Remembering Uncle Kathy

by Iswamo Kapalu

Three years ago, on an afternoon in early autumn, I saw Ahmed Kathrada in person for the first and last time. This was a brief and forgettable moment in the life of a giant but an unforgettable one in the life of a young man.

The country was at a sensitive time in its political history. Only months before we had laid another giant to rest: Nelson Mandela.

This was just after the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, had released a report into the security upgrades at the President’s home in Nkandla. Meanwhile, State machinery was turning to help the President violate the Constitution and attempt to avoid accountability for the upgrades.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, the country was days away from an election. This election would determine whether the President was going to get a second term in office.

It was against this backdrop that the late Uncle Kathy was ushered into a room full of excited and expectant students. Gentle as he may have been, his gravitas was not lost on any of the awed students who were present.

After he spoke applause rang through the hall. Then it was time for questions. With a national election so close, the question of how we should vote was inevitable. His answer was simply: “You should vote”. More applause. Just as he was ushered in, he was also ushered out. I was never to see him again.

Much time has passed since then and with it, so has the man. Today, on an early autumn afternoon and not far from where he gave that address, the nation lays him to rest.

In retrospect it is clear that that address to a room full of young people, in desperate search for political identity, came on the cusp of great change in South African politics.

The country has since been endlessly ravaged by scandals. The State’s multiple constitutional shortcomings have since become the subject of Constitutional Court lashings, no confidence votes and a letter from Uncle Kathy asking the President to resign. This letter was not acknowledged.

However, with the President being requested not to attend the funeral, and the letter by the late veteran being read out to a standing ovation, it seems we may again stand at the cusp of a new political season.

What I hope for is that we approach this new season with the same principled courage that marked Ahmed Kathrada’s life. Through his death may we recommit ourselves to the life of this nation.  RIP Uncle Kathy.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu
LL.B. (Wits)

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.
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