Ahmed Kathrada, anti-apartheid activist and Mandela prison mate

Johannesburg (AFP) – South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Ahmed Kathrada, who was jailed alongside Nelson Mandela, was feted as a humble liberation hero who shunned the power and glory that came with freedom.

Unlike many struggle veterans, Kathrada, who was imprisoned on Robben Island, never held public political office after the fall of apartheid and Mandela’s election as president in 1994.

He choose instead to serve as one of Mandela’s closest advisors during his time as the country’s first black leader.

When Mandela left office in 1999, after serving a single four-year term, Kathrada also stepped away from politics — immersing himself in activism through his Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

Released from prison in 1989, the softly-spoken Kathrada commanded huge respect within the African National Congress (ANC) party, belonging to the golden generation of freedom fighters untainted by later corruption scandals.

He was often described as Mandela’s “trusted lieutenant”, an “unsung hero” and “humble icon”.

To those close to him, he was known as “Kathy” or “Uncle Kathy”.

In his book “Long Walk to Freedom”, Mandela recalled meeting a young and impassioned Kathrada during the early days of the struggle, and then their later time on Robben Island.

“Kathy was a slender fellow unused to hard physical labour,” Mandela said, referring to the back-breaking daily work of crushing rock at the prison quarry.

Mandela recounted how Kathrada was mocked by prison warders when he could not move a wheelbarrow laden with rocks, while the guards prevented Mandela from helping his friend.

– Strategic thinker-

In the cells, “Kathy” was a teacher for fellow prisoners and a strategic thinker who later formed part of the ANC delegation in the negotiations that finally ended apartheid.

Born on August 21, 1929 in Schweizer-Reneke, a small rural town in what was then known as Western Transvaal, Kathrada was a second generation South African of Indian descent.

In his youth, he joined apartheid resistance…

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