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Ahmed Kathrada

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Ahmed man

1919 Parents arrive from India

1929 Born

1938 Attends Newtown Indian Primary School Johannesburg

1940 Meets Yusuf Dadoo, I.C. Meer, Yusuf, and Molvi Cachalia and J.N. Singh

1941 Joins Young Communist League

1946 Leaves school in matriculation year to work full-time for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council

1947 First jail sentence for civil disobedience., released

1951 Student at Wits

1952 Helps organize the 'Campaign of Defiance against unjust laws'

1952 Secretary of Youth Action Committee of ANC Youth League and Indian Youth Congress

1954 SAIC conference in Durban

1954 Two-year banning order

1955 Arrested with Aggie Salim and Dr. Ike Moosa for being in Bloemfontein without a permit

1956 Banned and rearrested again along with 155 other activists

1962 Put on house arrest

1963 Goes underground, moving to Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia

1963 Arrested on Liliesleaf Farm

1963 The Rivonia Trial begins

1965 – 1982 BA in History and Criminology 1968 First prisoner on Robben Island to obtain a degree

1982 Moved from Robben Island Prison to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison to join Mandela

1985 Mandela, Sisulu, Mlangeni, Mhlaba and Kathrada jointly sign a written response, rejecting Prime Minister PW Botha’s offer to release all political prisoners, providing they ‘undertook not to fuel the flames of violence that was sweeping the country’ 

1989 Released from prison at the age of 60

2008 Amhed Kathrada Foundation is launched

2017 Died aged 87

The path that led Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, the child of Indian immigrants, to go from queuing up in front of white-run government offices for permits to move around, to being seated in/at the presidency, governing those offices as a leader and recognised hero of the resistance struggle, is one that was punctuated with many obstacles. Obstacles which he surmounted, with grit and resolve.


At 34, he was condemned to life imprisonment on Robben Island, arrested an estimated 18 times, and imprisoned for a period totaling 26 years and 3 months.


Ahmed joined the movement at 11 years old. Too young according to him, to fully comprehend the realities of the tough political era he was growing in. He was drawn by his bright-eyed admiration of young black professionals, doctors, and lawyers such as Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, who by their mere being, in their respective fields, was a defiance to a system that had worked to weaken their chances of amounting to much. He joined nevertheless and got soaked in further as his political awareness heightened.


He was born on 21 August 1929 to Indian immigrant parents Mohamed and Hawa Kathrada. They ran a retail shop in Schweizer Reneke, Western Transvaal, and in 1946 when Ahmed was 17, they had their business operations affected when India, following pleas from the South African Union Congress to cut diplomatic ties with the repressive South African regime and impose sanctions on it, acted. India recalled its High Commissioner and halted international trade, and this resulted in a shortage of jute for bags used in packaging maize.


Experiencing difficulties getting an education in his home region due to apartheid-era restrictions, he had to travel to Johannesburg, 200 miles away for school. And there his interactions and mingling with the inner working of the resistance struggle took flight.


The foundation he founded, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, describes his life as having been characterised by his commitment to the best values and principles of the South African liberation struggle. The liberation struggle led to a free South Africa for all, but much remains to be done in economically liberating a large majority of the disadvantaged black and colored citizens. The path towards achieving that has been set already, in large part by the work of people like “Uncle Kathy”.

Ahmed leader

Listen to people as a servant

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Ahmed Kathrada

South African

Public Servant


1991 Elected to the NEC of ANC


1994 Elected a Member of Parliament


1994 Appointed parliamentary counsellor in the office of President Nelson Mandela

Awards for his roles as Public Servant

1986 Honoured by the University of Guelph, Canada, with an honorary community degree

1986 Honoured by Central London Polytechnic

1988 Awarded the ANC's highest possible award, the Isitwalandwe Award

1999 Receives the Presidential Award of the Order for Meritorious Service Class 1 from President Nelson Mandela

2002 Awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Massachusetts and the University of Durban-Westville

2003 Receives the Mahatma Gandhi Award by the Congress of Business and Economics, presented by President Thabo Mbeki 

2004 Awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters by the University of Missouri, United States of America

Ahmed interview

Things You May Not Know About Ahmed

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.




You don't take individual decisions

"... Well you know in my case I got swept into politics at a very young age when I hadn’t got any independent thinking. I got into it… as a youngster without much thinking. But you come in as an individual, but you're always taking instructions, you're following decisions that are taken by the leadership. From childhood, you learn that. You're not taking individual decisions… For instance, I got into the Youth Communist League at the age of 12, (an age) where there's very little independent thinking. It so happens I'm staying in Fordsburg and there's sort of a club, run by the Young Communist League. So as young people you're attracted to activities, lectures, picnics, film shows and so forth. But what first attracted me to politics as a youngster is the arrival in the country of Doctor (Yusuf) Dadoo after he returned from Edinburgh as a doctor... He immediately got into politics and my first memory of taking an active interest is when he goes to jail in 1940 for opposing the war (World War II). So I'm what, 1940- I’m 11, 12 years old. But the fact that he's already... you know at that time, I’m talking of blacks in general, you could only think of Doctor (Alfred) Xuma (the first black South African Doctor), Doctor Dadoo, and maybe one other… So the very fact that they were doctors they were already standouts as doctors. You don't even think of them as politicians. They are doctors, and as doctors, you look up to them. So what I'm saying is that as youngsters you don't think politically, you think of this man who's a doctor or a university student and you're already impressed. But then you see some of the activities, here’s a man who is going to jail in 1940..."


Stripped, used and cast away, the Bantustans unwittlingly became the servants of Apartheid

"... Fast forward to the Bantustan - by that time you're a bit more mature and the Bantustans made apartheid possible, their cooperation with them. So by that time of course the organisations themselves worked very strongly against Bantustans because they were servants of the apartheid regime and if they had taken a strong stance the apartheid would have been very difficult … But once they started accepting Bantustans and the so-called puppet presidents and so forth, they cooperated in the implementation of apartheid. Similarly in the Indian community you had this House of Delegates, and for the coloureds, you had the House of Representatives. They were all puppets of the apartheid regime, carrying out apartheid policies, pretending to be working for the oppressed people. In their outlook, they claimed that, but in fact, they were making apartheid workable. So we had these among the oppressed people. But fortunately, they were a minority..."



A dearth of Black expertise

"... We're only 20 years old as a democracy. We are still learning. As a country we haven't got enough engineers, we can't run mines, we can't run factories. We still have to rely on the whites. As you know engineering and all these work avenues were closed, so you can't thoroughly start producing engineers and experts in their various fields. Even now we have to rely on whites. Can we run our power stations? Fortunately we are getting people there but we still can't do without their expertise, we can't. We still can't... We haven't reached a stage where we can run all industries we are going, getting there gradually, precisely because our universities we're not open for engineering and these expertise, it's a recent thing. And even now, I don't know what the position is, what the average university provides degrees in the various fields, I'm not sure. But I won’t be at all surprised if we still have to rely quite a bit on white expertise, while our people are getting trained..."



Sanctions was very hard

"... I come from a family owning a little retail shopping (centre) but that didn't play any part, except when it became relevant politically when India imposed sanctions against South Africa as a result of the call of the new leadership of the South African Union Congress, which called upon India to break ties with South Africa, withdraw its high commissioner, impose sanctions and raise the matter at (the) United Nations. That was in ‘46 already. So we took into account what was happening in India as well. Sanctions worked very hard, very much because at that time the maize is packed in the jute (hessian) bags and India was the only country that supplied jute, so I remember in places like Schweizer-Reneke, (Where Kathrada was born), a shortage of jute for bags, heaps of maize everywhere… heaps of maize because India has now imposed sanctions as a result of the South African Union Congress’ call... "




First meeting with Madiba

"... In 1946 when I was in my matric year, the Indian Congress in South Africa started a passive resistance campaign. The first time after Gandhi left, a passive resistance campaign against law that applied only against the Indians, land and licensing, and as I said I was in my matric year when this started. So without finishing matric, I followed the example of two individuals, who are closer to me than Doctor Dadoo. Doctor Dadoo was a big figure somewhere, but the more immediate were two students or four students, two law students, Ismamir Jayensing, medical students Doctor Patel, Doctor Asvat his wife. These were medical students and law students. … These law students like Ismamir and Jayensing they occupied a place in Market Street, a flat and after law lectures one day he comes into the flat with Madiba, 1946, it's the first time I even meet Madiba. He's a law student, but he's a law student together with Ismamir and that's where I meet them..."



His biggest lesson on Leadership

“... from what Madiba said, … I stand before you as a servant of the people. In other words, if you interpret what he was trying to say and which I will echo is that we are there to serve the people primarily. Not to tell the people what they should be doing but to listen to the people. As servants of the people. So we take that from Madiba… “


He was often vehemently stalked for selfies

"... This morning when I was in the restaurant, the young ladies, the waitresses, they heard of the name, “Can we have a photograph with you?” Now, if I walk with you in the mall, whether it's Kerlani mall or Rosebank mall or anywhere, invariably you find people stop, “can we have a photograph with you.” The thing is that some of us have become a bit more recognisable, you appear on television every now and then. So they stop just to have a photograph. It happened this morning as I said, in the restaurant, these young ladies waitresses, they've heard the name, so they're excited, saying, “Can we have a photograph with you, ‘cause we've never had this opportunity”, and of course we understand what they want to do, we always have patience..."




Instead of matric exams he chose activism

"... So I also gave up without writing matric, gave up full time into the office of the Indian Congress, and the passive resistance movement, and in December of ‘46, when this passive resistance started in June of ‘46, in December I went to prison, for the first time… So I went to jail for the first time at the age of 17, for occupying a piece of land in Durban which was for whites only, and the Indian Congress had decided to call upon volunteers to occupy that land and go to jail. So I went with my group, occupying that piece of land in Durban, and went to prison for a month in 1946..."


Black Police who played their own role in the struggle

"... Well, our contact with white and black police were the security police. We treated them all as police and enemies so that when we were at meetings and chased out by the police, it was black and white police. But in fairness there were black police, individuals, I didn't personally have contact with them, but people like Madiba and Walter Sisulu and them had, so they became useful in passing information. But I must repeat I was too young to be having contact with them but Madiba had this useful contact with the black police and the security establishment..."



Lest today’s youth forget

"... Well as you know the transition was a negotiated transition so that President(FW) De Klerk and his group worked together in the transition, the younger people today don't realise that part of history. Because it was a negotiated settlement, it's not as if MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) came with guns and took over. It was a negotiated settlement with president De Klerk and his party then … which arrived at the settlement..."



Trying to balance a skewed system on a shaky foundation

"... The white civil servants we came across in ‘94…. Before then you met the white and black civil servants when you have to meet with them for anything that you wanted to show… for instance Indians were not allowed to travel from one province to another without a permit. So you go to the office, there's white civil servants and black civil servants. So in that capacity you met them and later on of course when things changed - ‘94, when I'm in the President’s office- now you came across white civil servants, predominantly because the whole leadership of the civil service was white, the senior leadership. We who were deprived, we didn't know what Parliament was. Who do we turn to? We go into parliament ‘94; we don't know what Parliament is. We didn't know how to run(a) Government, we didn't know how to run water affairs, electricity or anything. The black civil servants were at the lower level even in the civil service. You had to rely on the white civil servants. So you take the 5 years of the interim Government. If the white civil servants wanted to do sabotage they could have done a lot of damage. The police, the army, the civil service, they could have done a lot of damage but by and large, they accepted that” we have(a) new boss, and they cooperated..."


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Ahmed's conversation. 

Full Interview 

Ahmed Full Interview
Ahmed lesson

Servant Leaders must listen to the people they serve


“... from what Madiba said, … I stand before you as a servant of the people. In other words, if you interpret what he was trying to say and which I will echo is that we are there to serve the people primarily. Not to tell the people what they should be doing but to listen to the people. As servants of the people. So we take that from Madiba…

Daniel in conversation with

Ahmed Kathrada






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