Ahmed Kathrada dies at 87; Nelson Mandela’s trusted ally helped overturn apartheid in South Africa

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Ahmed Kathrada, a close confidante of Nelson Mandela who dedicated his life to opposing apartheid and racism, died in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning. He was 87.

Kathrada died after suffering a “short period of illness,” according to a statement from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. He was hospitalized earlier in March to receive treatment for blood clotting in his brain.

Kathrada, or Kathy as South Africans affectionately called him, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island during the apartheid era, with Nelson Mandela and 10 other anti-apartheid activists, all arrested in a 1963 police raid on their hideout at Liliesleaf Farm, north of Johannesburg.

Kathrada, an African National Congress activist, played a major role in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He called Mandela his “elder brother,” and mourned his 2013 death with the words, “My life is a void.”

In 1989, at the age of 60, he was released from prison and soon met a woman who would be his life partner, Barbara Hogan, another ANC activist. She had been jailed for 10 years for high treason. The couple never had children.

Kathrada was elected to parliament in the first democratic elections in 1994 and became an advisor to Mandela.

Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, believes South Africa could have been plunged into civil war in the 1990s if not for Mandela, Kathrada and other activists.

“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 said.

After his release, getting used to devices such as cellphones and computers, Kathrada occasionally missed the calm reflective moments of prison.

“I missed prison. 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.

He believes Robben Island, now a museum, should not be seen as a memorial to the brutality of apartheid.

“We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness, a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness,” he said. The words are inscribed near the entrance of Robben Island prison.

Kathrada is survived by his partner, Hogan.


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