Despite 18 years as a prisoner, the struggle icon has returned more than 300 times to chaperone visitors, writes Biénne Huisman
outh African moral icon Ahmed Kathrada has chaperoned the likes of US President Barack Obama and R&B star Beyoncé Knowles around Robben Island.
Since his release from prison in 1990, Kathrada has made hundreds of trips to the island, showing world leaders, dignitaries and celebrities around the terrain where he had been incarcerated for 18 years.
As an adviser to President Nelson Mandela after 1994, he was tasked by Mandela – “his boss” – to accompany the dignitaries.
During an interview on Friday, City Press asked which of these encounters touched him the most. The 85-year-old Rivonia Trialist didn’t skip a beat: playing guide to a 13-year-old girl from the farming town of Bethal, Mpumalanga, in 1998 remains dear to his heart. Her name was Michelle Brits and she died soon after the visit.
At his flat in Cape Town on Friday, Kathrada showed City Press a framed photograph of Brits. It has pride of place in his lounge. “I have a picture of her at my home in Johannesburg too,” he says.
“Michelle Brits was a girl from Bethal who, knowing she was ill with leukaemia, made two dying wishes. One was to visit Robben Island and the second was to meet president Mandela.
“I happened to be on Robben Island accompanying Nadine Gordimer when Michelle’s parents, recognising me, sent her to me for my autograph and a photo. I showed her around.
“This touched me so deeply. I mean, an Afrikaner child from Bethal whose biggest wish was to see Robben Island and to meet the president.”
When he got back from Robben Island that day, Kathrada spoke to Mandela about Brits’ terminal illness, and her two wishes. Typically, Madiba got into his helicopter to visit the dying teenager in Bethal.
Kathrada’s recollection of Brits opens his new book, Triumph of the Human Spirit: Ahmed Kathrada and Robben Island, which is a chronicle of his more than 300 trips to the island.
“You have taken me out of Robben Island, but you can’t take Robben Island out of me,” he writes in one of the book’s opening paragraphs.
Another standout memory, he says, was accompanying nowdeceased Libyan revolutionary leader Muammar Gaddafi – who insisted on steering the boat to the island.
“I remember because Gaddafi wanted to steer the ferry. The ferry’s captain did actually allow him to steer the boat for a section.”
In 1998, he escorted former Cuban president Fidel Castro to the island, saying the notorious smoker refrained from lighting his cigars during the trip.
The book quotes a speech Castro delivered at the time: “Nelson Mandela will be remembered for his generosity and for his wisdom ... [He was] aware that the new South Africa would never be built on foundations of hatred and revenge.”
Photographs in the book also show Barack and Michelle Obama in the courtyard, outside Section B, where Kathrada and Madiba were imprisoned.
This is the courtyard where Mandela grew tomatoes and secretly began writing his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Another picture shows actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger smiling broadly next to Kathrada and former sports minister Ngconde Balfour.
The Kathrada Foundation’s director, Shan Balton, says it took two years of researching diaries and old emails to compile the book, which was officially launched in Cape Town yesterday.
At his apartment, Kathrada also showed City Press a picture of himself on a ferry with Beyoncé. Has he since become a fan of her music? “Oh no,” he laughs, shaking his head. “I don’t know her music. I didn’t really know who most of these Hollywood stars were.”