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Anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, 83, who spent nearly 27 years in prison with Nelson Mandela, says the prison was a perfect reflection of apartheid, with your race determining how much sugar you got and whether you could wear long pants or short.
“On the first day we arrived, I was issued long pants, because I am Indian South African,” Kathrada told Here & Now. “But my leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were issued short pants because they were black. At breakfast, I got more sugar than blacks with my tea, and I was issued a quarter loaf of bread daily, whereas Mandela did not receive any bread for the first 10 years of our prison sentence.”
Nelson Mandela’s strength in the face of his illness has reminded South Africans, and the world, of that astonishing moment when Mandela stepped out of prison after 27 years.
The elegant suit, the graceful walk and most of all, Mandela’s ability to forgive the very people who had held him prisoner for decades, and tortured and killed many of his colleagues in the long struggle against apartheid, the state-enforced system of racial segregation imposed by the country’s white minority.
Ahmed Kathrada was also a leader in that struggle. He began his political activism in the 1940s, when he was barely a teenager, and worked closely with fellow activists like Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.
He says despite everything that they went through and the bitterness of the struggle, “it was not hard to forgive our enemies, because whites also had been killed and tortured and hung.”
Kathrada recently led President Barack Obama and his family on a tour of Robben Island, where he was held for 18 years with Mandela.
New York Times “Mr. Kathrada said Mr. Obama’s reaction to the tour last weekend, and to one he gave him in 2006 when Mr. Obama was a senator, was as full of outrage as the typical visitor’s. But he said he especially remembers how Mr. Obama’s daughters, Malia, who was about to turn 15, and Sasha, who was 12, responded.”
Frontline “That’s the thing, you know, he’s inscrutable. He’s the coolest man that I have come across. Unflappable. Incidentally, I did see his anger with de Klerk — all of us watched it on television. But he is unflappable.”