By Ebrahim Moosa
If it was the great South African icon Nelson Mandela who proclaimed that “…but we know too well that our freedom isn’t complete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” it was his prison mate and lifelong confidant Ahmed Kathrada who showed a roadmap for the attainment of this elusive freedom.
To the late Kathrada, who would reminisce about Madiba as his elder brother, belongs the credit of crystallising the lessons of his and fellow stalwarts’ travails against Apartheid into a meaningful force of good for the Palestinians.
At a time when Zionist hasbara machinery began operating in overdrive, presenting a distorted view of Apartheid in South Africa and even co-opting figures such as Madiba to anaesthetise criticism, it was Kathrada who came forth to thwart a misappropriation of this rich struggle history for nefarious ends.
“I remember how apologists for Apartheid South Africa internationally tried to argue that the South African “situation” is more complex than what the ANC wanted to suggest,” he said in 2012.
“Indeed, it may have been but the argument of complexity was also used as a weapon in the hands of the powerful to disarm the weak and those who act in solidarity with them.
“I fear that the same may now be happening. Nelson Mandela warned us: “The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own. We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less than human if we did so.”
“Some would have us believe that the South African story is only one of dialogue and reconciliation. It was indeed about these. However, it is also about a struggle against occupation and one for justice.”
In the mind of the man oft-described as a “peerless moral compass” for South Africans, there was to be no second-guessing the Apartheid reality lived by the Palestinians.
In the wake of Israel’s devastating 2014 bombardment of Gaza, Kathrada spelt his stance out clearly.
“A South African who is not white, does not need more than one day’s stay in Palestine to be thrown back to pre-1994 and realise that apartheid is very much alive under Israel as a colonial power. I spent a week in occupied Palestine, and was taken aback to personally relive a time, in some ways, worse than my apartheid days.”
“Israel’s separate roads, defacto Mixed Marriages Act, trials by military courts, the unfair allocation of resources (particularly water), racist citizenship laws, assigning and denying rights to people on the basis of ethnicity, the destruction of the homes of indigenous people who have lived and worked the land for centuries to make way for newcomers who share a common gene pool with the rulers, the uprooting of olive trees, detention without trial, pass laws, the tiniest pieces of land given to the largest part of the population… I know of no other word for this than apartheid,” Kathrada elucidated in 2012, explaining his rationale for choosing the Apartheid epithet.
In a letter to actor Morgan Freeman dissuading him from participating in a fundraiser for Israel’s Hebrew University, the freedom icon took the argument yet further, delineating the constraints of characterising the Palestinian reality purely in terms of the South African experience.
“Under the worst of apartheid times there were no roads strictly reserved for whites! There were no checkpoints manned by armed soldiers to ensure that Palestinians don’t break the restrictions. There wasn’t a 750 kilometre-wall, encroaching on Palestinian land, to separate Israel from Palestinians. There were no settlements springing up with impunity on Palestinian land. I can go on and on about an experience that will forever remain in my mind.”
Robben Island – Springboard to Palestinian freedom
Kathrada visited Palestine in April 2013 as a guest of honour of the ‘Freedom & Dignity’ International Conference held on the eleventh anniversary of Palestinian political leader, Marwan Barghouti’s arrest. Whilst Kathrada was a vocal advocate for Palestinian freedom prior to the visit, the transformative impact of the trip compelled him towards a greater level of engagement for the Palestinian cause.
A capstone of this activism was realised 6 months later when Kathrada launched the “International Campaign for the Freedom of Marwan Barghouthi and all Palestinian Political Prisoners” from Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island in the presence of the international media and Palestinian dignitaries.
For the former Robben Island inmate, the campaign was the natural successor to the Free Mandela campaign he had personally launched in 1961, and he foresaw it eventually enjoying the same kind of success.
“There were times where it seemed freedom was out of reach. But our people’s steadfastness and resilience and our faith that our cause shall prevail, allowed us, under the leadership of Mandela, to withstand the test of time behind bars, the oppression and repression, and to eventually overcome apartheid.”
“The Free Mandela Campaign eventually escalated into a global outcry from the international community, calling for freedom and a just future for the South African people,” Kathrada said during his memorable address on Robben Island that won him a standing ovation.
“The call here is no different. It is a call for the release of Marwan Barghouthi and political prisoners, so that a just future could be negotiated out of the ruins devised by the military colonial state of Israel”.
The campaign’s particular focus on Barghouthi sought to build on symbolism of him being a ‘Palestinian Mandela’ capable of unifying the Palestinian vision.
“From Robben Island we send a message to Comrade Marwan Barghouthi: When you hear of the launch of the “Free Barghouthi Campaign” we hope and pray that your strength will be renewed. And that you will know that through this launch from Robben Island, the call will go out to the entire world for your freedom, and the freedom of all your fellow prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. We will do everything in power to ensure sure that our campaign will continue until the Israeli government listens to the demands of the freedom-loving people of the world.”
Whilst the majority of Palestinian solidarity campaigns worldwide have focused on Israel’s institutionalised violence against the Palestinians and its innocent victims, Kathrada explained his choice of championing the cause of Palestinian detainees as holding up an important barometer to Israel on its willingness to genuinely pursue peace.
“This place [Robben Island] once held captive some of the future leaders of a democratic and free South Africa. Now, the call resounds from this place for the incarcerated political leaders and unity-makers of the Palestinian people to be freed.
“Political prisoners are in a position to fully comprehend the ordeal of a fellow political prisoner such as Marwan Barghouthi, being held for life in Israel. The experiences of solitary confinement; torture; separation from the outside world, and the progressive erosion of the concept of time cannot be fully translated into words…
“From 1967, over 800 000 Palestinian leaders and ordinary citizens have walked through the doors of Israeli jails as political prisoners. Mothers and fathers have been left without children, husbands without wives, children without parents or legal representation…
“This is a call to this apartheid state, from this politically hallowed ground, Robben Island, to release Marwan Barghouthi and Palestinian political prisoners.
“Without the active participation of the genuine leaders and activists of the Palestinians, there is little hope for peace in this region, or for a negotiated settlement.”
Armed with the same commitment to non-racialism and human rights and ensuring freedom and dignity for all which formed the bedrock of his activism in South Africa, Kathrada pledged to rouse for the same in Palestine as long as he had life in his bones.
Quoting Barghouthi, he affirmed that apartheid did not prevail in South Africa, and would not prevail in Palestine.
“Just as I dedicated my life to eradicating apartheid in South Africa, so too will I dedicate what remains of my life to campaigning for peace and justice in Palestine,” he vowed.
Whilst sporting his own vision on the makeup of a future Palestinian state – inevitably informed by the South African experience, Kathrada was ever cautious not to prescribe a particular solution to the conflict or question Palestinian strategies in resistance.
Commenting at the height of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014, Kathrada affirmed:
“When a state acts with impunity, as Israel continues to do, it becomes easy for others to criticise the victim for not reacting in a certain manner.
“South Africans who resisted apartheid, know that they chose the method with which they fought back, be it through passive resistance or the armed struggle.
“While peaceful solutions will also be the preference, the time comes when oppressed people might prefer dying than to continue living on their knees.”
Yet, for all his militancy, Kathrada was never a bigot. In spite of attempts by Zionist detractors, in his life and death, to cast him as an anti-Semite, Kathrada never espoused any Jew-hatred in his advocacy for Palestine.
Kathrada visited Auschwitz in 1951 and recognised the grave atrocities committed against the Jewish people.
Describing his thoughts and emotions after visiting the concentration camp, Kathrada wrote: “I could never obliterate the sight of the trench in which dogs mauled and savaged people to death; the gas chambers and the incinerators; the lampshades made of human skin; the pillows stuffed with human hair. Auschwitz is arguably the most poignant reminder to mankind of the evils of racism.”
It was precisely because of the scale of this atrocity that Kathrada was left astounded by the current treatment Israel was meting out to the Palestinians.
Notwithstanding his enduring loyalty to his former liberation movement, the ANC, Kathrada characteristically exhorted the party to be more decisive in translating its sympathies with the Palestinians to meaningful action.
“South Africans living under apartheid, having experienced this complicity first hand, especially by the West, should therefore speak out more strongly than others. We should lead the global moral brigade against the Israeli apartheid state,” he said in 2014.
“Our government should be the moral voice on the international platforms on which we serve. South Africa can use its good standing internationally, and its position in Brics and the AU, to exert greater moral and diplomatic pressure against apartheid Israel and to urge other countries to do the same.”
Kathrada attended the Russell Tribunal on Palestine and was a regular participant, even in his latter days, in protest rallies and freedom walks for Palestine. He personally escorted tours of Palestinian leaders to Robben Island to share experiences on his movement’s methodology for the dismantlement of Apartheid. For his committed stance, he was awarded an honourary citizenship by the State of Palestine.
On his demise, he was roundly mourned by Palestinians, with the wife of Marwan Barghouthi eulogising him as a man who never gave up on his support for the Palestinian course in general and Palestinian political prisoners in particular.
Majed Bamya of the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said of Kathrada, “we were privileged to know him and to have him as an advocate of the Palestinian struggle, a struggle he joined because he felt it was the natural prolongation of his battle against injustice, oppression, colonialism and Apartheid.”
The Palestinian Boycott National Committee conveyed that it was honoured to count on Comrade Kathrada as a supporter of its struggle and would remain inspired by his life.
For Uncle Kathy, Palestine today represented the world capital of a universal struggle.
And as a life confidant of the late Nelson Mandela, he spoke on impeccable authority when he predicted that
“Mandela’s legacy will be the witness of the triumph of this struggle that he symbolises and continues to embody”.
His words, spoken on Robben Island on that memorable Sunday in 2013, once again invoking his ‘elder brother’, remain unmistakeable in their conveying to Palestinians the heralds of a near victory.
“And we hope that as we stand here on Robben Island that those words written by Mandela recalling his thoughts while imprisoned here, will echo in your thoughts. ‘Some mornings I walked out in to the courtyard and every living thing there, the seagulls and wagtails, the small trees and even the stray blades of grass seemed to smile and shine in the sun. It was as such times, when I perceived the beauty of even this small, closed-in corner of the world, that I knew that someday my people and I would be free.’”
Ebrahim Moosa is a freelance journalist and commentator on Middle East affairs. This article was commissioned by the Palestine Information Network (PIN)