A sense of finality, of the passing on of a venerable generation, a generation of high morality and self-sacrifice coming to an end, pervaded Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral on 29 March 2017.
Comrades and activists of every creed and colour of the South African nation were present. With speakers paying homage to Uncle Kathy’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life, so too were the attendees drawn from every facet of society: staff of the hosts, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, ministers, former presidents, diplomats, faith leaders, trade unionists, and political activists graced this moving but dignified event, which ran like clockwork from early morning.
Such was Kathrada’s beliefs in the essential good of humanity in all of us that various faiths claimed him. As his body was brought in promptly at 10am, pall bearers recited Kalimah Shahadah, which is the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and submission to Him.
Am imam, an archbishop, a rabbi and a Hindu priest began proceedings with their blessings. The SG of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, reminded us that Uncle Kathy had joined the Young Communist League at the age of 12. We were reminded that they spoke of Mandela, Sisulu and Kathrada in the same breadth – testimony to the non-racialism of the ANC and its leadership.
Emphasising Kathrada’s universal relevance, amongst the thinkers who were channelled in the speeches were Anton Lembede and Ralph Ellison. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe cited Horatius Cocles: "And how can a man die better, then facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods.” He also cited the American writer Henry van Dyk: “There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher.”
Ahmed Kathrada’s boundless and ever-lasting commitment to justice and fairness; to the fight against poverty, unemployment and inequality; to the encouragement of women participating in the public sphere, were themes which ran through every speech. As Archbishop Makgoba pointed out, Kathrada embodied dignity, equality and opportunity: the three colours of the rainbow.
His sheer humanity as a person who loved children, family and his sense of humour came through all the time. Life-long friend and activist Sophie du Bruyn spoke about how they had met at a fundraising dance in the fifties, but, she says, he was possessed of two left feet. His nephew Nazir Kathrada spoke of how he had advised his wife-to-be to feed him well, not out of a tin can.
Premier David Makhura, in paying tribute to all the veterans for their sacrifices, said he appreciated how they talk about the mistakes being committed. He emphasised the dignity they have shown in the face of insults thrown at them.
From the vantage point of the podium, Master of Ceremonies, Chair of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, said he looked across the beautiful tapestry of South Africa the almost 5000 audience represented. He said this non-racialism must continue being a living reality for all of SA, as a tribute to the non-racialism that Ahmed Kathrada embodied.
Secretary General of COSATU, Bheki Ntshalitshali, reminded the attendees that the ANC belonged to all South Africans.
Lifelong friend and comrade, Laloo Chiba, emphasised Kathrada’s work with the youth, as his investment into the future.
This sense of joy, celebration of high morality and non-racial unity could not escape the rotten stench of corruption, factionalism, elitism. Makgoba spoke of how low the levels of decency have sunk; Motlanthe emphasised how the political leadership of today had been found wanting. The former President read from the letter Kathrada had sent President Zuma exactly a year ago urging him to step down. The standing ovation sent thunder claps throughout the country.