The death of struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada at the age of 87 last month makes the new book Conversations With a Gentle Soul so much more than just another struggle story. His long-time friend Sahm Venter worked with him for more than a year from 2015 to record his experiences, including his wise opinions and caring outlook.
Of course, the book is even more topical due to the latest calls for President Jacob Zuma to step down. Kathrada was at the forefront of the chorus of disapproval and called for his resignation in a letter to “Dear Comrade President Zuma” a year ago. Venter reveals that Kathrada spent months crafting this letter, typical of his quiet, thoughtful approach to life.
Three years before this, his words also reached millions when he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of revered former president Nelson Mandela.
Reading the book, it is obvious that Kathrada has much more in common with the earlier president than the latter.
Almost from the day he was born in 1929 in Schweizer Reneke, he experienced apartheid. As a primary school child he was forced to leave his home and family as Indians were not permitted to attend the local Schweizer Reneke school.
He became a political activist at a young age and was first arrested at age 17. He faced many court trials due to his activism until a trial for sabotage in 1963 saw him sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Mandela and six others.
Yet, as has been repeatedly reported since his death, he was not a bitter man. The cover image by Kieran Scott shows an infectious smile and the text inside Conversations reveals a man at peace with the world.
Uncle Kathy (as so many affectionately called him) was clearly more of a lover than a fighter. In fact, reading this memoir it will be difficult for South Africans in 2017 to understand why this gentle soul had to spend so many years in jail for his beliefs. As Venter writes, his personality identity resonated more strongly with the concept of “love” than with those of “political prisoner”, “freedom fighter” or “politician”.
Not just a love for freedom, humanity and equality but also a love for children. Although he never had children – his lengthy stints in jail precluded the chance of a “normal” life with wife and kids – he adored them and seems to have shared the mischievous sense of humour so often seen in youngsters.
Conversations with a Gentle Soul by Ahmed Kathrada with Sahm Venter is published by Picador Africa and retails for R175.