Living Kathrada's beliefs will do justice to his legacy

The words used to describe Ahmed Kathrada in tributes say much about the man, but also about the state of South African politics, writes Ryland Fisher.

I did not get to say goodbye to Ahmed Kathrada in the way I wanted this week. While he was being buried at the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg on Wednesday morning, I was facilitating a conference on empowerment and transformation a few kilometres away in a hall named after Oliver Reginald Tambo and in a room named after King Shaka.

While my heart and soul wanted to be among the mourners bidding Kathy a final goodbye, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I was doing the work Kathrada and other leaders like him began many years ago. They fought for the transformation of our society from one where the minority oppressed the majority, to one where the wealth of the country would be shared much more equitably among all who live in our beautiful land.

The discussions at the conference were clear: While there has been progress in the transformation project, there remains much to be done. I was impressed with most of the speakers, making me realise once again that, if we look hard enough, we should be able to find the Ahmed Kathradas of this generation, people who will carry forward the project begun by Kathrada and others like him as long ago as the 1940s (some would argue this began in 1912 when the ANC was formed).

Anti-apartheid activists and close friends, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, chat in Parliament in Cape Town. File picture: Reuters

One of the privileges of journalism, and one journalists often take for granted, is that we get access to interesting and powerful people. I would take interesting over powerful any time. Now and then, but not too often, you get someone who are both interesting and powerful - and Kathrada was one of those people, even though he never acted like he had any power.

The words used to describe Kathrada in tributes at his funeral and messages from around the world say much about the man, but also about the state of South African politics.

Kathrada has been described as “incorruptible”, “humble”, “wise”, “committed to selfless service”, “unhappy with the state of South Africa”, “committed to non-racism”, “a uniting force” and a “stalwart of the Struggle”. Someone at the funeral said that Kathrada would “not stab you in the back” and was opposed to the “parasitic patronage which seeks to corrupt the movement”.

“Movement” is a term often used by ANC members and supporters to describe the organisation, harking back to the days when we used to talk about the liberation movement.

At Kathrada’s funeral - which the president did not attend, but which was attended by former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, who delivered the eulogy, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and a host of cabinet ministers - overt calls were made for the president to step down.

Reading, watching and listening to many of the tributes, I could not help thinking that South Africans, and not only those who attended the funeral, are looking for alternatives to what our society has become.

Would the words used to describe Kathrada be used to describe any of our current leaders? Probably not.

It is probably an indication that the elected political leadership in South Africa have moved away from the project of building a non-racial, non-sexist and more equitable society which is captured in the country’s constitution, and was the rallying cry of the liberation movement in the days when we opposed apartheid.

It is clear that, in the past few years particularly, things have shifted rapidly to a situation where the interests of the majority have been superseded by the material interests of the minority.

The extent of this minority is not known, with some people blaming everything on the president’s relationship with one family.

While I think this relationship is a major problem and needs to be addressed, this is not the only place where things have gone wrong.

Corruption has permeated much of society where it has become common for business people, for instance, to expect to pay bribes in return to receive government contracts.

Whenever I speak to small business people, who are struggling to make a living in an economy that is not where it was five to 10 years ago, they speak about paying bribes as if it is a normal thing to do.

I am glad people at Kathrada’s funeral spoke out about what is wrong in the ANC and in society. This is a good sign that our democracy is still strong. One remains hopeful that this new spirit of defiance and accountability will permeate throughout the ANC and will guide discussions at the elective conference in December. However, I am worried that all the blame is being laid at the door of one man - even though he should probably shoulder much of the blame.

The ANC needs more than new leadership to convince sceptical South Africans that the organisation is worth supporting in 2019. It will need to demonstrate a commitment to root out corruption, through action and not words, and it will need to show that it is prepared to finally deliver on the non-racist, non-sexist and more equitable society that it promised us in the Struggle years.

That is the only way to keep Kathrada’s legacy alive and to pay proper tribute to him and others like him, including Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu , from what now seems a golden generation of leaders.

(First published as aThinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 April 2017)