Ahmed Kathrada, what a character he was!


Since the passing of South African liberation struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada on Tuesday this week, tributes have been pouring in from all over the world, including Namibia.

Kathrada was normally encapsulated as just being an associate of another icon, Nelson Mandela. In a re-broadcast programme on Mzanzi Channel on DStv on Tuesday, in which Mandela paid tribute to the struggle hero on the occasion of Kathrada’s birthday once, Mandela had this to say in paying tribute to the indomitability of his struggle friend: “I like to associate with strong characters to show [tell] me when I am wrong. He is a strong character.”

Madiba may not be around to pay tribute to his friend having preceded him in exiting this world three years earlier. But surely his tribute then cannot but resonate today. This is testified by Kathrada’s position vis-à-vis what had been happening in South Africa, and especially the evident lack of leadership there. To the extent that being one of the stalwarts of the African National Congress (ANC), he last year wrote an open letter to the reigning South African president, Jacob Zuma.

“Dear Comrade President Zuma,” he wrote. “I have agonised for a while before writing this letter to you… I am just a rank-and-file member of my ANC Branch. However, in all these years it never occurred to me that the time would come when I would feel obliged to express my concerns to the Honourable President. It is, therefore, painful for me to write this letter to you. I have been a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC and broader Congress movement since the 1940s.”

“I have always maintained a position of not speaking out publicly about any differences I may harbour against my leaders and my organisation, the ANC. I would only have done so when I thought that some important organisational matters compel me to raise my concerns. Today I have decided to break with that tradition.”

“The position of President is one that must at all times unites this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today for all South Africans. It is a position that requires the respect of all South Africans, which of course must be earned at all times. I did not speak out against Nkandla although I thought it wrong to have spent public money for any President’s private comfort. I did not speak out though I felt it grossly insulting when my President is called a ‘thief’ or a ‘rapist’, or when he is accused of being ‘under the influence of the Guptas’. I believed that the NEC would have dealt with this as the collective leadership of the ANC.”

“When I learnt of the dismissal of Minister Nene and the speculated reasons for this I became very worried. I’m fully aware it is accepted practice that the appointment and dismissal of Ministers is the prerogative of the President. This might be technically correct but in my view it is against the best traditions of our movement. My concern was amplified when it emerged that the Deputy Finance Minister reported that he was offered the Finance Minister post by members of the Gupta family. The people’s interest must at all times remain supreme. In this instance it was clearly not the case. The resultant crisis that the country was plunged into was clearly an indication that the removal of the Minister was not about the interests of the people.”

“The unanimous ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Nkandla matter has placed me in an introspective mode and I had to ask myself some very serious and difficult questions. Now that the court has found that the President failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law, how should I relate to my President? If we are to continue to be guided by growing public opinion and the need to do the right thing, would he not seriously consider stepping down? I am not a political analyst, but I am now driven to ask: ‘Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your continued stay as President will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country?’

“To paraphrase the famous MK slogan of the time, ‘There comes a time in the life of every nation when it must chose to submit or fight.’ Today I appeal to our President to submit to the will of the people and resign. Yours comradely.”

Surely this speaks much to the character that Kathrada was and passed on as. While many of the tributes which have been pouring in may be sincere and well-meaning, they are meaningless unless those who have been giving them try and emulate his character and spirit, not him. Farewell Tate Kathrada! May your character continue to live in us and your spirit continue to imbue us even in the Land of the Brave!


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