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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

17 Feb 1994: Kathrada, Ahmed

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AK     Originally there was the position that for any party to have representation in the Constituent Assembly it has to have 5% of the vote. That has now been done away with but to be represented in the Cabinet the 5% threshold still - even smaller parties with a small number of votes will still be able to get in.

POM     Into parliament, not ...?

AK     Into parliament but not into the Cabinet. There they have to have 5%.

POM     When you look back over this whole negotiating process at where you were four years ago are you surprised that you have come this far this quickly or are you the opposite?

AK     Well if I were, in 1989 when we were released, if I were to have looked ahead from that time I don't think I would have been able to speculate. In that sense it is a surprise. Things have moved very rapidly on the one hand. On the other hand they have not.

POM     When you look at the two sides with the ANC and the National Party what do you see as the major concessions made by each group in the negotiations?

AK     I think that the major concession we have made first of all is the entrenchment of the constitutional principles which will be binding on the Constituent Assembly. Originally of course we were very strongly of the view that the entire constitution should be drawn up at the Constituent Assembly but this concession we had made very early on already that only the principles should be entrenched. We have now added to those principles. The latest concessions we made yesterday where we have now entrenched further principles.

POM     Those principles entrenched yesterday are?

AK     Over the powers of provinces. I myself have not studied them, that was one of the things that I could think of. I'm almost sure the question of powers to structure the provincial legislature, the provincial assembly is now entrenched in the principles and then the question of taxation powers of the provinces. I'd have to check on that because I haven't seen the final written offers that we have made. We were all at a meeting where we discussed this but I haven't seen the final form of it yet. We have also made a concession on the government of national unity which is going to be, on the interim constitution which is going to last for five years. That's another major concession we have made. And all along the line we have made concessions to have the new dispensation as inclusive as possible.

POM     In the new Cabinet how will decisions be taken?

AK     Hopefully by consensus. That's the very nature of the composition of the new Cabinet.

POM     Let's say there isn't consensus?

AK     Well that's a hypothetical case. I think it will have to be dealt with if and when matters arise. Because one can't altogether forego the principle of majority rule. My feeling would be that as far as possible all decisions should be by consensus but on the other hand minorities should not be allowed to block progress because then the democratic principles should apply.

POM     And on the government's side? What concessions do you think they have made?

AK     Well they started off accepting the Constituent Assembly. They made that concession. They wanted the constitution written at the multiparty talks. They made a concession there in accepting the Constituent Assembly. They also had time and again come up with a tripartite, triumvirate. They have moved away from that. So they have made quite major concessions too. I can't recite them off hand. I personally have not been connected with the negotiation process itself. I'm sure you must have seen or will be seeing people who are directly involved, people like Valli Moosa, Maharaj, Ramaphosa and others who speak much more authoritatively on that. I have not even attended a single session of these talks.

POM     Do you think it would be a good or bad thing for the country for the ANC to secure more than two thirds of the vote?

AK     Well speaking selfishly of course I personally think it would be good for the country if we have got a policy which we would like to implement in the knowledge that we have over 66% of the people behind us. I think it would be a very positive development. That is what we are going to look for. But again, that should not create fear into anyone's mind because we are committed to whatever undertakings we have given. In other words we are not, even if we do get a two thirds majority it does not mean that we are now going to use that two thirds majority to ride roughshod over the decisions to which we are committed, like changing the constitution for instance. We are not going to do that, so no-one need have any fear there.

POM     When you look at the elements of the Freedom Alliance, Buthelezi on the one side and Mangope here and the right wing there, even just as a speculation do you think at this stage that they will come into the process and, two, if they don't come into the process ...?

AK     We have never underestimated the danger that they would present if they don't come into the process. That is why we have delayed and bent over backwards to reach the position that we did reach yesterday. We have had numerous bilaterals and talks with the Alliance itself. We are still continuing to have talks, we are still hoping that they will come in but we have now reached a position where this will be the final concession that we can make. As for the consequences of their not coming in, again we have no illusions. We know that they can cause disruption but we are also convinced that large numbers of people will appreciate, even the right wingers rank and file, will appreciate the concessions that we have made and they won't follow any violent path as a result of this.

POM     Do you see the violence coming more from the right wing than anywhere else?

AK     Well we think of course the greater danger is the white right wing. They are heavily armed. They have got influence in the security forces, the army and the police, the civil service. They also are well represented in major sectors which could cripple the country to some extent. What comes to mind immediately is electricity. Now they would have some influence there and what if they decide to sabotage that. So there is a potential to do harm but again we are hoping that with these concessions that we have made there will be moderate elements in the white right who would have second thoughts about this. Constand Viljoen for instance has seen war, he can speak authoritatively on war and he is not a belligerent man. The others are who don't know what war is. We think that he will have quite a bit of influence in avoiding such a situation.

POM     Is there any future for a party like the Conservative Party?

AK     Would there be any future?

POM     The winner in that situation is the National Party.

AK     Yes. If I was the Conservative Party I would get into the election because I don't think personally that President de Klerk still commands a majority of white votes in this country. It's very doubtful I think and certainly even more doubtful as far as the Afrikaners vote is concerned. So that if the Conservative Party comes in together with its allies they have a good chance that they can be the second largest and therefore automatically under the new constitution have the Deputy President's position and more Cabinet positions to. They can be the second biggest party in other words. They'd lose out if they stay out because if they do indulge in widespread instability and violence in the end they cannot triumph. They can postpone stability and the democratic purpose, they can delay it but they cannot win in the end.

POM     This could have a devastating effect on foreign investment. They will be slow to invest here with a number of low intensity wars going on.

AK     Well there again you see we are very conscious of that. We are conscious of the effects of instability in the country and it's influence on foreign investors and foreign agencies. That is again why we are going out of our way to make this all inclusive. On the other hand we also believe that once there is a democratic government in power we can control them with the security forces. I think it will be more effective in dealing even with the white right wing. You saw the position in Standerton yesterday where there was a planned march by the ANC to the municipal offices and then there was a counter demonstration by the white right. The police chose to shoot at the black demonstrators and injured 68 of them but they did nothing to the white right wing and that sort of a position will be real until such time as there is effective control over the security forces in a new dispensation.

POM     It will mean getting rid of senior personnel and people in the SAP.

AK     There again you see, this as you may recall came about as a result of a raid by the Goldstone Commission which uncovered the involvement of some of these senior security officials, officers. Up till now President de Klerk has not disclosed to us what has been found by the Steyn Commission, much more has been found there than has been disclosed. He has just taken overt action in retiring some of his Generals and other senior officers. We would still like to know exactly what was found there and it's quite likely that as has been revealed last weekend in Cape Town, it's quite likely that the commission found a greater involvement than the government itself, the Nationalists. I don't know if you saw last weekend there were revelations of Nationalist Party collusion in the Western Cape with the warlords. It has now been exposed and it's possible that he's trying to hid a similar example of collusion.

POM     Two or three years ago one of my questions was: which is more important, political empowerment or economic empowerment and if you had to choose between the two which would you choose? I must say when I saw Derek Keys and Trevor Manuel going to Washington to the IMF and The World Bank ...

AK     In my view we cannot separate the two, they are so inter-linked. We cannot for a moment report what Kwame Nkrumah said in Ghana where he said something to the effect that when one gets political power the economic power will come. Some such thing. It's not feasible here, the two just have to go together because once you get down to practicalities what is the meaning of economic empowerment? What's already happening by the white establishment, white private enterprise is they are having token promotion of blacks into managerial positions, they are still only token. At the bottom it means very little and that is their concept of what empowerment means, so that you just have to have the political empowerment as well to have that balance.

POM     Do you think that if the present attitudes prevail that you can have a free and fair election?

AK     Well the developments of the last week or so are going to make the task much more difficult but again listening to members of the Electoral Commission yesterday they seem not pessimistic about it but it was idealistic to imagine that it will all be very peaceful. There are areas for instance, although Chief Buthelezi said yesterday that although they are boycotting the elections they are not going to hamper them. That's what he says but it won't turn out that way. So that with the help of the monitors both local and international we hope that we will be able to have a free and fair election. There may be pockets ...

POM     The constitution says 'substantially free and fair', but with the question of which is the most important thing here, the question of establishing a legitimate government ...?

AK     No I say a legitimate government would have to take priority. You see the other problems that we are going to have, we have on the one hand the threat of the white right and the black right but if the election is going to take place they are going to have massive upheaval from the blacks, the oppressed. So one has to weigh that too and I would say that a legitimate government and a legitimate election should go a long way towards satisfying the feelings among the blacks.

POM     One reads about the economy here having been in decline for the past ten years, standards of living falling. In view of that and the ANC's reconstruction plan what is the least a resident of a township can reasonably expect five years after the new government comes in?

AK     You see we have prioritised such sectors, employment is vital, housing is vital, health, education, these are vital. Now according to our reconstruction programme, that has been drawn up with the assistance of a lot of research and a lot of assistance from experts within the country and abroad, from the academic world and otherwise, and we feel that if we can set in motion within a reasonable time after the election something that is visible to the people and we feel that by public works programmes and so forth it can have a ripple effect. When people start seeing that something is done we feel that we will be able to allay the danger of any mass dissatisfaction. Now we have been going out of our way, as Mr Mandela did even when we announced our election manifesto and as he has done on many public occasions, we have to temper the expectations among the people. We cannot make huge promises which we know we can't fulfil, so while we believe that our reconstruction programme is a feasible programme and all we can say is that we are going to try to implement that and we are confident that we will succeed in implementing that programme.

POM     When Derek Keys says at best we can reduce unemployment by 1% a year?

AK     We have said that we will provide employment for two million people over ten years. I think that is what the reconstruction programme is and there we feel that by massive public works we can achieve that. I think it is feasible and there is certainly, if there's stability, there's certainly a lot of international interest which will bring in more jobs, more employment. When you take a thing like housing, which as you know once a massive scheme is undertaken it has a spiral effect providing employment in various sectors related to housing. This is not just a programme which has come by a few people sitting in a smoke filled room and drawing it up. We have had seven drafts of the reconstruction programme and at every stage we have worked closely with the academics in this country and other experts from South Africa and abroad, people who have had experience in third world countries and in first world countries. So we have done everything possible to get their opinions and we think that what we have finally come to is feasible.

POM     I want to go back a little bit on your own background, where you were born, how you got involved, how you find South Africa now.

AK     I was born in a little place called Schweizer-Reneke in 1929. This has got the notoriety of having been the first little country town that gave the freedom of the town to the AWB and to Eugene Terre'Blanche. I was obliged to come to Johannesburg at the age of eight because of racial discrimination, I could not go to a white school nor to the African school, it was not allowed and the Indian community was so small that there wasn't a school so I had to come to Johannesburg. That was my first taste of racial discrimination where I could no longer play with the kids who were white and black.

POM     Did you come on a daily basis?

AK     No, no. I had to come and stay in Johannesburg because it was over 200 miles from Johannesburg so I could only go home during holidays. At school here in Johannesburg of course I met up with children of people who were already political and by visiting their houses I met the political people who were there and that's how I really got interested, that is one of the factors. I came to Johannesburg in 1938 but already because of my contact with these children and their homes, their parents, I already started taking an interest in politics. The in 1941 I joined the Young Communist League. Now that was the only youth organisation that was functioning in some of the areas and it ran a little Youth Club in the area where I lived and we got drawn to that, not out of any conviction or intellectual understanding of what we were joining at that age but the type of activities they were indulging in it wasn't all political, it was very interesting. And that's how I got drawn into the Communist Youth. And then of course came the setting up of the Indian Youth Congress of which I became an official and then in 1946 I was in my final year of matric and the Indian passive resistance started and I was visited by some of the senior activists and I left school in mid year without writing my matric to work full time in the office of the Passive Resistance Movement. Now I myself had my first term of imprisonment at the age of seventeen, it was during the Passive Resistance campaign. But during that movement 2000 volunteers were imprisoned, Indians mainly, very few non-Indians because essentially it was an Indian passive resistance movement against legislation that applied only to Indians, it was run by the Indian Congress.

POM     Were you imprisoned under Section 29?

AK     Well that came much later. In 1946 when I served my first term of imprisonment there was no such thing. What we did is - this law that we were defying really provided for stricter segregation between races, ownership and occupation of land and so forth, so an area was set aside in Durban which previously was an area which was free for occupation by all, but the 1946 legislation set aside that particular area and other areas for occupation only by whites so that volunteers who joined the Passive Resistance Movement were called upon to occupy that piece of land in defiance of this law and that's what we did and we were arrested and sentenced for that. Now that lasted about two years.

POM     How long were you in jail for?

AK     It was just a month all the sentences that time except for the leadership who were given six months and three months. The rest of the volunteers like us only got a month. So that was my first term of imprisonment and thereafter I remained full time in political work right through, even after my banning in 1954 I remained active in the political movement. Then of course when the organisations were banned I continued. That's a very long story and in the meantime of course I was an accused together with Mandela and Sisulu, in fact it was only the three of us who were accused in three major trials.

POM     Was that Rivonia?

AK     That was first of all the Defiance Campaign trial in 1952, the Treason trial 1956-61 and of course the Rivonia trial. Those were the three major trials with the three of us. Of course there were many others, but they were not accused in all three trials. The three of us were accused in all these three trials and then got the life sentence together.

POM     When you were in prison were you able to structure a life in some way?

AK     What happened is that we, when I say 'we' I mean the Rivonia group, we were together with about twenty others who were isolated on Robben Island from the rest of the political prisoners. We were kept in single cells in a section and we were not allowed to communicate with the rest of the political prisoners at all. Naturally we didn't obey that and we found illegal ways of continuing communication and that was my job, I was heading a committee in fact right through, right from 1964 to the time we were released, whose job it was to continue with illegal communications both within the prison community from one section to another and between us and the outside world. So we did maintain that contact. The other task of that committee was to smuggle in news because we were not allowed news. And that we did that successfully but we were isolated in single cells with nothing to do. At the beginning there was no library or anything so what saved us I think was our studies. Fortunately we were allowed to study. So we arrived on Robben Island in June of 1964 and for the rest of that year we were not allowed to study, we made applications and so forth, but from 1965 onwards we were allowed to study. It was the first time I went back to study after having left off half way through matric in 1946. And that helped a great deal first of all to maintain our sanity, secondly to also get some sort of intellectual appreciation of what our movement is all about.

     As I said, I got involved at the age of eleven or twelve and there was no intellectual appreciation of what we were organising and we were inspired by dramatic events and so forth, but when we started studying and had some more time to think on Robben Island it helped us to get a better appreciation of what we were doing all those years and we could now justify much more rationally what we had been doing all the years. So the studies helped us a great deal and then of course there were relaxations, continuous relaxations because in jail everything takes a very, very long time. There was music and a library of sorts and then there was recreation, outdoor and indoor recreation. The work, although we worked with pick and shovel for thirteen, fourteen years, but it also fluctuated, the intensity of that. Sometimes they were very, very strict and made us work hard and other times they would relax and we would relax and that's how it carried on. One gets quite accustomed to that type of life.

POM     Could you talk a little about the first overtures from the government to Mr Mandela and how that developed?

AK     It's just the other way around, the overtures came from us, not from the other side, and Mr Mandela has just repeated this just the other day. In fact last Friday we were together on Robben Island, I don't know if you read that? And Mr Mandela revealed for the first time in public the details of how this process started. He took the initiative, started a discussion with Minister Kobie Coetsee who was Minister of Justice and Minister of Prisons, which gave us the opportunity to come to - at that time we were transferred to Pollsmoor already, Pollsmoor Prison, Mr Mandela had been separated from us. So they also had in mind, we suspect, the very process and we think now in retrospect, you see there were only five of us who were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982, not even all the Rivonia people, five Rivonia people, two were left behind on Robben Island. That was in 1982. At the end of 1985, November 1985, Mandela underwent an operation and thereafter he was separated from us. He was at Pollsmoor but separated from us and we were only allowed to meet him on a few occasions under supervision. But as he has said when he was separated from us he had greater time to think objectively. He had decided that the time had come to take the plunge and start talking and to set into process discussions between the ANC and the government. So his first contact was with the Minister of Justice and Prisons, Kobie Coetsee, and that developed into more discussions which went on for some time because the other side resisted the very idea of talking to the ANC. As you will recall they even tried to prevent people going from South Africa to Lusaka, especially whites, who now increasingly wanted to meet the ANC, cultural workers, educators, business people, sports people. President de Klerk in particular wanted to prevent all that. So they resisted the very idea of contact between the government and the ANC so it was Mr Mandela's persistence.

POM     You were saying they were resisting?

AK     They had in mind a situation where they would talk to the ANC but talk from top down sort of, not on an equal basis, that's what they must have had in mind, and Mr Mandela insisted that there had to be talks otherwise there would be no peace and stability in this country and there is no way they would be able to continue with the apartheid regime as they were. Changes were taking place internationally and on our borders as well. Internationally the cold war was going, Zimbabwe had achieved it's independence in 1980, Mozambique and Angola before then, so the wind of change was blowing quite strongly and as I say they resisted this idea because I think they wanted to place Mandela in a position where they would come to a situation where they would be able to talk down to us, not on an equal basis. Eventually Mr Mandela saw Coetsee and saw other ministers and eventually saw PW Botha, the President at the time, and then after his removal FW de Klerk on a few occasions and more and more Cabinet ministers joined in. What Mr Mandela did after he took the very first tentative steps is he called us to talk to us about what he had done.

POM     That would be you and?

AK     Well he called Sisulu first. Sisulu had nothing in principle against it but he would have preferred the other side to take the initiative. Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni both had the same attitude that these talks should have started long ago. He saw them one by one, Mandela saw us one by one. Both Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni took the attitude that Mandela should have gone ahead with this long ago, it was overdue. When he saw me, and as he says we were talking on different wavelengths, because I was against it altogether, I had forgotten and had to be reminded of my attitude, it all came back, but I wasn't against it on principle either, I had various other considerations in mind. However, talking to us and we also smuggled out this information to the ANC headquarters and at first the reaction was very cold and questioning where Mr Tambo asked, "What is it that you are talking about to these people?" Mandela gave a one word reply to the ANC that he was talking about a meeting between the government and the ANC, full stop. Thereafter of course he smuggled out quite a lengthy document giving more details of what has been happening, various major issues, and then of course that elicited a very positive reply from the ANC in Lusaka who said, "Go ahead with these plans." Mandela made it clear that there was no point them negotiating with a prisoner, they would have to talk to the ANC and if they talk to the ANC they had to talk to an ANC which is legal in the country. They had to talk to an ANC whose leaders are free from prison and from exile because he made it clear that if they released him without any substantial changes he would be back in prison the next day.

     So he was now forcing the pace of the whole thing. He had laid down various demands which he increased from time to time. First of all he said that they should release all the elderly and the sickly people, including people like Mbeki, Sisulu, Gwala, etc. They agreed to that and they released Mbeki and Gwala, they released these two and they were supposed to release Sisulu but they didn't. This made Mandela up his demands. He eventually got to the stage where he said, "You release all the life prisoners." They wouldn't agree to this, so he said, "Please release all the Rivonia prisoners." He didn't make any demands for himself. And that's what happened. And then they released him and unbanned the organisations and then the first discussions took place in May of 1990.

     All I am saying really is that the initiative right through was from Mandela, not from the other side. The other side ... side by side with what was transpiring between Mandela and the other side. There was the increasing international pressure for dialogue. There was the armed incursion increasing and locally there was the mass resistance building up where people in their thousands and tens of thousands defied various apartheid laws like the beach apartheid and the hospitals and in an unorganised way we cannot claim that the ANC was responsible but people in their hundreds and thousands started occupying homes in white areas so that there was this general disobedience going on which the government found impossible to cope with, they didn't have enough prisons for these thousands of people.

POM     There was the occasion where you had Mandela saying that De Klerk was a man of integrity and the relations between the two for a year at least suggested cooperation and some form of friendship, but in the last two years Mandela has turned on De Klerk and really said some very, very heavy things. Why do you think that turnaround came?

AK     I put that down to Mandela's personality and I have said that both Mandela and Sisulu, both of them have the personality where they start off on the premise that everyone is good until proved to the contrary. That is their general approach to people, no matter who they are. I had pointed out to him after he made the statement about De Klerk being a man of integrity, I wasn't disturbed because that was Mandela, I knew he is over-generous and charitable even towards his enemies so I wasn't surprised at all. But while he said that De Klerk is a man of integrity he had kept on maintaining that he is still in the Nationalist Party and still our main enemy and we still have to fight them in an election. Naturally as negotiations progressed and from the other side there was no consistency and that failure to stick to agreements and so forth which led to those attacks on De Klerk. But one thing again Mandela has consistently stuck to is that with all our attacks on De Klerk he is the man who took that final bold step in unbanning the organisations, in releasing the political prisoners and getting the talks started. That we cannot take away from him. I would not say that De Klerk is a man of integrity nor would most of the prisoners but Mandela is different, Sisulu is different. It's a question of personalities I think. I'm just having an argument with him about certain prison officials, there's been a long article in the London Independent last week where he has praised one of the prison officials. I've got a different attitude, but that's Mandela.

POM     When you were released, how different did you find the role you were in and the one you had left 27 years before? What most surprised you about South Africa?

AK     Well politically speaking, although from 1980 in prison we had newspapers, legally, not that we had to smuggle, and from 1986 onwards we had television, that gave us a fairly good idea of the growth of the movement. We saw the mass rallies, mass demonstrations, demonstrations on the beach apartheid in which thousands of people took part, so that prepared us to come into a world where we would see the movement being very powerful, but when we were actually released that is only when I saw the real strength of the movement. Before we went to prison, years before then right up to the time we went to prison, we knew personally just about every activist, although the movement was fairly large but we knew all the activists. We knew them in the Transvaal, in the Cape, in Natal all over, we knew them all. After we came out, and it happened a few weeks ago in the area where I live, I meet activists whom I've never met before. It still happens up till now, as I said it happened a few weeks ago I met people I've never met before, they are active in my area, which shows the growth of the movement. That is a thing that surprised me very, very much.

     The politicisation, another thing, the extent of it. I have been to literally scores and scores of meetings and so forth in remote areas and in urban areas, the extent of the political consciousness again surprised me. It happens all the time. So those are things which surprised me and of course the discipline. We had taken this very bold step towards negotiations, the media had speculated and political commentators had speculated that we had taken this step and we are not going to take the youth with us, we are not going to take the people with us, the PAC, the radicals, it hasn't happened. We still maintain our support amongst all sectors of the oppressed people, the youth, the women, etc., etc.

POM     ....

AK     Well they have joined the negotiating process themselves.

POM     What do you think?

AK     I think it's the political understanding among the younger people. They have appreciated the move we have made. Naturally there is a lot of debate, it wasn't that you just get up on a platform, have a conference and say this is what we're going to do and people will just accept it. No, we went through a lot of debate, a lot of meetings, it still continues, but by and large we have kept the people with us as is evidenced now that in this election campaign they are having these People's Forums all over the country.

POM     Could you deal with the People's Forums?

AK     The People's Forums, yes. I wish I knew which individuals were behind them but having attended People's Forums in Natal and the Transvaal with Mr Mandela it's one of the most brilliant ideas that we have got. I have personally taken part in them, bigger ones and smaller ones and they are really a brilliant idea and I have been complimenting the Election Commission for that idea.

POM     One last question and I want to thank you for the time you have given me, Section 29, why has that up to this point not been removed from the statute books?

AK     I wouldn't be able to answer that. I've just been reading of that controversy that has emerged again. Unfortunately I haven't really even heard from my own people what the position is. All I know is that there was an earlier amendment which allowed them to keep people in for ten days. I have the impression that that still is the position. The temptation would be there to leave that because it can suit us too, but that is a temptation, but in principle I can't see us defending the retention of that.

POM     It goes against everything.

AK     We have fought it all the years and we can't be seen to be defending it. But as I say I don't know what the latest developments are.

POM     Thank you very much, it's been a real pleasure.

AK     You're welcome.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.