About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

30 Nov 1994: Kathrada, Ahmed

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

Click here for Overview of the year

POM     If anybody had told you when you were released four years ago that four years on you would be occupying the office of the former President and that there would be an ANC government in place in the country, would you have thought that truly was a exaggerated scenario or have things gone according to your own time frame as to how things should have gone?

AK     Well experience had taught us not to set time frames, we had long abandoned setting time frames for anything. What we were certain of is that elections would take place some time, we were also certain of victory for the ANC. But as for time frames, if I had to look ahead after President Mandela's release I wouldn't have been able to say that in four years time the ANC would be the government of the country. It all comes back to the time frames.

POM     Is the transfer of power and authority going as well as it should be going or is it a bit slow? Are there obstacles or drawbacks to it?

AK     Well, when we won the elections we did not expect a smooth progress. We expected obstructions. I don't think anything of a fundamental nature has surprised us. There are administrative matters and so forth that surprise us from time to time. Things that surprise us is the working with old bureaucracies, the lack of adherence to anything like time mechanisms, etc. Those are things that surprise us simply because we had no knowledge whatsoever of how the civil service works. But in the Select Committees, the Parliamentary Select Committees on which our people serve surprises come from time to time at the expense of ... extensive corruption. Yesterday for instance there was this report of the Commission on Business and Correctional Services which revealed the extent of corruption that existed only on one surface of the Prison Service. That comes up from time to time, the immediate extent of corruption and mismanagement.

POM     How have you been able to put your hand on the bureaucracy and bring it under control?

AK     I wouldn't like to be unfair on the old bureaucracy, civil service, I would say that by and large, especially the rank and file of the civil service are hard working people who are really interested in security for themselves, and I'm now speaking of my own experience in this office, in the President's office, where by and large they have been cooperative, they try to make amends, it's a new ball game for them. It's a new ball game from the point of view of totality, it's a new ball game from the point of view of the spirit, they have never dealt with non-whites, so-called, they were their superiors from whom they had to take orders, but they are adjusting. I must say that by and large that's my own experience, I cannot speak for the experience of other ministries.

POM     I have spent the last six months going around the country talking to most of the Premiers, the MECs, MPs and whatever, and have found that the RDP is little understood at the grassroots level. In fact in some of the governments in the regions it's little understood and they have different interpretations of what it's all about and how it will work. The ordinary people are disassociated from it in that it's something the government is doing but it's not doing a great deal for any kind of personal ownership. What has been the problem of the RDP?

AK     There again it's not surprising. The ordinary person does not concern him or herself with concepts, fancy sounding concepts. There was one example in a rural area in the Eastern Cape where a person was asked about the RDP, an ordinary person was asked about the RDP and he said, "Oh, the RDP will come on a lorry." There are these expectations and so forth. The thing is that for the first month before any progress could get going there has to be planning. We do not want to repeat the errors of the past. The one glaring example is where they just built toilets in the field, they just built hundreds of toilets and not anything else because of lack of planning. Now the RDP is a huge project and we don't want to implement it in different pieces. On the other hand we cannot implement the whole thing either, but when we do start implementing we want to implement it in a way that it will become visible, that people will start seeing things. Within the next weeks and months launches will take place in various sectors. Some of it has started already, like the children and their soup, pregnant women and hospitals and so forth so to some extent but I think there will be more holistic implementation beginning very soon. That is when people will really start seeing what the RDP is. But we are not surprised at the impatience of people.

POM     One question to which I have never received a comprehensive answer is how will it be paid for? Here you have a government coming in where the state coffers are almost bare, at least that's what I'm told, you are committed to cutting public expenditure from 21% of the GDP to 17% of GDP, of eliminating the jobs of 200,000 civil servants, of rationalising throughout civil service structures and maybe people will be looking for a job at the same time and then enforcing a programme of affirmative action. It all seems that the aims are contradictory, but especially that the money doesn't appear to be there and no-one can quite say where it's going to come from other than saying we'll take a bit from the budget there and redistribute it there.

AK     I'm afraid when it comes to financial matters I cannot really speak authoritatively. It's not my field really and I assume that you have spoken or you will be speaking to people who are more knowledgeable on this. I can only give you vague answers on that question and I would prefer not to deal with that aspect. But people who are there, like Minister Jay Naidoo and his people, they have dealt in depth with this aspect and I am sure they will be able to assist much more than I can.

POM     I want to go back in time, you spent 27 years on Robben Island, a life sentence, then you were a free man again, in those 27 years what do you think it was that matured you as an individual, allowed you to keep your hope and your faith in the future alive and allowed you to develop your mind so that when you came out of jail you could integrate into top levels of administration of parliamentary society very quickly?

AK     First of all there is a slight correction for historical purposes. I did not spend 27 years on Robben Island. Together with the President we spent 18 years on Robben Island and the rest of my sentence I spent at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and the total of my prison sentence that I stayed was 26 years and three months and not 27 years. When we joined the movement, we joined with the confidence that we are going to proceed and as repression grew in the country we adjusted psychologically to the changed situation. Originally it was just a question of resolutions and demonstrations and protests. But especially after the coming to power of the Nationalist government in 1948, it started out with the banning of the Communist Party in 1950 and then in the fifties it started with the banning orders against individuals and in 1960 against the ANC. Repression was accompanied by violence on the part of the authorities, people being killed in detention and as the struggle happened people were killed by hit squads etc., etc. Now we when we adjusted to the changing situation we knew more or less what to expect, we knew it was not going to be easy. When for instance we were first banned we had to overcome that; this by and large we did. Very few of our banned people became inactive, they remained active in one way or another. Some got caught. Then came imprisonment, or rather the banning of the ANC itself. We had to overcome that. We had to make some small preparations towards illegality but we adjusted to that. But, again, there was already talk of setting up the ANC headquarters in exile which happened soon after the banning. One thing, the armed phase of the struggle which we knew would bring in more repression, house arrest, detention without trial and so forth, so we had more or less expected hardship. But this goes side by side with our confidence that they would never win.

     When we went to prison to us, and this I have said repeatedly, it was another terrain of the same struggle. There was apartheid there, in some ways in much cruder form that we met outside. Outside we didn't have physical surveillance, we could meet in secret and have meetings. In prison it was 24 hours a day so we had to adjust to that. When we went in the ANC set up immediately with organisation there. throughout the prison. The aim was first of all to maintain political organisation, to keep ourselves active politically, through political education and so forth, and also to equip ourselves academically. This process of the ANC organisation also helped maintain discipline which is very essential, helped maintain morale because now and then among individuals morale does sag. And then we always were conscious of the fact that there people with us in prison who were protected to some extent. At the beginning of course there was violence against political prisoners but that did not last for long, harsh conditions. But we were protected. We had shelter, food, medical attention and so forth, clothing, and many of our people didn't have that outside. We heard reports from time to time of people being killed in detention, we received reports of our people, cadres, were killed in armed action. We heard of people being killed by hit squads, so there was always the knowledge that people were worse off than us. All of these factors combined, and a very important factor also was the constant knowledge that our people were with us, our primary role was with us, the people were with us and the international community was with us. These were very important factors to keep our morale going.

POM     If you were confined in conditions of isolation, how were you able to develop a means of communication with each other?

AK     Well, as you probably know, the Rivonia group and others were isolated from the rest of the prison community and on average there were about 25 people not only ANC. We were isolated from the rest of the prison community and strictly isolated, no contact whatsoever. So we had to then establish a means of communication. I headed a communications committee whose task it was to keep in touch with the various sections of the prison where our comrades were incarcerated, to keep in touch with the outside world and, very importantly, to keep ourselves informed of news because news was not allowed. We did it very successfully.

POM     How did you manage that?

AK     Well we were very innovative. Some of the methods we have disclosed, others we have not disclosed. Mr Mandela's biography touches on some of the methods we used but those were methods that are used by prisoners generally. We also invented methods which were not heard of anyway and I have been discussing with colleagues who worked on this committee who have said that for the time being we should not disclose the details of the methods we used. The most recent thing which will be fresh in your mind is the Mandela autobiography which we successfully smuggled out. Unfortunately, there was no publisher at the time but the bulk of it has now been incorporated in the autobiography which has been published.

POM     He said there that one of the major mistake of the prison authorities was in fact to isolate you because when they isolated you it meant you were all together so you could develop a sense of cohesiveness which spread out through the entire prison population.

AK     Well that did have its positive features as well. We had to be more innovative, we had to be more vigilant, etc. That did help because we considered a primary necessity was to keep ourselves informed, to keep contact with our organisation within prison and outside so we used all sorts of methods in addition to completely illegal methods that we developed we also used bribery to get news etc. We blackmailed, bribed, we did all sorts of things but we did manage to keep ourselves informed so much so that when the Red Cross came, and it came regularly to visit us, and right from the word go they had made representations to the authorities to allow them in and one of the strong points they used in making these representations, they said they found that often we who had been denied news were better informed than then about what was happening outside. And many of our visitors said the same thing. So they were unsuccessful on the whole in keeping us ignorant. There were periods of news drought, sometimes long periods, three months at a time, and I have in mind here the Soweto uprising. That happened in June of 1976. We got rumours, all sorts of very exaggerated rumours and very exciting rumours which were too far-fetched even for us to believe. But the authoritative news of June 16th only reached us in August when the first lot of people started coming into prison. So in that period they managed to keep things away from us very successfully. So we had periods of drought but by and large we were well informed.

POM     How long before you could see a member of your family, how frequently could you have visitors?

AK     It started off with when we first went to Robben Island we were allowed one visit and one letter every six months. As time went on it was then once in three months and then it went to once a month. I think by the time we finished imprisonment we were allowed 30 odd visits a year, I'm not to sure of that any more. Because we were doing a life sentence we were allowed 12 visits extra, so I think about 40 something, I'm not too sure now. But they were very hard about that. For instance, I have an example of a letter I received, it must have been one of my first letters in November of 1964, from my brother which they withheld from me. They used to have two reasons for withholding letters, (a) when they have a problem with the writer of the letter, or (b) the contents. In my case it was the contents of the letter and they didn't give me that letter. That was November of 1964. The day I was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison 18 years later I got that letter. Very deliberately it was part of the stuff that was, it's coming back to me ... When I read it the only exceptional part of that letter was a paragraph which starts off, I think the government in Britain, Harold Wilson is now in power, and one other sentence about Nehru I think. That was a letter about family matters, but because they were so obsessed with keeping news away from us they withheld the whole letter.

     Now this is one of many examples I can give you of the way they tried to keep news, also the suspicion that what is being said in the letter is now what is meant because they would either destroy the letter or cut it with scissors. Those years, the regulations were still the same but they stuck strictly to the regulations of 500 words, if it exceeded 500 words they would cut it with the scissors. That regulation remained but they didn't actively do it, but they didn't allow very lengthy letters, and then also the contents of visits and letters, they were very strict. We had examples of visits being cancelled because the prisoners were talking or the visitors were talking about things that they were not supposed to, like politics. They would just cut it.

POM     ...

AK     Oh yes, and then of course you would never have contact. The contact visits only started in the eighties when we were at Pollsmoor, it must have been about 1985 or so, although according to regulations once you are an A group prisoner you should automatically get contact visits, but that was denied then political prisoners because all of us were A group but we were never until 1984/85 allowed contact visits.

POM     In terms of your interactions with prison guards, did you develop any kind of relationship with them or did they come to respect that you should be allowed a political belief of what you want to do, that they would respect your belief?

AK     I wouldn't say that we had any number of respecters of our political beliefs. I can't think of a single one offhand who accepted our political beliefs. But by the time we finished our sentences I would say the overwhelming majority of them had accepted us as human beings. When we started off our sentences the warders were specially indoctrinated to believe that we were terrorists akin to animals, very dangerous people, murderers, rapists, violent people, who just attacked people physically. On Robben Island, for instance, we were housed in single cells with windows facing the corridor and after we were locked up each day for the first month they would bring groups of warders from other prisons in South Africa just to look at us. They would stand at our windows and stare and stare at us. When we were brought out into the little quad where we had to exercise they wouldn't bring us out unless there was an armed warder with a machine gun facing us on the catwalk, otherwise they wouldn't bring us out. That was the vision they had. It was also against the background of apartheid, the warders we had in those years were included for their brawn rather than brains, huge chaps, uneducated, unsophisticated, cruel and their whole feeling was that you must cow these prisoners into contrition. That was their feeling. So they tried that with us and of course they failed. But in the sixties already they had started recruiting younger warders from high school who had taught many of the correct things in their college, the warders' college, but unfortunately they also got poisoned, especially those who came to Robben Island from the common law prisons were already poisoned. But we had a great deal of success with them in getting them to respect us and we respected them just as human beings. So we can then point to quite numbers of people with whom we developed very good relationships on a human level. By the time we finished our imprisonment there were very few that we could point to accusingly of being violent. There were people of course who got a lot of publicity who were not particularly good but who did a lot of things behind our backs. But generally I think the relationships were quite good.

POM     Over the whole period, what can you pick out as being the high points and the low points?

AK     As far as morale goes I think I can say that it was consistent, the morale remained consistently high. That's now speaking of the prison community, especially the ANC part of the community which was the overwhelming majority except for the first few years. The morale was consistently high. There were times I imagine, you know when you talk of the single cell system, if you talk to those of us who were there in 1970/71 and ask them to point to any low point, they would point to the 28 May 1971 which was a frightening night. The SWAPO prisoners had just been put with us just a few days before that and they had some problems with the warders and they embarked on a hunger strike which angered the authorities very, very much, and at that time we had a particularly bad lot of officials. There were also thrown in some tough warders at 24 hours notice from other prisons. So on the night of 28 May 1971, it was a Friday night, very cold, etc., after we were locked up and many were asleep, a whole group of warders came, opened up our cells, many of them were drunk, made us strip baked in the bitter cold and we had to stand against the wall with our hands up and line up next to our cells. Now this lasted quite a time while they were searching our cells, we just had to shiver in the cold. Govan Mbeki collapsed that night, we thought he had a heart attack. But had we that night done anything to resist we would have suffered violence because they were drunk and uncontrollable. Now with us they did not assault us, but as they turned the corner they started attacking people. I remember Toivo ya Toivo, the then Secretary/General of SWAPO and presently Minister of Minerals in Namibia, he was assaulted, but he fought back and assaulted a warder and knocked him flat. For this he was isolated for nine months. Others were assaulted, some of them got injuries that night. But that remained in our memories, that incident. I suppose when one starts thinking back there were other incidents but not any quite as bad as that one. One thing, the Rivonia group, were never physically harmed in any way, not by the police, except for these two ... they were not arrested with the Rivonia group, now they were assaulted during interrogation, but the rest of us were never physically harmed, not by the police nor by the prison authorities.

POM     Do you think this was because this case had world-wide attention right from the beginning?

AK     We were arrested in a blaze of publicity both here and abroad and then of course we had had prominent people like Mandela, Sisulu, who already were known people, and then of course another plus was from the time of our arrest they were quite confident that we were going to be hanged and they must have thought what was the point in assaulting them, they are going to be hanged. But that was another thing, I think the main thing was the high profile we drew. That's why I think they did not harm us physically.

POM     When it comes to the Truth Commission, how far do you think it will go, will it identify the people who set up the hit squads, name the people who were in the hit squads so at the end of it they get indemnity, or if a former minister, for example Mr de Klerk, who as head of the National Security System was party to an order that was illegal and resulted in the death of somebody, murder, should he have to stand down as Deputy President? How do you see this thing working to engender a spirit of reconciliation rather than a personal vendetta?

AK     Oh I think the fundamental premise of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we have said repeatedly that they do not believe in revenge of any sort but at the same time we want the truth to be out. It's not going to be a Nuremberg Trial. But the victims themselves are the families of people who were killed, assassinated by bottle bombs or other means. We believe that everyone who was harmed in those days must know, and this includes people in the armed movement who were also killed. The Truth Commission is not confined to doing work relating to one side only. When the commission reports its findings I don't know what will happen. I still think there are very, very serious things which the Attorney General might be advised to go further with, but that is not the aim of the Truth Commission. I personally, I wouldn't specify what would happen.

POM     You weren't slotted for a ministerial post. I have heard it from two sources that the reason you didn't get it is one, you were coloured and two, you are a communist. What was the controversy around it?

AK     Both of these are wrong. It's the first time I've heard it. First of all before the elections even took place, I had spoken to two of the very senior officials of the ANC, no it was after the elections, and I indicated to them that I was of the mind that the President would consult with them. I indicated to both of them that if it comes to any Cabinet position I am not interested in a Cabinet position. Even before that, in fact during the election campaign itself, I had approached the chairman of the committee which was dealing with the elections and I indicated that my own preference would be not to go to parliament but to remain in the ANC. And when it came to after the elections I had indicated to these two senior officials that I was not interested in any position. This message did not reach the President when he made his appointments. When it did reach him it coincided with bargaining, the other parties were saying that it was unfair for the ANC to keep the security portfolios, Justice, Defence, Police, Prisons, and when it came to that bargaining we felt they could easily be given up and I think by that time the President also knew my views. But it was messy the way it was done, the way it happened so I don't blame people for drawing all sorts of conclusions. But for my part, even if I am offered a position in the Cabinet today I would not accept it.

POM     Do you think that Mandela is the glue that is holding the whole thing together, that his stature both in the country and internationally, he has this moral authority where differences of opinion are just pieces of how people view him?

AK     Within the ANC, in all the parties of the government of national unity, so naturally he is very, very important, very crucial, but I think six months after the elections, I think that people from various parties have now come to know one another and while his position remains important if anything were to happen to him I don't think one can say that Thabo Mbeki would just collapse or that it would be a serious setback. But his position does remain very, very important.

POM      There seems to be, in the latter part of this year, a year of affluence for Thabo, the chairmanship and then the Deputy President and two years of ... Cyril Ramaphosa ... in any kind of succession rating. What's happened since the elevation of Mbeki and relative decline of Ramaphosa? I hear he's not going to run for Secretary/General.

AK     No, we don't know. Cyril never told anybody what was in his mind. But this so-called rivalry is not something that we find within the movement, within the working committee or the national executive. I think it's more media speculation than anything else. Cyril Ramaphosa is involved in perhaps the most important position as chairman of the Constituent Assembly and he's doing a very good job there. We don't sense any rivalry. It is media speculation ... but it's nothing of the sort. They were at the national executive for three days last weekend and there was nothing. I would say it's more the way the media - But let me just add, naturally in a big organisation like the ANC there are going to be individuals who are more popular than the others, who are more acceptable than others, and there are going to be groupings not started by the individuals concerned, but there are going to be people who will promote one against the other, but that is part of a democratic process which is unavoidable. The other day, last week, there was an article in the press which laid out a whole list, I haven't seen the list but I don't reject it. There must be lists, electing whether it's for a branch or for a province or for a national, there must be a time when people come out with this type of thing. But these are not groupings that the individuals concerned are associated with.

POM     We have found going round the provincial Premiers their frustration at the rate at which powers are being devolved through the regions from the central government to the point where they are saying, "We can't do our jobs because we are not being given the authority to do so." ... being prepared for the local elections in 1995 where the feeling is pretty widespread that in fact the country wouldn't be ready for elections at that time, voters' lists haven't been drawn up, registration cards demarcating boundaries, delimitation of wards, all of that was still to be done, there's no organisation. As provincial leaders they have to carry it out but they don't have the machinery.

AK     I think that that would have been true in the first months, but I don't think it's true any more, I don't think there is anything hampering preparations now, no limit to the devolution of power from the central government to the provinces. There has been a protest - it's not complete but I don't think anything will hamper the registration for the elections.

POM     If you had to rate the performance of the government, looking at it as objectively as you can, for the first seven months where ten represented very satisfactory performance and one a poor performance, where would you put it?

AK     You know one would like to take ministries individually, but I think that on the whole I would personally feel very proud of the performance of our ministries. And I am not concerned that when we started off there was this sort of part of mind that was concerned about how they would perform, but having seen then perform now. I mean I am not for a moment saying that they have done perfectly well in everything, but considering all the circumstances, inexperience and the problems we are facing, I think that they have performed quite well on the whole. If you ask me to rate their performance it is very difficult, I would give it a seven, seven out of ten but that's just an arbitrary figure. I feel very proud and I have mentioned this to others that the earlier hesitation and reserve that I had has gone by and large. There are some ministries where they could do better but I think we have done very well and will continue to do well.

POM     The rift between Chief Buthelezi and King Goodwill, is this something that could have serious ramifications down the line in terms of the Zulus splitting and supporting the one or the other, or is this more in the nature of an in-house argument?

AK     It looks very serious at the moment. It can have very serious repercussions if it continues that way, it could divide and that presumably would be not always between ANC and IFP but between Zulu and Zulu who are not ANC. ... the King and Buthelezi were allies all the time and if they would split further it would cause a tremendous rift among the Zulu people which we are very unhappy about. One would hope, of course we would like to keep Inkatha in the election but at the same time we are not going to ... One would hope that there is some form of reconciliation which would prevent violence.

POM     Will the local elections re-ignite the conflict between ANC and IFP in Natal?

AK     Surprisingly in the pre-election run-up there was violence but not as much as people speculated there would be. Of course it will go up but again I think that since Inkatha and ANC are in the government of national unity I think good sense will prevail if the leaders will prevail upon their followers to keep calm and peace.

POM     OK. Thank you very much for the time.

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.