There is something eerie about Robben Island. As a visitor, I find it unbearable. It is perhaps the landscape that narrates so much of our dark history.
The leper graveyard to where those who suffered from this disease – mostly black – were banished and eventually buried on this dry, God-forsaken piece of land.
The quarries where many of my heroes broke their backs with hard labour, damaged their lungs and ruined their eyes.
The prison itself – its thick stone walls, the long dark corridors, the cold shiny floors and the heavy bars that locked up Ahmed Kathrada for 18 of his 26 years in prison.
As news of Uncle Kathy’s death broke yesterday, I could not help but recall this horrible place which once regarded this gentle soul as one of Africa’s most dangerous terrorists, then stripped him of his dignity and renamed him 46864.
At 87, Kathrada’s death, although devastating, was largely to be expected. In recent weeks he put up a brave fight against deteriorating health.
As this week began, the writing was on the wall – the curtain was falling on an extraordinary life well lived.
Like many, I am deeply saddened by his passing.
Not only for him and his family, but the nation for which he sacrificed so much of himself.
Although I revered him, I never met Kathrada.
But I watch with fondness as those who lived with him share anecdotes of a man who became known as the most famous fan of the TV soapie, Isidingo.
You can’t help but smile when they speak of the unconventional uncle who would eat his dessert before dinner because, well, so what?
They speak of a man born in 1929 into a deeply divided world and found his quiet voice of courage at the age of 12 years.
Long-time friend and fellow Robben Island prisoner Laloo Chiba describes Kathrada as “my strength in prison, my guide in political life and my pillar of strength in the most difficult moments of my life. Now he is gone.”
Similarly, many of those whose lives he touched paint a beautiful portrait of a warm character defined by humility and grace.
They speak of an imperfect man who embraced his faults, a brave leader whose belief in freedom and commitment to the truth was resolute.
This courage was perhaps most evident during the historic Rivonia Trial of 1964, when Kathrada submitted himself to a collective decision not to appeal against his conviction, even though he had legal grounds to do so.
Instead, he refused to break ranks and submitted to the common will of his comrades which would ultimately change the course of his life.
Last April, we were reminded once again of this courage.
In an emotional open letter, the liberation struggle icon broke tradition and asked President Jacob Zuma to step down. His voice embodied the wishes of many South Africans, across the board, who believe that because of his conduct, the president is not morally fit to lead this country.
“The position of president is one that must at all times unite this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today for all South Africans,” Kathrada wrote.
He told how until then he did not speak out though he felt it grossly insulting when his president was called a thief or a rapist.
Or when he was accused of being under the influence of the Guptas.
“Now that the court has found that the president failed to uphold‚ defend and respect the constitution as the supreme law‚ how should I relate to my president?
“If we are to continue to be guided by growing public opinion and the need to do the right thing‚ would he not seriously consider stepping down?”
However, although profound, Kathrada was effectively ignored.
His letter did not fit in with the politics of the day.
His voice was drowned out by the tangled political interests that are no longer about the people.
To his critics, his letter was merely the ramblings of an old man who did not fully comprehend the agenda at hand.
You see, times have changed.
The foundation has shifted.
His letter placed a moral burden on a leadership that had long relinquished its ability to be selfless.
Kathrada had hoped to appeal to the conscience of a man who had long traded his for a seat at the pinnacle of greed and power.
Uncle Kathy, as well as many of the stalwarts who made similar pleas, perhaps failed to comprehend that they could not resuscitate the values of yesteryear in a leadership that no longer believed that its grand mandate is to serve.
I watched with interest over the past year as those embroiled in the prevailing culture of looting dismissed him with unbelievable contempt.
I watched men and women who claim to honour his legacy reject his plea as part of a grand conspiracy by irritants who had cunningly used his name to undermine the government of the day.
How condescending, I thought.
In his tribute to Kathrada yesterday, former president Thabo Mbeki reminded us, quite fittingly, that Uncle Kathy was a man committed to his principle to the very end.
Mbeki reminded us that he came from a generation of leaders more committed to serve the people than to cultivate their personal interests.
What we do with these lessons is our choice. Indeed, history will judge us.
Uncle Kathy ran and finished his race with excellence.
May he rest now.
Nwabisa Makunga is deputy editor of The Herald and Weekend Post.