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A t the men­tion of Ahmed Kathrada’s name, tears well up in Lindiwe Sisulu’s eyes. The hu­man set­tle­ments min­is­ter looks away, as if hop­ing the tears will dry up, but they con­tinue to roll down her cheeks.

“I told my­self I would not do this,” she says at Kathrada’s fu­neral on Wed­nes­day.

As Thoko Didiza, the ANC’s may­oral can­di­date for Tsh­wane, tries to com­fort her, Sisulu breaks down, prompt­ing Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Naledi Pan­dor to em­brace her and as­sure her that it will be okay in the end.

Sisulu has not lost an un­cle, but a man she refers to as her other fa­ther. He helped raise her and helped shape her into the woman she is to­day.

When she was born, her fa­ther, strug­gle icon Wal­ter Sisulu, was not there and Kathrada was at her home car­ing for her el­der si­b­lings.

“I was the first new­born baby he came into con­tact with,” Sisulu says.

“Ev­ery time we met, he would re­mind me of this. Now it’s like I have come full cir­cle; I am the one who has seen his de­par­ture from this world.”

Sisulu, like many oth­ers who adored Kathrada, hoped he would live be­yond 90. When she re­ceived a call last week in­form­ing her that he had a few hours left to live, she dropped ev­ery­thing and rushed to his side.

“I wanted to be there in his last mo­ments, just as he was there for me in my first mo­ments.”

She was shat­tered when she ar­rived at the Don­ald Gor­don Med­i­cal Cen­tre in Park­town to find him un­con­scious and un­aware of his sur­round­ings.

“Ev­ery­body around me told me to be strong. I con­vinced my­self that I would not cry when he was laid to rest. I guess I was not strong enough to­day.”

Play­ing nanny

Wal­ter and Al­bertina Sisulu were of­ten away from home when their chil­dren were grow­ing up. If they were not in pri­son, they were in meet­ings.

Kathrada took it upon him­self to look af­ter their three chil­dren and those of other com­rades. He en­sured they had food, went to school and were safe. On Satur­days, he would rally them to­gether and give them treats at his flat.

“We looked for­ward to Satur­days be­cause we knew he would spoil us with breyani from Es­sop Pa­had’s house, samoosas and ice cream.”

At some point, Kathrada be­came worn out af­ter look­ing af­ter about 10 chil­dren on Satur­days, so he de­cided to take them to bal­let school.

Sisulu says some would ab­scond from the school, but she would re­main be­cause she was fas­ci­nated by bal­let and fell in love with it.

“I don’t re­gret it now be­cause I got to learn and love bal­let. It’s all those things that I look back on and trea­sure about Un­cle Kathy’s con­stant pres­ence in my life,” she says.

De­spite ditch­ing his Satur­day “nanny job”, Kathrada con­tin­ued to look af­ter the Sisulu chil­dren: the el­dest, Max, was 13. See­ing that they were of­ten alone, he de­cided to send them to board­ing school in Swazi­land.

Through­out her board­ing school years, Kathrada kept in con­tact, of­ten vis­it­ing and writ­ing to them. When he stopped vis­it­ing, they re­alised that he had also been ar­rested.


Sisulu says she will al­ways be grate­ful to Kathrada for send­ing them to board­ing school.

“The fore­sight of some­body like him to pre­pare the chil­dren of his com­rades so that, when the storm comes, the chil­dren are some­where safe – so that who­ever was on trial at the time would be fo­cused on the sim­ple pur­pose of ded­i­cat­ing their lives to the strug­gle – is be­yond re­mark­able,” she says.

“Here was some­body who had no child, but cared for other peo­ple’s chil­dren. This re­al­i­sa­tion came to me as I got older.

“As a fam­ily, we are grate­ful to him be­cause, even when they were on Robben Is­land, he looked af­ter our fa­ther. Even as dad pro­gressed in age, Un­cle Kathy was al­ways there, mak­ing sure that he had eaten or done what­ever he needed to do.

“Just know­ing that there was some­body there look­ing af­ter him made it so much eas­ier for us be­cause most of us left and went into ex­ile, but we knew dad had fam­ily around him. My mum would visit dad and come back telling us what Kathy had done for him.

“She would say, ‘don’t worry about him, Kathy will do it’. He was a pil­lar for my dad and the en­tire fam­ily,” she says.

He was fam­ily

Sisulu says her fa­ther adored Kathrada. He con­sid­ered him as a mem­ber of the fam­ily to such an ex­tent that he would con­sult him even on mat­ters con­cern­ing the fam­ily.

Her brother, for­mer speaker of Par­lia­ment Max Sisulu, was ap­par­ently not im­pressed by the love his fa­ther had for Kathrada. He thought that he was tak­ing his fa­ther’s place, Sisulu says.

“I wasn’t jeal­ous of that be­cause he was my un­cle and I loved him, but it was prob­a­bly jeal­ousy for Max,” she says.

“When de­ci­sions were made at home, my fa­ther would ask if we had con­sulted Un­cle Kathy and mum would say: ‘Lis­ten, I have asked him and now we are dis­cussing it as a fam­ily.’ For dad, his fam­ily was not com­plete un­less Kathy was there or un­less Kathy’s views were taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.”

An ex­tra­or­di­nary bond

Even when Kathrada was ar­rested and sent to Robben Is­land, he kept in con­tact with the Sisulu chil­dren, es­pe­cially his favourite girl, Lindiwe. When she turned 21, he wrote a let­ter to her as a fa­ther would to his daugh­ter.

The let­ter of­fered en­cour­age­ment to hold on to her dreams, but also ad­vised her about the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing an adult.

“He said: ‘You are now 21 and now have re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Don’t for­get that your first re­spon­si­bil­ity is the ANC.’

“At that time, I wanted to study law at the Univer­sity of Leeds in the UK, but couldn’t be­cause I didn’t have the nec­es­sary pa­pers. He told me it didn’t mat­ter and to stay where I was [Univer­sity of Le­sotho] and do the best that I could. He said I should never lose hope, no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult the sit­u­a­tion was. He told me he was proud of me, and al­ways re­ceived my re­sults.”

He was the best

Sisulu says she wishes she could erect a mon­u­ment to Kathrada: “He de­serves such at thing. I look at his fam­ily and say they pro­duced a re­mark­able man for South Africa,” she says.

“He wrote to me when my hus­band died. It was two months ago. He said I wasn’t well, but he knew I was strong. He said he was al­ways proud of me and, ‘as a child, you’ve al­ways been ev­ery­thing I wanted to see in you’.”

What’s funny about that, says Sisulu, “is that ev­ery­thing I did, I copied from him”.

“In the first Cabi­net af­ter democ­racy, I be­lieve he de­served to be a min­is­ter. But he was the first one to say to Madiba: ‘You have so many peo­ple you should ac­com­mo­date, I will with­draw from be­ing a min­is­ter.’ Tell me, what other man would do that?”


DIS­TRAUGHT Lindiwe Sisulu at Ahmed Kathrada’s fu­neral on Wed­nes­day

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