CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

Con­ver­sa­tions with a Gen­tle Soul by Ahmed Kathrada with Sahm Ven­ter Pi­cador Africa 256 pages R175

At home in South Africa, Kathy spends time with chil­dren of school­go­ing age as of­ten as he can, de­light­ing in their hon­est and in­no­cent ap­proach and an­swer­ing their ques­tions about what it once was like to live in the world. Why did he go to prison? What was it like? One of his favourites is: How old are you?

“Chil­dren don’t know colour; they quar­rel, they laugh, they play; they don’t fight each other be­cause of colour; that’s why our con­cen­tra­tion has to be at the school level,” he says.

In prison, chil­dren were not al­lowed to visit their par­ents un­til they reached the age of 16. Not hav­ing any chil­dren of his own made it im­pos­si­ble for Kathy to have con­tact with chil­dren for most of the 26 years and three months he was im­pris­oned.

Lay­ers of sound drifted around and into the cells. Pea­cock calls; “rowdy” seag­ulls; mo­tor-ve­hi­cle en­gines and rusted ex­haust pipes belch­ing into the sea air; the crunch­ing of boots on the stones out­side. Keys clang­ing locks open. And closed.

Even the crash­ing of waves against the dock in the evenings. But never the laugh­ter of chil­dren. The chil­dren of guards liv­ing in the staff quar­ters on Robben Is­land were kept far away from the pris­on­ers lest they glance at one or even hear the voice of a child.

While Kathy’s cell win­dow looked out to­wards the har­bour, it was not in view. When he stood on a pile of blan­kets he could see out and spent time gaz­ing at wild an­i­mals, mainly buck, which ap­proached the prison after hours. Some­times he caught a glimpse of peo­ple walk­ing along the path join­ing the prison and the har­bour. Never chil­dren.

Kathy yearned for chil­dren, even just to hear one cry. It was only after he was trans­ferred in 1982 from the is­land to Pollsmoor Prison on the main­land that he met his first child in more than 20 years.

“At Pollsmoor we were five po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers held to­gether and things were re­laxed. So my lawyer, Ramesh Vassen, came to see me on a le­gal mat­ter, but he came with his daugh­ter, Priya, and she wouldn’t stay in the car. Be­cause things were more re­laxed, the warder, I think it may have been Christo Brand...” he says of a prison guard who was kind to him in jail and with whom he still shares a friend­ship.

“... He said, ‘Let her come in’. And that is when I saw a child for the first time. Sit­ting on my lap. It was over­whelm­ing, you know.” His voice breaks. It clearly im­pacted him deeply. “First of all, dur­ing the in­ter­view there was hardly a se­ri­ous le­gal dis­cus­sion be­cause this lit­tle kid is sit­ting on my lap. I’m just stroking her hair and I’m talking to her fa­ther, but I think he had to come back for a proper brief­ing, a le­gal brief­ing.

She won’t re­mem­ber that. She was young then, but I’ve kept in touch; I still am in touch with those kids.” “How do you feel about not hav­ing had your own chil­dren?” “That thought has gone through me of­ten that I didn’t have my own kids. But then all these kids be­came my own and the more I see them, the more kids I gather. All chil­dren be­came my chil­dren.”

He lists the vis­its he has these days from chil­dren and the chil­dren he sees play­ing with each other or walk­ing around with their par­ents or guardians.

Katlego is not the only child in the apart­ment block; there are two oth­ers, Odirile and Om­phemetse, whose fa­ther works in the build­ing. “They are lit­tle sharks,” he laughs. “What do they do?” “They pop in and give me a big hug. But I know why they pop in, not only will they get sweets, there’s a drawer of mine that’s al­ways got sweets for them. They will also get some cash.” “Oh, they get cash as well?” “Yes, they get cash. I never leave them with­out cash.” “And some­times a lit­tle toy?” “A toy, yes. Toys they don’t get al­ways be­cause they do get


JOY­OUS Ahmed Kathrada greets chil­dren at the Lit­tle Rose Cen­tre in Klip­town, Soweto

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