Nelson Mandela called him “a person of strong opinion and sharp insight”.
To all of us at the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada is more than a hero of the South African liberation struggle. He is “Mr K” – a lovable and loving friend of Nelson Mandela for 67 years and a long-time friend of the NMF. Having served Mr Mandela as his Parliamentary Counsellor for the five years of his term as President of South Africa, Mr K stepped down when Mr Mandela decided not to run for a second term. Mr Mandela invited him to serve as a Trustee of his post-presidential office – which became known as the Nelson Mandela Foundation – which he did from 1999 until 2016.
Mr K was a familiar figure at our office. He knew our names, and treated us as people with great value. He knew how to make us laugh and he knew how to make each one feel special.
One of the highlights for us at the NMF was when he accompanied the whole staff to Robben Island in 2016. He took us around B Section, where he was held for 18 years with Mr Mandela, Walter Sisulu and about two dozen other comrades from various political organisations. He spoke to us about how it felt to be in prison – always stressing the positive – and left us with the wisdom that we should take everything with good humour and dignity. To approach prison, or any other challenging situation, in a stressful manner will only make it worse for us.
We went to him for assistance for our research projects, and he actively assisted in the production of various books such as Conversations with Myself, The Authorised Portrait and Nelson Mandela: The Authorised Comic Book, among others. He was always happy to engage with us and to talk about his remarkable life – always taking a back seat.
Mr K liked to give us gifts. Often, when he had been given sweets and chocolates and other delicacies, he would send them to our office with instructions that they should be divided equally among the staff. When he retired from the Board he brought us all a gift – a personally signed copy of one of his books.
We will never again see him walk his characteristic careful, slow walk into our office. We will never again hear his gentle voice greeting us and teasing us about all manner of things.
As Madiba said, “The death of a human being, whatever may be his station in life, is always a sad and painful affair; that of a noted public figure brings not only grief and mourning to his family and friends, but very often entails implications of a wider nature.” All our hearts broke when we heard Mr K delivering his eulogy to his Elder Brother, Nelson Mandela, on 15 December 2013, especially when he ended with the words: “My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to.”
Mr K, our lives are in a void and we also don’t know who turn to. We will turn to all the memories you left us. We will treasure the moments we had with you and we promise to live up to your legacy. In honour of you Mr K, we want you to remember that we will continue your legacy, and that when you get to the other side you must tell Madiba, Dulcie September, Ruth Mompati, Steve Biko, Ruth First, Amina Cachalia, Walter Sisulu, OR Tambo, Irene Mkwayi, Ashley Kriel, Raymond Mhlaba, Yusuf Dadoo, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Lillian Ngoyi and the many others who lost their lives fighting for our freedom, that we will continue to build a country of their dreams.
Hamba kahle, Mr K. We will miss you more than you will ever know.