South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Ahmed M. Kathrada

(August 21, 1929 - )

Ahmed M. Kathrada is a veteran of the South African liberation struggle and one of the famous Rivonia trialists, and was a long-serving political prisoner on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Maximum Prison, and ANC leader and member of parliament.

Ahmed Mohamed "Kathy" Kathrada was born on 21 August 1929, to Indian immigrant parents in Schweizer Reneke, a small town in the Western Transvaal (now Gauteng Province). While he was at Johannesburg Indian High School, he came under the influence of Dr Yusuf Dadoo and the Cachalia brothers, leaders of the freedom movement. His political work began in 1941, at an early age of 12 when he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa and during World War II, he was involved in the anti-war campaign of the Non-European United Front.

At the age of 17 he left school to work full-time in the offices of the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council. At the time, in 1946, the South African Indian Congress had launched the Passive Resistance Movement against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, commonly referred to as the "Ghetto Act". The Act sought to give Indians limited political representation and defined the areas where Indians could live, trade and own land. The act was vehemently opposed. Kathrada was one of the 2000 volunteers imprisoned in that campaign and served a month in a Durban jail along with other ardent resisters such as Monty Naicker, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Dr Goonam, George Singh, Mrs Gool, M D Naidoo and others. This was his first jail sentence for civil disobedience. Kathrada was a founding member of the Transvaal Indian Volunteer Corps and that of its successor, the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress.

While a student at the University of the Witwatersrand and as chairperson of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress, Kathrada attended the World Youth Festival in Berlin, 1951. He was elected leader of the large multi-racial South African delegation. He remained overseas to attend a Congress of the International Union Students in Warsaw, Poland and it was during this that he visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz, which impressed upon him the urgent need to eradicate racism in South Africa. He finally traveled to Budapest and worked at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth for nine months.

As the alliance between the African and Indian Congresses developed, Kathrada came into close contact with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, J B Marks and other African leaders. The signing of the Dadoo-Naicker-Xuma Pact in 1947 strengthened the Alliance, which comprised the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress . Kathy worked tirelessly to promote joint action as a leader of the Youth Action Committee co-ordinating the youth wings of the African, Indian and other Congresses.

In 1952, Kathy helped organize the 'Campaign of Defiance against Unjust laws', launched jointly by the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress. The Defiance campaign targeted six unjust apartheid laws, amongst them being the Pass Laws, stock limitation regulations, the Group Areas Act, the separate representation of Voters Act, the Suppression of Communism Act and the Bantu Authorities Act. The Government was called upon to repeal these laws by 29 February 1952. Failing this, the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress were to launch a joint campaign of Defiance. In 1953 Kathrada was elected to executive of World Federation of Democratic Youth

Kathrada was among a group of twenty officials who were charged with organizing the Defiance Campaign. They were given a suspended sentence of nine months. In 1954 he was served with banning orders prohibiting him from attending any gatherings and from taking part in the activities of 39 organizations. These bans curtailed his overall participation in politics, but it did not deter him.

In 1955 when Indian schools in Johannesburg were moved out of the city to a segregated location of Lenasia, some 22 miles away, he helped organize the Central Indian High School parents’ Association (serving a private school established to combat the Group Areas Act), and was duly elected as secretary. In the same year, he helped organize the multi-racial 'Congress of the People', which proclaimed the 'Freedom Charter', a policy document of the Alliance. Kathrada served on the Alliance's General Purpose Committee.

Kathrada was arrested for treason in December 1956 in a nationwide swoop. 156 leaders of the freedom movement were arrested. The trial lasted from 1957 until March 1961 but Kathrada nevertheless continued his political activities. Eventually all 156 leaders were found not guilty. Kathrada was restricted to the Johannesburg area in 1957 and following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he was detained for five months during the State of Emergency. In 1961 Kathrada was arrested for serving on a strike committee that opposed Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd's plan to declare South Africa a Republic.

In December 1962, Kathy was subjected to 'house arrest' for 13 hours a day. He went underground and continued attending secret meetings at Rivonia, the underground headquarters of the African National Congress. It was there that he was arrested with other leaders of the underground movement in July 1963. It was his 18th arrest on political grounds. Although he was then no longer a member of the MK Regional Command, he was tried with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg and other leaders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964. They were charged with organizing and directing Umkhonto we Sizwe ('Spear of the Nation'), the military wing of the African National Congress. They were found guilty of committing specific acts of sabotage. At the age of 34, in 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island where he spent the next 18 years with his colleagues in the isolation section of the Maximum Security Prison. In October 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town to join Mandela, Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni who had been moved there a few months before. He was released on 15 October 1989, at the age of 60. On his release, he was given a hero’s welcome in Soweto where he addressed a crowd of 5 000 people. Kathrada remarked, "I never dreamed I would be accorded such status."

Sechaba, the organ of the African National Congress, described Kathy as 'brave as a lion' and 'absolutely fearless'. Walter Sisulu wrote; "Kathy was a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old." He pursued his academic studies while in prison and first obtained a B.A. (History and Criminology). He went on to attain a B. Bibliography – (Library Science and African Politics) and two B.A. (Hons) degrees from the University of South Africa, one in African politics and an in history. In addition he has been awarded four Honourary Degrees, including one from as far afield as the University of Missouri The ANC’s highest possible accolade, the Isitwalandwe Award was bestowed upon him while he was in prison.

Following the Unbanning of the ANC in February 1990, Kathrada served on the ANC Interim Leadership Committee and Interim Leadership Group of the South African Communist Party. He gave up the latter position when he was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee at its conference in July 1991. Kathrada became Acting head of the ANC's Department of Information and Publicity, head of Public Relations in 1991. Also that year he was appointed a fellow of the University of Western Cape’s Mayibuye Centre. In 1992 he went on Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). He was elected a Member of Parliament in 1994 after South Africa's first democratic elections. In 1994-5 he was elected Chairperson of the Robben Island Council. He also served as a Parliamentary Counsellor in the office of the president and thereafter in June 1999 he took leave of parliamentary politics. Today, he serves as the Chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council.


Chetty, K. (undated). ‘Ahmed Kathrada: a biography’ ( (accessed 2 December 2003)
Reddy, E.S. (ed)(1992). ‘Indian South Africans in the struggle for national liberation: Evidence of Molvi Ismail Ahmad Cachalia in the South African Treason Trial, 21-28 June 1960’, ( (accessed 3 December 2003).

Links for biographical notes by E.S. Reddy for Kathrada’s position on sabotage.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH