Lessons for the future: What tomorrow’s leaders can learn from Ahmed Kathrada

As Ahmed Kathrada lies in a hospital bed recovering from an operation, concern is growing for the struggle stalwart’s wellbeing. Delivering a keynote address at the Mancosa college in Auckland Park On Thursday, Kathrada’s friend, Professor Achille Mbembe reflected on how social justice activists in present day South Africa can learn from a man who played a vital role in the country’s liberation and also faced criticism.

Ahmed Kathrada Foundation director Neeshan Bolton assured visitors at Mancosa that Kathrada was not in as dire a circumstance as social media reports indicated.
According to Bolton, Kathrada had been put in a sedated state to allow more effective treatment after an operation on his brain.

But his assurances haven’t stopped the flow of concern and even Mbembe said he was worried.

Throughout his address, Mbembe made reference to former president Nelson Mandela. Kathrada has often said that Mandela was his big brother and reiterated that at Mandela’s funeral where he made a eulogy.

“In fact it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about Kathrada without invoking Mandela,” Mbembe said.

What Mbembe found unique in the leadership of Kathrada and Mandela was an ability to “read” their times. Their ability to astutely read their time, Mbembe argued, is what allowed them to name their time.

“What is peculiar to one’s own times? How to name one’s own time? Because naming one’s own time is the first step in trying to decipher it and in trying to elucidate what it is that these times require of us,” Mbembe said.

Conversations for the future and the young
Mbembe’s keynote was inspired by his reading of two books: Conversations With a Gentle Soul (written by Kathrada) and Conversations with Myself (written by Mandela). It is from these books where he proposed lessons for activism today.

But Mbembe knows that Kathrada, while often considered the gentlest of leaders, has perhaps lost his sainthood in the eyes of some of South Africa’s youth.

“Nowadays we hear all kinds of controversies – some people want to make us believe that, as they put it, they (Kathrada and Mandela) sold out. I don’t believe we should take such criticism very seriously,” he said.

This week the Kathrada Foundation joined an annual campaign called Anti-racism Week. It supports the ideals of a non-racial society, which is what Kathrada and many ANC stalwarts envisioned for South Africa. Kathrada admits that the vision of society he helped fight for has not been entirely achieved, but when he visited a group of school children in Gauteng he had one comment:

“I remarked, that these young people could teach their parents a thing or two about non-racialism!,” he said.

But the youth, particularly those who have been engaged in Fees Must Fall protests, have spoken and structured their movements to ensure race identity is defined.

They argue that non-racialism – as envisaged in the idea of a rainbow nation – erases the struggle of black history in South Africa. A 2016 documentary titled The People Versus The Rainbow was centred around this.

Mbembe, in commenting on youth activism, made a point about violence. Kathrada is iconised as “South Africa’s gentle liberator” and that notion was evoked in Mbembe’s address as he spoke on violence as a means to achieve justice.

“It is not necessarily the best means because the moment we open the gates of violence, whether it is structural or in opposition to institutional violence, there is always by definition something absolutely precious and irrevocable that is lost,” Mbembe continued.

He didn’t say what that something was, but simply said it was a loss “that cannot be quantified”. It could be innocence or an essence of morality. But his was a criticism which many South African protesters – particularly the young – will receive with disinterest and a tense rebuttal.

“Before you gain anything through violence, you have to experiment with loss in the first instance and the loss of something you can never recover,” he said.

“If violence has to be exercised as a weapon in the struggle for justice, this must be the object of the most demanding scrutiny.”

Liberation in a time of Kathrada
Abdushay Jassat (82), a member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, also attended the unveiling of the Mancosa College auditorium . He spoke of the inspiration Kathrada wielded in him.

“One of the guys responsible for getting me involved in the political struggle and the armed struggle, and made me join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was Kathrada,” he said.

Kathrada was never a member of the MK, but when he was arrested as part of a group of struggle heroes who would be tried in the Rivonia Trial, he was at the MK headquarters in Rivonia.

Although Kathrada was involved in organised struggle, there was a time when a young Kathrada wasn’t entirely sure of how do to activism, Jassat remembers.

“We made a lot of mistakes, a lot of blunders. I remember once when Kathy and I … Kathy lived in a flat in Colorado House next to the Portuguese consulate or some Portuguese office. Kathy and I felt that we needed to either dispose of the premises,” he said.

“So, we took a can of petrol, we didn’t go and assess what we were doing. We took a can of petrol at night, in Market Street, Johannesburg and threw the petrol through a postbox and then we lit it, not realising that there was big empty space which was a courtyard,” Jassat said.

Jassat interjected his story, saying that Kathrada was brave, but not violent. However, there were times when the two would take to making explosions.

“These are some of the things we did. We blew up some government installations like post offices, pylons and various things like that for which some of us got arrested,” Jassat said.

A candlelight vigil, organised by youngsters in Johannesburg, was held on Thursday night after the auditorium was unveiled.

But as prayers and thoughts on Kathrada’s health slowly enter more deeply into the public consciousness, his legacy as pro-armed struggle or non-violent, as hero or maker of a mythical future, will still be formed.

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