Our final goodbyes
‘Growing up as a child, my dad always spoke about his brother in prison. As a child, you ask a lot of questions. It’s always natural for a child to ask: ‘Did he steal?’ Children do that when we speak of jail.
My dad promised me that on my 18th birthday, I would be on Robben Island to meet Uncle Kathy. On my 18th birthday, we were on the ferry. There was no physical contact, only the telephone, and this huge piece of glass separating us. It was our first meeting. We both cried. It was so emotional. The one hour was too short, but, within that hour, we bonded as uncle and niece.
He said: ‘Tell me about your life; tell me about your boyfriend,’ because I used to write to him about my boyfriend.
I did most of the talking. I asked him what they did there. He told me a few things, but did not tell us about having to crush stones or being placed in solitary confinement.
After he was transferred to Victor Verster Prison, I took my son, Yusuf, there. He was about three years old. Yusuf had been sitting on his lap; you know, he loved children. When the time was up, we got up and kissed Uncle Kathy, and the little one said: ‘Come Nana, you are coming with us.’
He said: ‘I’m not allowed to come because this uncle here – referring to a warden – won’t let us come.’
The little one turned to the warden, saying: ‘You are so naughty!’
February 11 was his last public event: the Victor Verster Walk, commemorating the day Tat’uMandela was released from prison.
Uncle Kathy got sick the next day in Cape Town and was admitted to hospital for tests. They discharged him, but a day later, he insisted he wanted to come back to Johannesburg. His wife, Barbara Hogan, said he was up at 4.30am. I met them at the airport. He got into the car and the first thing he said was: ‘I’m home.’
Doctors came to see him daily. He didn’t want to go to hospital. On March 3, Barbara said: ‘Zohra, we need to get Nana to the hospital.’
The day before he was hospitalised, he told one staff member: ‘I have one problem with this lady.’ He pointed at me. ‘She eats a lot. So, when I see my brother...’
I said: ‘When you see your brother in heaven, what are you going to tell him?’ He said: ‘I’m going to tell my brother you ate me bankrupt.’ I didn’t think that, when he talked about meeting his brother, it was a sign or a premonition.
That week before he was hospitalised, he was weak because he could not eat. We used to put a bell next to his bed, and when he pressed, we’d run. He kept on pressing the bell and we – me and Barbara – would run at the same time to get in the room.
I said: ‘Your highness, both your servants are here; what can we do for you?’ He laughed. We bowed.
He was admitted to hospital and a CT scan showed a clot on the brain. The family and Barbara decided that they had to do surgery to remove the clot.
On Monday, it was about 12pm and we were about to leave the hospital. I was holding his hand and kissed him on his forehead. I said: ‘I love you. I will see you in the morning.’
Those were my last words to him, but by then he was already semiconscious. I do believe he heard me because I said: ‘Can you press my hand?’ He did.
The last thing he said at the hospital was that he wanted to go home. Medically, we could not move him. That came out often these last few days. ‘Take me home.’ It was often said.
I just couldn’t attend the cemetery event. [Human Settlements Minister] Lindiwe Sisulu said: ‘Please come to Westpark Cemetery.’ But I couldn’t. I watched the beautiful sendoff on SABC. It was tranquil. It was dignified. It was exactly the person he was.
The memories will last forever. I’m a person who loves high heels. He used to worry about my back. ‘What’s going to happen to you when you get old? You need to start wearing flats.’
Wherever he went, he used to count heels. He had this thing about heels. ‘You know, Zohra, today I went to a function and there were only four heels, and you were the fourth one. Everybody else was in flat shoes.’
He did have regrets. He said one day that his one regret was not to have had children. He loved children. And in the last couple of months, we took him to schools to interact with children, from little ones up to matric. To be with them is what he enjoyed.
About his involvement in the struggle, he had no regrets. Not long ago, he told someone that he would do it all over again.”
PAYING TRIBUTE Zohra Kathrada-Aerington, Ahmed Kathrada’s niece, speaks about the family’s grief after his death this week