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Ahmed Kathrada: a man of balance




Kathrada brought some sanity to today’s climate of political correctness, a censorious atmosphere in which many things cannot be mentioned. Apartheid is over, but what legitimacy do whites – Jews among them – have here now? What are they allowed to say amidst the increasingly strident anti-colonial, anti-white rhetoric? The rageful reaction to Zille illustrates the problem.

Jews came as immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s to escape Jew-hatred and poverty, when the British Commonwealth was thriving. Are they also colonisers or do they belong here? The silencing of white voices raises serious questions.

Kathrada was a gentle man who dismissed hateful rhetoric against whites or others. In June 2012, he attended the funeral of world-famous Jewish palaeoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, with former President Thabo Mbeki and Struggle veterans Tokyo Sexwale and advocate George Bizos, and saluted Tobias as a true son of Africa.

Consistent with his belief in human dignity and his love of Africa, Tobias had been a leader in the campaign to bring the Khoisan woman Saartjie Baartman’s remains home from Europe. Born in 1789, she had been taken there and her naked body displayed for decades in the UK and France as a freak for people to gawk at.

After she died at age 28, her body continued being displayed in a museum. Her remains were buried on Women’s Day, 2002 in her birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Kathrada also confronted issues unpleasant for Jews, including those who blindly supported Israel no matter the topic. He participated in Israel Apartheid Week organised by BDS, alongside Cosatu and individuals such as SACP Secretary-General Blade Nzimande and ANC National Chairman Baleka Mbete.

The event riles Jews who believe applying the apartheid label to Israel is false and anti-Semitic, which Kathrada certainly was not.

Another Jewish Struggle veteran, Denis Goldberg‚ a Rivonia trialist alongside Kathrada, said emotionally after his passing: “We went through facing the gallows together‚ absolutely certain we were going to be hanged.” Goldberg went to prison in Pretoria; Kathrada went to Robben Island.

Kathrada had the balance to see through false rhetoric from whatever source, but with a humanity that made people listen. Last year he called on President Jacob Zuma to resign because of his violation of the Constitution‚ the theft of state assets and negation of “the values we stood for”. Sadly, Zuma is still in office.

Next week Jews celebrate Passover and freedom from slavery. The festival had a particularly large “elephant in the room” during apartheid. It celebrates freedom, yet in numerous Jewish homes a black maid stood in the kitchen, captive under the racist regime while the white Jewish family sang liberation songs.

What would Kathrada say about the meaning of freedom in South Africa today? One aspect is knowing you are welcome, no matter your race, ethnicity or religion.

This country has not yet come to terms with its multi-cultural identity and the role of minorities in it – Jews or others. You can’t undo centuries of colonialism and apartheid in one generation. It is legitimate that black South Africans are seeking their African identity, as Jews seek their Jewish identity after centuries of persecution. Inevitably, “outsiders” sometimes get offended.

All sides need to aim at everyone being part of this nation, despite the history. The silencing of people such as Zille doesn’t help this cause. Kathrada and people of principle like him who had much to say about building this new country, will be sorely missed. 

Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Gary Selikow

    Apr 4, 2017 at 8:34 am

    ”Kathrada also confronted issues unpleasant for Jews, including those who blindly supported Israel no matter the topic.’

    Geoff Sifrin has a genius for being offensive.’

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