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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

26 Mar 1996: Kathrada, Ahmed

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POM     Mr Kathrada you made an interesting opening observation and that is that in a way you sometimes miss prison. I asked Mr Mbeki this question too and it comes in two parts: one, what is your fondest memory of the years you spent on Robben Island and, two, when you are around parliament here and things don't run right and things are inefficient and things don't get done on time or whatever, do you sometimes feel a bit frustrated and wish for the calm and order and discipline of prison life?

AK     I wouldn't like to juxtapose the one against the other. There are advantages, if we may call it, of being in prison. What one misses very much is the camaraderie, the very close contact with friends and colleagues although we were of course confined to one section of the prison, the B section where the President and on average about 20 or 25 of us stayed. But we also had the advantage in our section of prison, the fortunate advantage of being in the presence of outstanding individuals, political leaders, academicians and just your average person of exceptional quality. They are still there but they are all spread out now. They are still around the country but they are all spread all over the country. Over the years that we shared together we built a very unique sort of relationship with one another which one would like to continue but circumstances don't allow that. You know you build a relationship where you are free with each other, you are frank with one another, you criticise one another, you accept criticism, you make observations, you analyse situations. It was very easy and informal. Out in the world here you are thrust into bureaucracy, into a lot of formality where you are not able to have these extensive relaxed discussions as you had in prison. Those are the type of things one misses and much of it brings back fond memories both of a serious nature and more light-hearted. One misses also the atmosphere free of, or relatively free, of tensions because as the years went by there was relaxation, there was less and less harassment so that we were free of tension, we had time to think, we had time to discuss seriously, we had time for fun. One misses all that. It's a question that came so suddenly so I won't be able to give thought to it but I am sure if I sit down I will be able to explain much more on the type of thing that one misses.

POM     Did you find the quality of debate when the prisoners would discuss an issue among themselves and thrash out different positions, did you find the quality of that discussion superior to the quality of discussions you get in government in general where there are time constraints and multiple real 'political considerations' to be taken into account and competing constituencies and the like?

AK     Well as I said when one talks of quality what I would say is that one misses the extensive comprehensive discussions one was able to have because of time. We had plenty of time. The quality of the individuals, of course, is here as well but one hasn't got the time to be sitting with them and discussing it as extensively as one would like to discuss. So the main factor there is the atmosphere relatively free of tension and time.

POM     When you look back and think of the individual you were and the beliefs you held when you went to prison in 1963 and the beliefs you held and the positions you held when you came out of prison in 1989, was there a difference between the two? Did you find your belief system with regard to governance, to democracy, to the kind of South Africa that would be in the interests of all, changing over time or more or less remaining the same as when you went into jail?

AK     In general one hasn't changed one's beliefs. The situation that we are in now from the practical point of view was not a situation we envisaged. In other words we never, ever can remember having discussed the possibility that Nelson Mandela will be president of this country and that we would be sitting in parliament, some of our colleagues holding ministerial positions and so forth. What we knew, and that we were absolutely convinced of, is that we were going to win, that led by the ANC we are going to win in this country, but we never had a time scale set, we never discussed individuals, we never ever said Mr Mandela will be president of the country. I don't think he himself harboured that either. So to that extent we had to adjust to a new situation when we came out but our fundamental beliefs remain what they were.

POM     What changes would you notice in yourself since you were released in 1989 during the period first of all when you were active in the organisation of the ANC across the country, an adviser to Mr Mandela and now sitting or being part of government itself as an adviser to the President? How have you found your life has changed, that you've changed?

AK     I'm not too sure whether I have sufficiently adjusted from struggle to governance. Often when I go to meetings and so forth it's as if we were still in the struggle mould. So I am not too sure whether I have fully adjusted to government. To some extent struggle with all its hardships and suffering, imprisonment and hit squads and all that, not talking about ourselves imprisonment, to some extent it was clear cut, less complex, easier in that respect. It was easier to destroy apartheid. It is much more difficult to build, to construct the new South Africa that we were all struggling for. It's much more difficult. That I think most of us have found.

POM     What would you look at as being the major setbacks, your major disappointments on the road to building that new South Africa?

AK     I don't think that I've got any major disappointments but every day we face realities basically linked to the fact that our people were prevented by law and by practice from the various aspects of governance, civil service, political, etc., so that we have come into a new ball game altogether and I think to a great extent it's a learning curve that we have to go through as speedily as possible. Most of our people have had absolutely no experience in governance. In the civil service you had the lower echelons which were open to our people, the higher echelons of the civil service were white and still remain white, not only white but they still remain white male Afrikaner. We of course had no experience and expertise to even take over suddenly the situation if we wanted to bring about this change.

POM     Is this a continuing problem the fact that the higher ranks or mainly the middle level ranks at least are still predominantly occupied by white male Afrikaners who can stymie the implementation of legislation, who can just slow things, who have a certain power over the pace of delivery?

AK     There is no uniform answer to that. I suppose it differs from ministry to ministry. I wouldn't say that on the whole they are an obstruction, I wouldn't say that. I think from our own experience here in the President's office where very senior civil service positions are still in the hands of white Afrikaners whom we have inherited, I certainly so far have not seen any attempt on their part to be obstructive. What one could possibly say is that having grown up with certain ways of doing things, a certain style of doing things, it is very difficult for them to change but they are changing even there. I am talking of simple practical things. The day I occupied this very desk there was nothing here, absolutely nothing, and when we asked for stationery I was given a notebook or two with two ball-points which didn't work and when I asked for stationery it had to be ordered from Pretoria. That is the way they functioned for some time. For some reason it just didn't strike them that in the interests of economy, of efficiency there should be a stock of stationery here so that we don't have to appeal to Pretoria. This thing here, this dispenser, was not there, the tape was there but when I asked for cello-tape I was given this and I said, "Where is the dispenser?" They didn't have these things, they had to put it out on tender.

     It's simple things like that because they were in a groove and they just continued. There is this other thing that we have inherited, we have these recesses, now we're going to have a recess at the end of this month for two weeks. Fortunately we have now managed to prevent what used to happen before and that is to transfer holus bolus to Pretoria for two weeks. Now fortunately we've got some staff here, we will keep some staff here, and hopefully we won't have to move all the equipment, but we will have to do it in June with the month recess and we will have to do it again in October when from October to February we will be in Pretoria. Everything will have to move, staff, files, computers, faxes, the lot. Again it's a thing what we inherited but that of course is linked up again with the question of where the capital should be, whether there should be one capital or three capitals as we have at the moment.

POM     An issue that's coming down to the wire in terms of it being decided, some MPs wanting to stay in Cape Town, and I can understand why, some wanting to go to Pretoria, that town being the centre of ...

AK     At the moment it will be very difficult to even guess what the position is. Among my own colleagues, even ANC colleagues, I won't be able to guess what the position is, who thinks what and whether Cape Town would command a majority or Pretoria. It's very difficult. But of course the debate will get into full swing.

POM     I must tell you if we had a vote you can imagine where we would stay, if you had a choice between Pretoria and Cape Town.

POM     Some would rather be in Bloemfontein.

AK     Premier Lekota will be very happy to hear that.

POM     I asked Mr Mbeki last week what was his fondest memory, it's a peculiar question I know, of the years he spent on Robben Island and he said it was the day that you created your communications system, that up to a point the prisoners had been prevented from talking to each other or passing messages of any description but that in the end you created a sophisticated communications system that allowed for formal education to be conducted, political education to be conducted, that allowed you to get messages between prisoners in different cells and in different blocks, I don't know whether you were all in the same block or in different block, and allowed messages to be taken to the outside and messages to come in from the outside, and he credited you with being the mastermind behind the creation of this communications system. All modesty aside and accepting full credit, could you talk a little about that?

AK     Well it was a process. I suppose when he credits me he must have in mind that I was the only individual that remained on that committee right from the beginning till the end. Even when we were transferred to Pollsmoor I continued with that although in Pollsmoor, because we were only five, we didn't function as a committee. But it was a collective effort. I think it would be wrong to credit any one individual. You can say that an individual was the driving force but for innovative ideas I think it wouldn't be true to credit any one individual. If I was to pick out people the different members of the communications committee, all of them had made very, very valuable contributions, innovative ideas and so forth.

POM     Could you talk a little about the ways, the systems that you developed and how they worked?

AK     Yes, look some of them were quite basic which prisoners use, very elementary. For instance, the kitchen was in the general cells, the communal cells, that section of the prison and we were isolated from the rest of the prisoners but our food had to come from the kitchen, so at the bottom of the food drums there would be a plastic wrapped parcel of news and other communications. That was now basic. They wouldn't want to search a whole big drum of porridge to get to the bottom of the porridge to pick up these things, but they must have known this was one of the methods that we used. But then there were other ideas where we concealed tiny messages in matchboxes with false bottoms, where you just have a little strip of thin paper with very small handwriting and we had worked out before that, for instance, when they came to deliver our food at the quarry before that we would have just thrown this matchbox away but the chappies delivering our food would know that this matchbox has to be picked up, it's got messages in there. That's a method we used. False little compartments in tobacco bags was another method we used. We used to get margarine, white margarine, and very few people in our section used to eat that but we knew that our colleagues in other sections wanted that because there were so many of them. So what we would do is again make a parcel, a plastic package, melt the margarine, the white margarine, put our plastic in and allow it to dry and tell the warders that, look we're not eating this margarine, we're not going to waste it, please take it, and the warders would be innocently carrying this margarine to there.

     The other method we used, when we became A group, when we were classified A group, we had these hot water flasks, thermos flasks, now when we were made A group there were no facilities in our section for boiling water, we did not have an urn, so we had to daily send our flasks to the kitchen for boiling water so we used to open up the bottom, conceal notes in there, close the thing and the chaps on the other side would retrieve the messages, put in their messages, send our flasks back so that was a two-way communication. There was another thing I can think of, over the weekend the chaps in the other sections would be kicking about tennis balls and so forth but one of those tennis balls would have a small slit in which there would be a concealed message and accidentally they would kick a tennis ball over to our section and of course we would retrieve our message and send the ball back.

     Then of course there was the way we smuggled out for instance the President's autobiography. Now we built an album, not me, that was one of our experts, they actually constructed a photo album but in the cover of the photo album it was a cover specially made up and 500 pages in the President's writing was reduced to 60 pages, very thin pages, and concealed within the covers. The covers were thick but it was so expertly done and with parchment, whatever, that it look as if it's a shop bought thing from the shops. They would never suspect what it was, so we concealed that and it was taken out by Mac Maharaj who is the Minister of Transport. But the two chaps who worked on it after it went through us, we did the political part of it, that is the President, Mr Sisulu and myself, we did the political comments and so forth, but then we handed it over to these two who reduced it to small writing.

POM     Mr Chiba?

AK     Mr Chiba and Mac Maharaj, both of them were experts at tiny handwriting. We bought these mapping pens which are very thin and they reduced that and concealed it. We also used, for instance, a photograph and mounted that photograph but in between there would be messages. Now that would be used for sending things out of prison, so outside a person has got his photographs and on his release he's taking back his photographs, but the authority wouldn't know that the photograph which had come unmounted is now mounted and concealed behind the photographs would be messages. In fact two weeks ago I met Rusty Bernstein and he was in England in exile and he received through one of our prisoners who was released an album from me and he was told, "Just keep this, somebody will come and collect it", and he said for the life of him he didn't know what it was. He saw an album with nice photographs and he kept it and then of course it was collected. Now that had the autobiography but he didn't know what it was. So those were methods.

     There were also methods, for instance we used shoes, shoes would go for repairs to the main section. Now we had our chaps as shoemakers and we cut a thing here and concealed a message and it would go for repair and they would retrieve it and send it back. Then we used this invisible method. Now you have some sort of a thing called Eusol I forget what it's used for, it's for medical reasons. I think you rub it, you certainly don't drink it, but it's available in the hospital. So we used to get that. They didn't know that we could write with that, it's not visible and when it gets to the other side all they had to do is put a hot iron and it becomes visible. Some things we did with milk. Now we weren't entitled to milk but some of our colleagues were suffering from ulcers so the doctor prescribed milk. Now if you take fresh milk and write out messages it's not visible unless you put a hot iron over it then it becomes visible. So those are all methods that we used. There must be many more but a number of these methods were methods that were unique to us. Now we had been reading, and naturally we used to go out of our way to take note of books or films or so forth where prisoners used various methods and very few of these methods we came across were used by prisoners in other prisons.

POM     Was it easier to communicate with other prisoners on the Island than to communicate with the outside or to get messages in from the outside, messages from the outside come in?

AK     No communication within Robben Island was very frequent, a few times a week whereas with the outside world we had to generally rely on prisoners going out to take things out. It was not solely that but it was not as frequent as we would like it to have been whereas within prison it was absolutely necessary, indispensable for us to communicate not only organisational, political stuff but news and news is big so we couldn't use these little methods for news, we had to use other methods to get in news. We couldn't, for instance, very often smuggle a whole newspaper in, even cuttings were not always possible, clippings, so we had to write, we had to make notes of clippings if we would get a newspaper in our section of the prison so we had to be selective and certain items which we think were of political importance we had to sit down and copy those things and then conceal them and send them and they would do likewise. We have had chaps copying entire books, banned books, because every now and then one would get hold of a banned book and people would think, well this is essential for our political work or political studies.

POM     How would a banned book get on the Island?

AK     We would smuggle it in.

POM     Through?

AK     For instance what we did in our section is we used to smuggle with warders both for newspapers and for books.

POM     Even though all the warders were white warders?

AK     White warders, oh yes, but this wasn't so extensive this smuggling with the warders but you would get the individual here and there who would accept bribes for this. Now there was one occasion I can immediately think of. We haven't got money in prison, our money was in the office, we were not allowed to handle money. So what currency do we use? For newspapers what we did is we used to buy cartons of cigarettes and exchange that for newspapers with warders. But books are much more costly and we didn't have enough, even cigarettes were not enough to buy books, but what we then did with one of the chaps that I can immediately think of is we got him to post a letter to London, we wouldn't do it in South Africa because much as this chap was playing ball with us we can never, ever say that this man is safe enough for us to expose somebody within the country. So we told him to post a letter to London and ask our colleagues in London to send a sum of money from time to time to a certain address belonging to this warder. So that money we could use for bribing him, for paying him and for buying books. That's one method we used.

     Books also came in via our studies, not banned books but books that we were not allowed to have. Now you would have some of the political prisoners working in the study office because the warders alone wouldn't cope with that, so you just had to have prisoners working in the study office and every now and then - of course we would order the books often knowing that we would never be given these books. Now and then, of course, they would slip through but then our chaps in the study office, the prisoners, would just steal those books for a few days. Those are the books they would copy out extensively, or sometimes the whole book, but that was generally done in the general cells where they had much more manpower. That was a thing we did quite a bit.

POM     I have asked you before about strip-searching, I guess that you mentioned an amusing story about Mr Mbeki. I was telling you that in Northern Ireland that they used some of same techniques particularly the very, very, very small hand-writing on the toilet paper and it was only because the regime was being so harsh by giving them the thickest possible and the coarsest possible toilet paper that made the toilet paper possible to write on. If they had given them the normal type it would have just disintegrated and you said that you used to use that technique too but that the authorities found out about it.

AK     You see what had happened is that we used to use toilet paper extensively for news and unknown to us quite a bit was confiscated from time to time until they had a basketful of news on toilet paper. They then decided that the way to put a stop to it is to ration the toilet paper so that you had Mr Mbeki who wasn't going out to work with us, so he was given his light labours and remained inside the cells and his job was to count eight sheets of toilet paper in the morning and eight sheets in the afternoon for each of us. In that way they hoped that we would not use the toilet paper for smuggling purposes. But that didn't last very long, it collapsed and we continued.

POM     Was the system as a whole from the time you arrived on the Island, was it a severely repressive system or did the guards treat you with a certain amount of, or the warders, the permanent staff there, treat you with a certain amount of respect?

AK     Again it would be difficult to generalise here. We have to distinguish between the Rivonia group and the rest of the prisoners. Now when I say Rivonia group I don't confine it to the Rivonia group, but say people of that level. You also have to distinguish between the treatment meted out by the police and by the prison authorities so in the sixties when they brought in this Sabotage Act, that allowed for detention without trial, without access to anybody except the police and the prison authorities if you were kept in the prison that is. Generally the 90-day detainees were kept in police cells but sometimes they were kept in the prisons. The severest tortures were never done, almost never, in prison, it was always the police. Even prisoners who during the period of what they called interrogation, even if they were in prison they would be taken out of prison to police headquarters for torture and brought back. Police did not torture prisoners in prisons.

     Now the first killing while we were in detention took place in 1963, a chap called Lukas Matangudli(?). Now he died while we were in Pretoria prison but he was killed not in prison, he was taken out to police headquarters and killed. Physical violence was there by prison authorities as well, even on Robben Island, but again we, the Rivonia group were never physically assaulted, not by the police nor by the warders. Generally when assaults were taking place in the sixties right up to about 1971/72, not in our section of the prison. In the communal cells yes, severe assaults but no torture. I think I am correct in saying that with all the assaults and so forth in prison, I don't think a single prisoner, political prisoner died in prison as a result of assaults, whereas with the police from 1963 I think over 100 people were killed while in detention. I'm not now talking of all the other killings and things, just while under police custody where people were detained for the purposes of interrogation, over 100 people were killed.

POM     Now would they have random searches of your cells where just the doors would open and a group of warders would come in and tear the whole place apart?

AK     That happened quite frequently but the one that Mr Mbeki in particular would have reason to remember was on 28th May 1971. Now he may have related that to you. That was the very worst nightmare we had experienced in prison. It was a Friday night, we had been on hunger strike in solidarity with SWAPO people, prisoners, who had just been brought in. Prior to that the SWAPO prisoners were kept completely apart from the rest of the prisoners but round about 26th May 1971 they brought all the SWAPO prisoners to our section of the prison temporarily because they wanted to eventually send them to the communal cells, again in a separate section, but for a few days they brought them to us and there was some altercation which led to a hunger strike by the SWAPO people and we immediately found out and we joined in solidarity.

     So it was during this hunger strike that on that Friday night the 28th May after we were locked up already, it was bitterly cold, many were sleeping already. It was quite early in the evening, seven, eight o'clock, others may have been eating or studying and suddenly the doors opened and a whole big group of warders came in, many of them were drunk. They had just come from the criminal prison where they had beaten up very, very severely a large number of the prisoners and then they came to our section of the prison. They made us strip, all of us, and they made us stand against the wall with our hands up. Now it was for a very long time with our backs facing them, we were facing the wall. I don't know now for how long but it was for quite a long time that we stood that way while they carried out a search of our books and so forth. Now it is was during that search that Mr Mbeki collapsed and it was thought that he had a heart attack and then of course when he collapsed they allowed him to put on his clothes and so forth. Fortunately it wasn't a serious thing. They didn't bring the doctor that night but he subsequently saw the doctor a few days thereafter but fortunately no severe damage had been done.

     They were so drunk had we resisted that night there would have been a lot of bloodshed, but fortunately nobody decided to resist and we just swallowed our pride as it were and did what they asked us to do. It was humiliating but I suppose it wasn't as if we had a chance to discuss this, it just came spontaneously that it's better to cooperate because the state in which they were they would have just carried out mass assaults. Now that was in this line where we were staying, where we were staying is a U-shaped building, there were cells on either side and then cells in the centre, now we just occupied the one leg of the U. At that time the centre and the other leg, part of it was occupied by prisoners from the general cells who were brought there for punishment purposes with whom we had no contact because there were grills at the doors separating us. As the warders finished with us and turned the corner into the centre leg and the other one they assaulted people.

POM     Is that right?

AK     Severely. Not us, we were not assaulted but these people were. Now Toivo ya Toivo, for instance, the present Minister of Mineral & Energy in Namibia, he was there in the centre, he was being isolated from the rest of the SWAPO people and he was assaulted but he fought back and he knocked the warder down. There was another chappie, I think he is the Vice President of the PAC, Mlambo, he was very severely assaulted, so much so that he urinated blood for some days thereafter. But that happened in this very section where we were staying but not in the leg where we were staying. These were people who had been brought in for punishment for other reasons. But that was the worst night that we can remember. It was just touch and go.

POM     Were the Rivonia trialists treated differently? Were they treated more like political prisoners than - in Northern Ireland they used to call them, than like 'ordinary, decent criminals', this was a phrase they called ODCs to describe the people who were in for just ordinary criminal offences?

AK     I wouldn't say that we were treated with any special favour. You can say they treated us with a bit more care although the psychological torture was there perhaps much more against us than against the prisoners in the general cells. With us they had made it very clear from the time that we arrived that in five years time the name of Mandela will be forgotten and they tried everything possible to make that a reality. First of all there were laws in existence at that time which prohibited the media from publishing anything about prisons or prisoners. It was a criminal offence. Secondly, the censorship within the prison itself, our letters - now in the first years we were only allowed one letter every six months and that was confined to 500 words, so we were only allowed to write about family. Anything else would be cut out or the letter would be withheld. Visits were also once in six months, monitored, you cannot speak about anything except your family affairs. So they tried to induce this amnesia among the people.

POM     Family visits, you couldn't touch the members, it was through a glass partition?

AK     No, no, we couldn't touch them. You see in that respect political prisoners were treated worse than the ordinary common law prisoners. For instance you had this classification in prison, the ordinary common law prisoner, provided he was not guilty of a violent offence or rape, entered prison classified as a C group prisoner. We were all classified as D group right from the start and you had to wait until you were classified to C to B to A. It took me for instance 13 years before I was classified into A group. Now when you reached A group you were entitled by regulations, their own regulations, to certain facilities like you could buy newspapers, you could buy books, you could have contact visits. All these were denied to the political prisoners even though they were A group, these facilities were all denied to us. What they did allow A group political prisoners was to buy a flask with which you could make tea and coffee and allowed to buy some goodies, but that's about the only thing. Otherwise in that respect we were worse off.

POM     I recall something from President Mandela's autobiography when he talked about being taken from the prison in Pretoria when you were all loaded on to the truck in the middle of the night and transported to an airfield and then were taken down to Robben Island but that some of the guards were joking and saying, "With the public support you guys have in two years you're all going to be out and you're going to have all the girls and cigarettes you want in the world and everybody is going to be looking up to you."

AK     I was the only bachelor so they said, "No all the woman are waiting for you when you come out in five years." I looked forward to that. They were quite in a jovial mood. What had happened of course was that we were sentenced on a Friday, the 12th June 1964. Prior to that they allowed us to make an arrangement with our lawyers for the following Tuesday for a consultation, whether we wanted to appeal or not, and they also told our visitors to come back on that Saturday, that is the day after, to collect our belongings and have the last visit sort of and then of course we would have visits according to the regulations, once in three months or six months or whatever. So that's what we were told.

     One thing they departed from normal practice was instead of locking us up that night in our single cells they put us in one communal cell and that night they just woke us up and they told us that they wanted us to stay in this communal cell because they wanted to give us a chance to eat all the food that we had from home because we would be eating prison food, so we believed all that, so we ate up whatever we could and went to bed. It was bitterly cold and, I don't know, it must have been past midnight that we heard footsteps and suddenly the door opened and they said, "Get dressed", of course they wouldn't tell us where we were going to. And when we got dressed and they said take two blankets, handcuffed us and then leg irons, Mr Mbeki and I were handcuffed together the two of us, and then they loaded us on to trucks heavily escorted by police, the prison authorities and I think the army in a convey of trucks. We were taken to the military airfield, on to the plane and within hours we were on Robben Island. That was the only time a plane of that size landed on Robben Island. They were in a very jovial mood. Some of them gave us a bit of their food, sandwiches and so forth, and the police who made this remark about we will be out in five years time as heroes, but what he did say is it doesn't mean that in five years time we will have won a victory over them. He said the government would have changed in five years time in their attitude towards you folks, but you chaps will come out as heroes. He told me that all the girls will be waiting for you. That was Lieutenant van Wyk who led the raid on Rivonia, he was the investigating officer for the trial.

POM     Well that's a nice thought to go into prison, to at least know that all the girls will be waiting for you in five years.

AK     That five years came to 26 years, but nobody was waiting.

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.