Ahmed Kathrada, anti-apartheid activist, dies at 87

Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who spent decades in jail with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, died Tuesday morning in Johannesburg. The son of Indian migrants was 87.

Ahmed Kathrada speaks during the state funeral for Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape province, on December 13, 2013. Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist with Mandel, died Tuesday in Johannesburg. File Photo by Kopano Tlape/EPA
Ahmed Kathrada speaks during the state funeral for Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape province, on December 13, 2013. Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist with Mandel, died Tuesday in Johannesburg. File Photo by Kopano Tlape/EPA

Kathrada, who was known as Kathy, “passed away peacefully after a short period of illness, following surgery to the brain” at Donald Gordon Hospital, a statement from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation said. He was hospitalized earlier this month for treatment for blood clotting in his brain.

In 1963 at age 34, he was sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and 10 other anti-apartheid activists. Police raided their hideout at Liliesleaf Farm, north of Johannesburg.

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He remained in prison until he was 60.

Kathrada soon met Barbara Hogan, now 65, another African National Congress activist jailed for 10 years for high treason, who would become his partner. They never had children.

In the first democratic elections in 1994, Kathrada was elected to the Parliament and became an adviser to Mandela. They both served one term.

Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, believes Mandela and Kathrada helped prevent a civil war in the 1990s.

“People like Kathy have helped because of their lack of bitterness, their magnanimity and generosity of spirit and willingness to forgive, even after so much suffering,” Tutu told the Los Angeles Times.

Kathrada retired to Robben Island at a private house for nearly five years as president of the Robben Island Museum.

“I missed prison,” he said. “There, they open the gates for you and close the gates. They provide food. There was a lot of time to think and discuss. That time was gone,” he told one journalist.

Kathrada moved to Johannesburg to live with his aunt when he was 8 because there was no school for Indians in his hometown of Schweizer-Reneke. His parents came from Gujarat.

“So when I was arrested in the Free State in 1955, the head of police said, ‘I’ve never seen an Indian in my life. I’ve got a cell for whites, I’ve got a cell for blacks. I don’t have a cell to put you,'” Kathrada said in an interview with NPR.

Kathrada, along with Mandela, was one of 156 anti-apartheid activists charged in the four-year Treason Trial in 1956. All were later acquitted.

In the early 1960s, he dated a white woman, Sylvia Neame, also an anti-apartheid activist.

Neame fled South Africa soon after her release in 1965.

By Allen Cone