Political prisoner recalls time on Robben Island

BY EMILY KRAACK AND LINDSEY WISNIEWSKI
Daily Staff Reporters
Published October 17, 2002

"Dr. Kathrada exemplifies what ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances can do," said Brent Chrite, director of the South Africa Initiatives Office, in his introduction of South African anti-Apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada at last night's lecture in West Hall.

Paul Wong
JOHN PRATT/Daily
A veteran of the South African liberation movement, Ahmed Kathrada was a political prisoner for 26 years on Robben Island. He spoke last night in West Hall about his experiences.

About 100 students and community members turned out to hear Kathrada speak on his experiences as a political prisoner on Robben Island, a prison in Capetown, South Africa reserved mainly for political prisoners.

The lecture, titled "A Life of Political Activism and Robben Island as a Symbol of Reconciliation and Memory," was presented by the Center for Afro-American and African Studies.

Kathrada and seven colleagues were given a life sentence based on accusations that they took part in African National Congress bombings of Apartheid buildings. He spent 18 years imprisoned in isolation.

Kathrada discussed the importance of freedom of speech while he was imprisoned. "One of the many deprivations that one suffers in prison is the deprivation of freedom of speech and now I'm making up for that 26 years."

"In prison, struggle takes limited form," he said.

He also discussed the difficulties of communicating with his colleagues while in prison.

"We had to communicate. It was our political duty. And we succeeded in doing that."

Kathrada spoke on the dehumanization of prison life, describing how prison guards made black prisoners, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, wear short pants, whereas "colored" prisoners were given long pants.

"Regardless of age, all black people were either boys or girls, and boys are supposed to wear short trousers."

Kathrada, who is of Indian origin, described other instances of Apartheid policies in prison. "By law, my (black) colleagues were given less sugar than we were. They were not allowed bread."

He spoke of eventual changes in prison policies due to pressure from his colleagues, such as larger rations to black inmates and hot water and beds for all prisoners. He also spoke of his mission to change attitudes while he was in prison.

"Our job was to humanize the guards," he said, " ... Fortunately, because of our demonstrations and hunger strikes, (abusive wardens) were removed from Robben Island."

Kathrada commented on the roles of passive resistance and civil disobedience in ANC activism, stating, "We graduated to passive resistance after other methods failed. And after passive resistance failed, we switched to an armed movement.

"We were taught from childhood ours was not a struggle against a people, it was against a system, against laws."

Forgiveness also played a crucial role in the peaceful transformation of South Africa into a democratic society. "People always ask me 'Why are you not bitter?' Bitterness, anger, hatred, revenge are all negative emotions and the ones who harbor those emotions are the ones that suffer the most," Kathrada said.

"As important as material change, we have changes in attitudes. Our former enemies are now working with us," Kathrada said.

"There are still many people who are in disbelief that 1994 did not end in disruption and bloodshed in South Africa." Chrite said about the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela. "The ANC has really set a standard with regard to peaceful democratic transformation."

LSA Student Government President Monique Luse introduced Kathrada, reminding the audience, "We are in the presence of living history." She also spoke on her experience studying at Robben Island. "It's a place that can change you ... As a student activist on campus, you become quite apathetic. But meeting Mr. Kathrada showed me this is something that could be my life."

In a question and answer session following the lecture, various audience members brought up the topic of divestment from Israel as a parallel to the divestment that occurred in reaction to South African Apartheid.

"We are not in a condition to prescribe to anyone anywhere how they should conduct their struggle," Kathrada said. "We hope and pray and work toward peaceful negotiations."

"I was taken aback by the questions (about divestment)," said LSA sophomore Stephanie Fitzwar. "They're important questions to be asked, but not now."

Kathrada urged students to take action in South Africa. "When we speak to you, we urge you to take an interest in our country. We've got a long way to go and we are confident that we will need your help."