Remembering South Africa's Ahmed Kathrada

Ahmed Kathrada Image copyright AFP

In our series of letters from African journalist, Elizabeth Ohene looks back at the time she met the late South African anti-apartheid hero Ahmed Kathrada after he was freed from prison.

This past week in Johannesburg there was a funeral I wished I had been able to attend.

Ahmed Kathrada, well-known African National Congress (ANC) activist and South African statesman, was laid to rest. The well-deserved tributes to the man, affectionately known as Kathy, who died at the age of 87 have been delivered.

It was not the politics surrounding the funeral, with President Jacob Zuma being asked to stay away, that was the main attraction for me, even though I must confess I would not have minded being there to hear some of the speeches.

I would simply have liked to be there to be part of an event that would mark the closure for a journey that started for me on 15 October 1989 in the Soweto township.

I was on my first reporting trip to South Africa for the BBC and, after having been denied a visa for more than two years, I was finally granted one after the intervention of the redoubtable anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman.

As things turned out, it was the perfect time to have arrived in the country.

Elizabeth Ohene:

Image copyright Elizabeth Ohene

“I remember Ahmed Kathrada telling me he was trying to get used to being seen as an old man when throughout his political activist days and in prison, he was always ‘the young man’.”

A week after I got there, it happened. The long-expected opening of the prisons to let out the leaders of the liberation movements started without any warning.

That was the day, no, the night that Ahmed Kathrada and some of his colleagues were released from jail after 26 years.

I was in Walter Sisulu’s home in Soweto when he was brought home in the middle of the night.

Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Raymond Mhlaba jailed after the infamous Rivonia trials were also released along with Wilton Mkwayi, one of the leaders of the ANC’s armed wing, Oscar Mpetha, the veteran ANC and South African Communist Party leader in the Cape, and Japhta Masemola, a Pan Africanist Congress leader.

Image copyright Reuters

Their release was greeted with scenes of wild celebration around the country.

Over the next fortnight, I met and interviewed almost all of them in their homes and thus started my intense relationship with South African politics.

I had no choice, of course, but to follow the journeys of those men from then on.

I remember I had this eerie feeling that they, having survived so many years of prison under difficult conditions, might not last very long in the outside world in South Africa.

Coping with change

In my interview with Raymond Mhlaba, he talked about the difficulties of adjusting to the changed country he and his fellow inmates had been released into.

He made a joke about how ironic it would be if he should survive Robben Island all those years only to be killed trying to cross the road in Port Elizabeth.

Twenty-six years earlier, at the time he went into jail, there were very few cars on the roads he told me.

Jafta Masemola was the first to die in a traffic accident a few months after gaining his freedom.

I watched the funeral of Walter Sisulu on television from Accra and I was relieved he had survived to a grand old age.

I remember Ahmed Kathrada telling me he was trying to get used to being seen as an old man when throughout his political activist days and in prison, he was always “the young man”.

Image copyright AFP

When the news of his death was announced last week, I had a fleeting idea of going to his funeral but then as he was a Muslim, it was not likely I could make it to South Africa before he would be buried.

Then I thought to myself that even as a Muslim, if he were a Ghanaian, we would have found a way to keep his body in the morgue for a few days at least before burial.

That would have provided the opportunity for old quarrels to be settled and fresh ones to erupt.

Commemorative clothes

There would have been time for some people to go to court to insist that President Zuma be allowed to attend the funeral.

We would have had time to order a special cloth for the funeral and some enterprising folks would have ordered special t-shirts from China.

But before I could get my head around the possibility that this one of the last of those men who were released on 15 October 1989, the funeral was over.

I wonder if South Africa today was the one we all dreamed of in those heady days when the impossible happened and Ahmed Kathrada and his friends came home.

I feel privileged to have been part of it.

More from Elizabeth Ohene:

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