In Prison With Nelson Mandela | KCUR

In Prison With Nelson Mandela

Dec 6, 2013
Originally published on December 17, 2013 9:58 am

Anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada spent almost 27 years in prison with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Earlier this year, he gave President and Michelle Obama a tour of his former prison.

Here & Now’s Robin Young spoke to Kathrada in July. Today we present an excerpt of that conversation.


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And stories continue to flow about Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter who took up arms against South Africa's brutal white minority regime and was called a terrorist by many, including the U.S., before the whole world took up his anti-apartheid call. After 27 years in prison, he took up a passionate fight for reconciliation. And it's hard to think of a living world figure who'd inspire this kind of response. Irish rock singer Bono reminded CBS's Charlie Rose of a story Mandela once told him about prison.


BONO: I'm not sure if people understand that he - he had an operation on his tear ducts because when he worked on Robben Island in the salt mines, the salt sort of burned out his tear ducts. So this man, this figure that will be remembered not just in South Africa, not just in Africa but from China, Asia, everywhere, a man who could move so many people to tears himself could not cry.

YOUNG: Ahmed Kathrada also has memories of Robben Island. A former leader in the African National Congress, Ahmed spent nearly 27 years in prison with his close friend Mandela, 18 on Robben Island. Now, Ahmed is the head of the Robben Island Museum Council, guiding world leaders, including former foes like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on tours of the former prison. A more recent visitor, President and First Lady Obama last July. And at that time, he shared his memories with us.


AHMED KATHRADA: Robben Island was microcosm of apartheid as it existed outside. In other words, there were different laws applying to different communities. I'm an Indian-South African. The whites were, of course, treated the best, but they were not with us on the island. And the blacks were at the bottom of the ladder so that the first thing when we landed on the island, all my colleagues my leaders, Mr. Mandela and others, because they were black, they had to wear short trousers.

YOUNG: Short trousers.

KATHRADA: I was given long trousers. In the mornings with the breakfast, we had the same breakfast, but I was given more sugar. Not that mine was too much, but more sugar than Mandela but less than our political colleagues who are white. I was given a quarter-loaf of bread every day. Mr. Mandela was given bread for the first time after 10 years. So that was a microcosm of how apartheid applied in the whole of South Africa, in everything.

YOUNG: How was Nelson Mandela - we know how inspirational he was when he walked out of that prison. How inspirational was he inside the prison?

KATHRADA: Immediately on our arrival, he spoke to us on behalf - and he always insists he belongs to a collective. So he was speaking to us on behalf of the other three most-senior leaders of the ANC. And he said, we are no longer leaders. We are ordinary prisoners. We don't make policy. We don't give instructions. And he behaved like an ordinary prisoner. No preferential treatment. 1977, he was offered release after 13 years. He refused. 1965, all of us were offered release. Most of us refused, or a handful just accepted. But in prison work, you know, there was hard work at the lime quarry with pick and shovels, he was with us.

YOUNG: So he refused to see himself as above or more than, even though the whites considered him a leader in the movement and blacks outside of prison did as well. He refused to see himself that way. You know, tell us why you were arrested. What have you done?

KATHRADA: Well, we - after the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress were declared illegal in 1960, there was no more room for peaceful protest. Any peaceful protest was crushed by the police and the army. That is when Mr. Mandela took the initiative to go on to what was called an armed struggle. I must immediately say there was no - we never envisioned an armed victory or a military victory. This was going to be in addition to the pressures of the political struggle in the country - strikes and boycotts and so forth - and the international solidarity. A combination of those to force the enemy to the negotiating table, that was the aim of the armed struggle as well.

The armed struggle consisted of training, recruits and the manufacture and the planting of bombs. And these bombs were planted in all these institutions where you had signs saying non-Europeans not allowed, non-Europeans and dogs not allowed. Europeans only. So those were destroyed in the bombs. But an oath had to be taken that when bombs are placed, no harm will be done to human beings. So that's how the armed struggle was conducted, and that's what we were eventually arrested for and sentenced.

YOUNG: But people were killed.

KATHRADA: There were very few incidents where units of this - of our armed wing against discipline. One placed a bomb outside a restaurant and another one in Church Street, which it was aimed at the army. But unfortunately, some civilians also suffered. But those were just very few incidents. Definitely less than 10 people were killed, and that was, as I said, as a result of the units not sticking to discipline.

YOUNG: Well, and as you said, it was decided by the leaders of the movement that there were just no more avenues of peaceful protest. And then students from Soweto came into the streets unarmed were killed in the hundreds. That seemed to be a turning point. I'm wondering if you find yourself looking around the world at different uprisings in which people think they're being treated unjustly and find yourself wondering how will history view them.

KATHRADA: Well, for instance, we were called terrorists by Margaret Thatcher, by President Reagan, by all the Western powers, except for the Scandinavian countries. We were called terrorists. They would have nothing to do with us. But we had the approach that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Civil society throughout the world, including America, did not consider us to be terrorists. The communist countries were our very big allies, and then, of course, India, which had been liberated. The African countries were being liberated in the '60s, and as they were liberated, they became our friends.

YOUNG: On the other hand, you took Margaret Thatcher through Robben Island. This, of course, years later. How do you keep yourself from saying something to someone who was behind your being imprisoned there?

KATHRADA: No. But when we forgave our oppressors, I mean, the others were not the same. Our oppressors were the main people who were our enemies. We forgave them. And our policy of non-racialism was politically and in practice the only correct alternative we had. Because unlike other colonial countries, the Portuguese went home from Mozambique and Angola. The British went home from India. The Spaniards went home. Our oppressors had no other home. And they were not a few thousand. They were a couple of million. This was their country. They were born here. They had no other home.

So practically and politically, we had no alternative but to forgive them and to work towards getting them into a united South Africa. Bitterness, anger, revenge - those are negative emotions. And people who harbor them suffer more than the people towards whom it is directed.

YOUNG: Former ANC leader Ahmed Kathrada, speaking to us in July about his friend Nelson Mandela whose funeral will be December 15. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.