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De­spite 18 years as a pris­oner, the strug­gle icon has re­turned more than 300 times to chap­er­one visi­tors, writes Biénne Huis­man

CityPress - - News -

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.”

WILL SMITH

BEY­ONCÉ

HUGH JACK­MAN

STE­VIE WON­DER

MOR­GAN FREE­MAN

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