Universities pay tribute to struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada

South African veteran activist Ahmed Kathrada, who died on Tuesday aged 87, has been hailed by universities for selflessly dedicating his life to fighting for freedom, justice, non-racialism and democracy.

Kathrada was sentenced in 1964, together with Nelson Mandela and other senior African National Congress members, to life imprisonment on Robben Island, spending a total of 26 years in prison. Voted 46th in the Top 100 Great South Africans in 2004, Kathrada received honorary doctorates from a number of top South African universities, including the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and the Durban University of Technology.

Kathrada was born on 21 August 1929, to Indian immigrant parents in Schweizer-Reneke, a small town in Western Transvaal, now North West Province. He died after being admitted to hospital for surgery related to a blood clot on the brain.

In a statement, the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, said Comrade Kathrada was a globally renowned political figure, a strong advocate for deepening the practice and understanding of non-racialism, and a humble human being who always had a moment to engage with students, academics and members of the Wits community.

Kathrada received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Wits University in December 2012.

Protecting the Constitution

In his address at the time, he spoke about South Africa’s strong judiciary and legal stalwarts and encouraged citizens to protect the Constitution. He also made an appeal for the legacy of the founding fathers of South Africa’s democracy to be respected, and not to be trampled upon in any way.

Kathrada made headlines last year when he called on President Jacob Zuma to resign after the Constitutional Court found he had failed to uphold the country’s Constitution when he ignored the Public Protector's recommendation that he pay back some of the public funds used to upgrade his home.

Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers expressed his condolences to Kathrada’s family and loved ones saying South Africa had lost a great man.

“Not only has he made a very big contribution to the democracy of our country, but he was also committed to justice, reconciliation and the betterment of the lives of South Africans,” he told University World News.

The Stellenbosch University Museum is currently hosting a mini-exhibition to commemorate Kathrada celebrating his last birthday at the university in 2016. A condolences book at the museum is available to be signed by members of the public.

‘Shaky democracy’

Durban University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Professor Thandwa Mthembu said: “It is sad that one of our struggle icons has passed on at a time when our democracy is shaky, so much looks bleak, and when principled, selfless leadership is sorely needed. Since life and death are complementary, let’s hope his death nourishes newness, change and profundity in leadership that his life had epitomised.”

Kathrada was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Arts and Design by the Durban University of Technology on 22 April last year.

In June 2015, he received an Honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Cape Town. Delivering the oration at the graduation ceremony, Dr Russell Ally, executive director of the Development and Alumni Department at the University of Cape Town, said education had always been a critically important part of Kathrada’s life.

He said Kathrada was probably one of the earliest proponents of what he came to see as the misguided doctrine of “liberation before education” after he dropped out of his formal studies to become a full-time political activist.

“If there is one thing in his life that he would do differently if he had the chance, he often tells the youth, [it is to] combine his activism with pursuing his studies. They are not mutually exclusive. If anything, they complement each other,” said Ally.

Two honours degrees

“On the island he embraced his studies with zeal and commitment. In his letters to his family, he told them to let his mother know that he was not actually in prison, but at university. He was the first Robben Island prisoner to complete a university degree. He went on to complete a second degree and two honours degrees. And, but for the advent of television – which was made to available to him in his final years as a political prisoner – he jokingly says, he would have gone on to do a masters,” Ally said.

Kathrada’s political work began in 1941, at the age of 12 when he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa. In the 1940s Kathrada first met African National Congress leaders including Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Ismail Chota Meer. He left school at the age of 17 to work full-time in the offices of the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council.

When the South African Indian Congress launched in 1946, the Passive Resistance Movement against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act ensued, and Kathrada participated and was one of the 2,000 volunteers imprisoned in that campaign and served a month in a Durban jail, his first sentence for civil disobedience.

In 1950, he enrolled as a student at Wits University, studying towards a bachelor of arts degree but he lasted only three months, choosing to devote all of his time to political activism.

Activism and regular imprisonment became a way of life. It was in December 1962, while under house arrest for 13 hours a day that Kathrada used to attend secret meetings in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb, the underground headquarters of the African National Congress.

Rivonia Trial

Kathrada was arrested in July 1963, when the police swooped on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which led to the famous Rivonia Trial in which the eight accused were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. It was Kathrada’s 18th arrest on political grounds.

He was tried with Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni (only Goldberg and Mlangeni remain alive). In 1964, at the age of 34, Kathrada was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island where he spent the next 18 years. More years were spent at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. At his release aged 60, he had spent 26 years in prison.

Kathrada was to be laid to rest on Wednesday, 29 March, according to Muslim religious rites.