trial’, in which eight accused were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.

Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years and 3 months in prison, 18 of which were spent on Robben Island. He was released from prison on 15 October 1989 soon after the ANC was unbanned. At its first legal conference in South Africa, Kathrada was elected onto the ANC National Executive Committee, heading its Public Relations Department until 1994. Kathrada, a man with deep religious beliefs, undertook the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1992. In 1994 Kathrada was elected to Parliament and served as President Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor. His book A Free Mind: Ahmed Kathrada’s Notebook from Robben Island, was published in 2005. He was the recipient of a number of awards and honorary degrees. In 1992 he received the ‘Isithwalandwe’, the highest award bestowed by the ANC and in the late 90s then President Nelson Mandela awarded Kathrada the Presidential Award of the Order for Meritorious Service Class 1 in recognition of his selfless service to the country.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) celebrated Kathrada’s life and contributions to the building of our democratic state and our freedom. In 2015, UJ honoured Kathrada with the prestigious Ellen Khuzwayo Council Award which recognises outstanding contributions beyond the confines of teaching and research by individuals over an extended period of time. The University’s Library hosted Kathrada to discuss “No Bread for Mandela- Memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada, Prisoner No. 468/64”, a book Kathrada authored. Kathrada was the author of many publications that documented the life of an activist, vivid images of his comrades and friends, the struggle, his sojourn on Robben Island and the South Africa that he loved so passionately. He continued to make his mark on society through the work of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation formed in 2008 with initiatives aimed at building a non-racial society and honouring the values and principles of the Constitution.

Umoya wakho uphumule ngokuthula Uncle Kathy! At the University of Johannesburg, we celebrate and mourn your life and struggles. We fly our flags at half-mast in honour of a giant who walked amongst us.


Acting Vice Chancellor

Professor Angina Parekh


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