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Mandela's right–hand man and prison mate on his “elder brother and mentor”

Ahmed Kathrada went to jail with Nelson Mandela, and in Mandela's later years sometimes acted as his spokesperson.

Ahmed Kathrada (left) gives Barack Obama and his family a tour of Robben Island in June 2013. Photo: Getty.

I met Ahmed Kathrada on a chilly autumn day in 2010. A book of Nelson Mandela’s personal papers, including transcripts of taped conversations and letters, was being released. Mandela, even then, was too unwell to travel to promote the book, so Kathrada – his closest friend and adviser – was doing the media rounds on his behalf.

About a decade younger than Mandela, Kathrada was in his 80s and needed assistance to walk. He told me that in the last few years, they had started to call each other “Madala”, or “old man”, a sign of their affection and mutual trust. There was good reason for this trust: they both stood in court at the high profile Rivonia Trial, and subsequently spent 26 years in jail together. After their long captivity and the end of apartheid, they stood in parliament together, too; while Mandela was president, Kathrada was a member of parliament for the African National Congress (ANC).

He told me about the first time he met Mandela, when Kathrada was just a teenager. “Two law students whom I knew studied with Mr Mandela at the University of Johannesburg. That was 1945 or 1946, so well over 60 years ago. At that time, non-white people who were professionals – doctors, lawyers, or even university students – were so few that you were immediately in awe of them. And that’s what these three were. Mr Mandela, the first time I met him, I thought, ‘he is a university student, so he must be something special’.”

In 1963, Kathrada and Mandela were among 10 men charged in the Rivonia Trial. Aimed at silencing the leadership of the ANC, this trial resulted in Mandela’s long, famous incarceration at Robben Island.

“The relationship [between those of us standing trial] became stronger because right from the start, we had taken a collective decision of how to approach this case,” says Kathrada. “It was not a criminal case, but a political one. As the case proceeded it became clear that we were going to die, because the law provided for the death sentence for these crimes. It seemed that nothing could save us. But among the eight of us we had four of the most senior leaders of the African National Congress and if they cracked, the morale of people outside would just plummet. We were all together.

“We decided that those that went in the witness box would not apologise for what we had done. In fact, we would proclaim our political beliefs again in court. No apologies. We said to ourselves: even if there is a death sentence, you are not going to apologise. You are not going to ask for mercy. Uppermost in your mind is your responsibility to yourself, to your family and to the community.”

On the subject of Mandela, the man he described as an “elder brother and mentor”, he was affectionate but measured, in the way that true friends are. “He makes it clear that he never pretended to be a saint. He has got shortcomings, the weaknesses of ordinary people.”

As Kathrada has it, one of these weaknesses was vanity. He described how, prior to the Rivonia Trial, he was on a small committee tasked with looking after Mandela while he was underground. “He was already well known at that time. Pictures of him, with his beard, had been appearing, and we suggested he should shave it off. He just refused. That beard went with him to his training camp in Algeria – you can see a photograph. He came back with the beard. It only went in prison after he was arrested.”

Kathrada went on to relay a story of when he, Mandela, and three other Rivonia trialists were transferred suddenly to Pollsmoor prison in 1982. “After all those years in separate cells on Robben Island, we were sharing a cell, and we could see each other’s habits again. Mr Mandela was very attached to Pantene hair oil. It had stopped being manufactured, but he is a very determined person. He wanted his Pantene and he went to the highest prison authorities. He did not believe them when they said manufacturing had stopped. Eventually the prison authorities instructed some poor chap to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to find it. He brought back whatever he could.”

I asked whether Mandela had lived up to expectations in power. “He would be the first to say that whatever progress we made was as a collective, and he was a symbol of that collective,” said Kathrada. “And he will say the same thing: we can’t be satisfied. We have made progress, but we have a long way to go. But he took very, very significant steps in the years he was president. The question of forgiveness and reconciliation was the policy of the organisation. He didn’t invent that, but it was his style. When he emerged from prison and became president, among the first things he did was to invite the widows and wives of former presidents – apartheid presidents – to tea. Maybe another president would not have done that.”

Today, as the world reels from the passing of Mandela at the age of 95, Kathrada issued a moving statement bidding farewell to “my elder brother, my mentor, my leader”:

“While we may be drowned in sorrow and grief, we must be proud and grateful that after the long walk paved with obstacles and suffering, we salute you as a fighter for freedom to the end.”