My Love FOR UNCLE KATHY
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.”
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