Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where Mandela Kept Hope, Guide Tells Their Shared Saga

July 5, 2013

Where Mandela Kept Hope, Guide Tells Their Shared Saga


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — As Ahmed Kathrada led President Obama and his family recently through the prison on Robben Island where Mr. Kathrada had spent much of his life, he explained how the rules of apartheid had granted him, because of his Indian ancestry, long pants and socks. One of his fellow inmates, Nelson Mandela, as a black man, received short pants and no socks.

Mr. Kathrada, 83, also showed the Obamas the sign listing the different amounts of sugar, coffee, soup and other foods that South Africa’s prison system had apportioned to blacks; mixed-race inmates, who were known as coloreds; Indians; and whites.

“In everything there was apartheid,” he said in an interview on Thursday in his small apartment here in the shadow of Table Mountain.

Mr. Kathrada said Mr. Obama’s reaction to the tour last weekend, and to one he gave him in 2006 when Mr. Obama was a senator, was as full of outrage as the typical visitor’s. But he said he especially remembers how Mr. Obama’s daughters, Malia, who was about to turn 15, and Sasha, who was 12, responded.

“Malia was much more involved. She asked a lot of questions, but Sasha didn’t. I think she was quite shaken. She just stuck to her mother,” said Mr. Kathrada, who gave 18 tours last year and eight so far this year.

For nearly 20 years, Mr. Kathrada, an African National Congress activist who later served in the Mandela administration, has led heads of state and global celebrities through Mr. Mandela’s steps on Robben Island. In 1994, five years after Mr. Kathrada’s release, Mr. Mandela asked him to take on the role of a guide, given the number of people who wanted to visit the prison site. Margaret Thatcher (“She called us terrorists,” he said). Fidel Castro (“My hero.”). Jane Fonda. Beyoncé. Mr. Obama twice.

He recalled the absence of children as “the greatest deprivation” of his years in jail. He has no children of his own. But when asked if his decades in the struggle against apartheid had cost him his chance, Mr. Kathrada insisted they had not.

“I have no regrets,” said Mr. Kathrada, who lives with his partner, Barbara Hogan, a white former political prisoner who served as a minister during Mr. Mandela’s presidency.

He runs a foundation in his name dedicated to fighting racism.

Sacrifice, often unacknowledged — even by activists themselves, even now — is typical of Mr. Kathrada’s generation of anti-apartheid leaders. The living example that the leaders of the movement provided has come again to the fore in the weeks Mr. Mandela has been clinging to his life in a Pretoria hospital.

On Friday, the presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, himself a former Robben Island inmate, denied a report that Mr. Mandela was in a “permanent vegetative state,” saying the anti-apartheid leader and former president remained in critical but stable condition. The Thursday report by the Agence France-Presse news service pointed to court papers filed June 26 in a dispute among Mandela family members over the burial location of three of the Mandela children.

During the sometimes rocky transition to democracy, many South Africans drew faith from the former Robben Island prisoners’ dedication to their cause, even against the longest odds, and their eventual triumph.

If, for all those years, the thinking went, they could have faith in a new South Africa, then surely South Africans who endured far less could do so today.

Before Mr. Kathrada and his co-defendants were sentenced to a life of hard labor in 1964, they were certain the apartheid state would execute them, Mr. Kathrada recalled Thursday as the setting sun painted Table Mountain ocher, white and rust. In the end, the government did not want to create martyrs to the cause. “The Afrikaners knew from their own history how martyrs could be exploited,” he explained.

On his guided tours, Mr. Kathrada also points out a sign of hope in the form of a concrete block with the words “A.N.C. is sure of victory. 1967.”

“The 1960s were the worst period, inside and outside of jail,” he said, “and the optimism never left us. We knew we were going to win.”

Family, even absent family, was at the center of the prisoners’ experience. Though Mr. Kathrada quit school after he joined his first protest at the age of 17, he completed four university degrees on Robben Island. He could do so only because his family had the money to pay tuition.

Mr. Kathrada was 34 when he, Mr. Mandela and six other anti-apartheid leaders were sentenced to a life of hard labor in the quarry of Robben Island, apartheid’s most infamous island prison. They would spend 18 years there, followed by nearly a decade in Pollsmoor prison, in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai.

Mr. Mandela and the inmates with wives and children endured a particular pain, Mr. Kathrada said. “Their families suffered much more than others. They were detained, they were banished, they were exiled. But they never allowed that to get preference over their responsibilities toward their fellow prisoners.”

WHEN one of Mr. Mandela’s nephews, who was the head of one of the apartheid government’s black homelands, wanted to visit him, Mr. Mandela put it to a vote of comrades.

The nephew had buried Mr. Mandela’s mother and one of his children — the remains of whom were the subject of this week’s court case involving the Mandela family.

The other prisoners voted against the visit, and Mr. Mandela wrote to his nephew, saying he could not come.

But Mr. Kathrada said the prisoners of Robben Island — who included Jacob Zuma, the current president — had it better than their comrades on the outside.

“No policeman could come to Robben Island and start shooting at us,” he said. “In the Soweto uprising of 1976, we are told, 600 kids were killed. Others, people we knew closely, tortured to death, shot, assassinated. We were safe.”

He said the prisoners were also sustained by the example of their leaders. “The work at the quarry with pick and shovels, they were there with us. Hunger strikes, they were there with us. Madiba was offered the same food as we were getting, the clothing,” he said, using the clan name by which Mr. Mandela is widely known. He referred to the better clothes and rations offered to mixed-race and Indian inmates.

“He refused,” Mr. Kathrada said. “He said, ‘I will accept it when everybody gets it.’ ”

For all its historic triumph, Mr. Kathrada said, the A.N.C. faces a much more varied set of problems today than it did when the apartheid system was its sole focus.

“Our challenge is poverty, hunger, unemployment disease, children without schools, street children who haven’t got homes, AIDS orphans, thousands and thousands of them,” he said.

“So perhaps the challenges now are greater than smashing apartheid.”

Rick Lyman contributed reporting from Johannesburg.

© 2012 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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