hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein

Rusty on Ahmed "Kathy" Kathrada

9. 10. 88

Letter to Essop Pahad

Dear Essop,

I have just got around to reading the papers to the late 1986 Seminar in Amsterdam, as published by Zed under the title of 'The National Question in South Africa.' There is little doubt in my mind that this collection will become one of the basic texts that students and researchers will turn to in considering that topic - and especially our own ANC/CP views and opinions on it. For that reason, I am rather concerned about one aspect of your paper which I think needs to be corrected (there are, in my view, several aspects of your paper which provide some scope for argument over both the historical accuracy and the political interpretations of certain events, but since a seminar is arranged for the purpose of argument over such issues, I do not intend to deal with these here). In particular, I am concerned by your reference to Kathy - Ahmed Kathrada, viz:

"In fact, Ahmed Kathrada, now serving a life sentence, was one of the founders of Umkhonto."

Now this is just not true, and in fact does a profound injustice to Kathy's own political position and record. On the contrary, Kathy did NOT support the decision to turn to violence; he did not endorse or ever join Umkhonto. He consistently refused to join in any of the acts of sabotage etc which Umkhonto undertook in the period prior to his arrest. I know this as a fact, because I was one of those who argued about this with him repeatedly, both at formal meetings where the turn to violence was being debated, and informally. His position was just this. He did not accept that the turn to violence was tactically correct; he did not accept that (at that time, and in that special situation) it was morally justifiable or politically essential.

He was, however, one of the most loyal and disciplined of our people. He exercised the right which was open to ALL members of the liberation movement at the time to opt in or opt out of Umkhonto; but he never denied the right of the majority to do what they did, nor did he ever dissociate himself from them when they exercised their own right to act. He was a dissenter - not an oppositionist. He endorsed absolutely our right to act as we did, even though he personally thought that we were wrong!

Kathy stuck to this position totally during the Rivonia trial. He stated that position from the witness box - the only one of the Rivonia accused to do so. I do not have the transcript of the trial record, but from an (unpublished) account by Joel Joffe who was the lawyer in the defence case it is confirmed.

"Yutar attempted to prove that Kathrada had not been truthful when he had stated his own views of sabotage in his evidence-in-chief. Kathrada had said that he had had reservations about sabotage. He had thought it would not be effective unless it was directly related to some mass campaign, for instance an anti-pass campaign when people were going to jail for burning their passes; if in the course of such a campaign someone committed an act of sabotage, as for instance blowing up a pass office, he could see the effectiveness of sabotage. But except in such circumstances he did not think that sabotage would be politically effective. He had not supported the sabotage campaign, but he recognised the right of the organisations to conduct such a campaign, and tee would respect their decision if they saw fit to decide upon such action. On this basis, Kathrada could not be shaken."

This is precisely how I remember his position. Kathy is certainly entitled to be portrayed truthfully. For perhaps more than any of the other Rivonia accused, he was convicted for being part of a conspiracy to commit acts of violence which, in fact, he consistently opposed. And the whole evidence of the case - his own and Nelsons, Walters etc - confirmed. More than anyone, Kathy has served 25 years in jail for something he did not do, and did not even agree with. The miscarriage of justice in his case was the worst of all the infamies perpetrated by the State and Judge de Wet in that trial, and he is entitled to have that fact made clear on every opportunity. He went ^ to a life sentence without appeal out of solidarity and loyalty with the ANC and Umkhonto, in support of his belief that they had total justification for their stance even though he personally disagreed with it.

Apart from what is due to Kathy himself for this gross injustice, there is something else that makes it important to my mind that the record be put straight. The Rivonia defence stated that it would not seek an acquittal by denying facts. It would state totally truthfully and unashamedly what was true about the movement; and would rebut only the States' lies. This was the real significance of Nelsons court statement, and in fact off the defence testimony, Kathy's included. In so doing - in not seeking to escape responsibility by pleading ignorance, or shielding behind the claims of 'unproven' etc, the defence set new standards for the conduct of SA political trials in that period, which has been a proud part of our tradition since then.

On the other hand, the State case throughout - and the case of all our enemies since then - has been that the defence lied; that the ANC was a front for the CP and a tool of Moscow etc. If your statement about Kathy is believed and left to stand on the record, Kathy is shown to be a liar. And by inference, the defence case as stated by Mandela, Sisulu et al is also based on a lie which is now coming out. For this reason, Essop, I think you have an obligation in some way or another to correct your wrong statement, and put the public record - as well as Kathy's private record - straight.