Anti-apartheid leader Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s white minority government — much of that time alongside the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela — died Tuesday at age 87.
Kathrada late in life became such a scathing critic of current President Jacob Zuma, even pleading with him to resign, that he requested Zuma not attend his funeral, the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday. Kathrada had been distressed by the numerous corruption allegations against the leader of a country he had long fought to see exist.
“I can imagine how pained he was that he left at this point in time,” said Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who wept at Kathrada’s memorial and had supported his call last year for Zuma’s departure. “It is a tragedy that he did live and saw what is happening today.”
She and other friends defended Kathrada’s remarks even as senior members of the ruling African National Congress criticized them.
Kathrada died at a Johannesburg hospital after being admitted for surgery linked to blood clotting on the brain. His funeral was set for Wednesday morning.
Zuma, meanwhile, described Kathrada as a much-loved member of South Africa’s long liberation struggle and ordered the national flag to be flown at half-mast at all government buildings.
“The struggle denied Ahmed Kathrada the opportunity to have children of his own; he was first imprisoned at the age of 17. But many South Africans looked up to him as a favorite grandparent,” Nobel laureate and former archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement.
Kathrada was born in 1929 to a scholarly Muslim family and became involved in political activism at the age of 11. He joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s and, as general-secretary of the Transvaal Indian Congress, was instrumental in linking it to the ANC. He later became a member of the ANC military wing’s high command.
He was acquitted in the 1956-61 mass treason trial but was placed under house arrest in 1962. He went underground a few months before being swept up in the arrests of anti-apartheid activists at Liliesleaf Farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg in 1963. Kathrada and Mandela were part of a group sentenced to life imprisonment after the historic Rivonia trial in 1964.
Kathrada denied all charges against him and was convicted on only one count, sabotage.
He was released from prison in 1989, just months before Mandela himself walked free. In 1994 as Mandela was elected president, Kathrada was chosen as the first all-race parliament for the ANC.
Later in life, Kathrada would recall his friend Mandela’s “abundant reserves” of love, patience and tolerance during their long years in prison on Robben Island. He said it was painful when he saw Mandela for the last time in his hospital bed.
“He tightly held my hand, it was profoundly heartbreaking,” Kathrada said in 2013. “How I wish I never had to confront what I saw. I first met him 67 years ago, and I recall the tall, healthy strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel when we couldn’t do so.”
During the past year, Kathrada was a regular at demonstrations and marches around South Africa, frequently offering his support to students protesting for free education.
But it was a letter he wrote to the president last year, after South Africa’s highest court found that Zuma had violated his oath of office, that brought Kathrada back into the headlines.
The court made the finding after Zuma had refused to abide by an order to pay back some of the millions of dollars in public money spent on upgrading his rural home.
“Dear Comrade President, don’t you think your continued stay as president will only serve to deepen the crisis of confidence in the government of the country,” Kathrada wrote.
A fellow target in the Rivonia trial, 91-year-old Andrew Mlangeni, said Tuesday that his friend criticized the ANC because he loved it and “was prepared to say where it had gone wrong.”
Kathrada was married to former government minister Barbara Hogan, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail for high treason against the apartheid government in 1982.