Remembering Ahmed Kathrada, South Africa anti-apartheid leader

Nelson Mandela & Ahmed Kathrada

Funeral services were held March 29 for Ahmed Mohamed “Kathy” Kathrada, a longtime member of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress.  He died at the age of 87 after undergoing neurosurgery. Hundreds of family members and friends attended his memorial and paid tribute to the veteran of the decades-long national liberation struggle that brought the ANC to power in 1994.

Born on Aug. 21, 1929, to Indian immigrant parents in the Western Transvaal (now North West Province), Kathrada was subjected to discrimination by the racist system then dominated by the British. The Boers played a supplementary role.

In the former Union of South Africa’s (USA) settler-colonial state, Kathrada was instrumental in forming coalitions among the oppressed national groups throughout the country during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1941, at the age of 12, he joined the Young Communist League, an affiliate of the then-called Communist Party of South Africa.

Kathrada was heavily influenced by Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, a leader of the Indian Congress movement and the CPSA. Dadoo was an important figure in the Non-European United Front, which initially opposed African and Indian military involvement during World War II’s early phase.

After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Dadoo and other Communists shifted their positions to support the war on the basis that European fascism was a greater threat to oppressed peoples and Moscow. This position prompted opposition in the NEUF, as many members opposed Africans and Indians fighting in the ranks of the British military under any circumstances.

Nonetheless, the CPSA campaigned against racism inside the country during the war and founded the Anti-Segregation Council to oppose the Pegging Act (which restricted land ownership by the Indian population). Later, Dadoo and other leftists turned the tide against more moderate forces in the Indian Congress movement. After World War II, cooperation between the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses and the ANC intensified.

The ANC Youth League, formed in 1943, drafted its Program of Action in 1949. The post-war atmosphere among Africans and larger sections of South Africa’s Indian population became decisively militant and confrontational against the racist state.

These events in the African and Indian congresses led to Kathrada and others more closely cooperating with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, J.B. Marks and other ANC leaders. In 1947 a major advancement occurred in the national liberation movement with the signing of the Dadoo-Naicker-Xuma Pact. It solidified the ANC/South African Indian Congress alliance. Kathrada was a coordinator of joint actions among the youth wings of the ANC and SAIC.

In 1948, the National Party won a substantial margin in the all-white elections, making the Boer ruling elites the leading force within the USA. A renewed system of colonial occupation known as “apartheid” was formerly instituted.

Mass struggle and the Congress Alliance

During the early 1950s, the National Party passed the Suppression of Communism Act, the Pass Laws, Stock Limitation Regulations, the Group Areas Act, the Separate Representation of Voters Act, and the Bantu Authorities Act. (After the CPSA was banned in 1950, leaders reinstated the organization as the South African Communist Party.)  These laws were designed to thwart the burgeoning unity in action among Indian, African, “Colored” and progressive white forces. The Defiance Against Unjust Laws Campaign began in 1952, bringing thousands into the mass struggle to end apartheid.

By 1954, the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW)  was created, bringing together political forces, African, Indian, Colored and left-wing whites, and labor unions. FEDSAW mounted demonstrations against the pass laws, which required Africans to always carry documentation. Without the passes, people could be held in detention.

A major advancement in the movement happened on Oct. 27, 1955, after 2,000 women demonstrated at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The ANC Women’s League and FEDSAW organized the historic action, aimed at delivering a statement demanding the repeal of pass laws. Cabinet ministers refused to accept the documents.

The South African History website reads: “Ida Mntwana led the march (October 27, 1955) and the marchers were mainly African women from the Johannesburg region. The Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Verwoerd … refused to receive a multiracial delegation.” (

Nearly a year later a larger demonstration took place — a turning point in the struggle. The same article stresses:  “On August 9, 1956, 20,000 women from all parts of South Africa staged a second march on the Union Buildings. Prime Minister Strijdom, who had been notified of the women`s mission, was not there to receive them.”

South African revolution’s armed phase

Although under banning orders for political activities, Kathrada was heavily involved in the formation and early operations of the ANC-SACP military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). In July 1963, after going underground, Kathrada and other other MK leaders were arrested at the Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia during a law-enforcement raid. Mandela had been arrested the year before with the CIA’s assistance and charged with leaving the country illegally. Mandela had traveled from 1961 to 1962 to Ethiopia and Morocco to receive military training. He was caught at a roadblock while posing as a driver for a white family.

In 1964, Kathrada along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were tried for treason and found guilty in an apartheid court. Although they faced the death penalty, this racist court sentenced the ANC-SACP leaders to life in prison without parole and hard labor. Mandela, the last to be released, served over 27 years in prison at Robben Island, Pollsmoor and a  Western Cape residence.

By the time the ANC and SACP leaders were released, the support and membership within the national liberation movement had grown exponentially. Under ANC leadership, MK issued a declaration in August 1990 suspending the armed struggle in preparation for negotiations. Attempts to sabotage the transition process caused thousands more people to die in apartheid-regime-backed violence and targeted assassinations.

Finally, the ANC won the right to hold democratic elections on April 27-28, 1994. The ANC won nearly two-thirds of the vote in favor of constituting a coalition government with the National Party and other small groupings. The NP withdrew from the government in 1995. The ANC has controlled the South African state’s executive and legislative branches since then.

Kathrada and post-apartheid South Africa

Kathrada was elected to parliament during the 1994 elections. Five years later he declined to seek re-election, ending his involvement in electoral politics. South Africa has undergone tremendous reforms since then. However, basic aspects of capitalist rule have not been fundamentally altered.

Land ownership and control of mining and finance are still major sources of debate and struggle. Factionalism within the ANC, which has always existed to a limited degree, has taken on wider dimensions in recent years.

At Kathrada’s memorial, It was mentioned that he had written an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, current ANC leader, suggesting that he should step down in light of accusations of constitutional violations. There, former interim President and then Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe praised Kathrada’s contributions, but said, “It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to the life of comrade Ahmed Kathrada and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failure of politics.”

Zuma was absent from the memorial, explaining that he was respecting the family’s wishes.

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