We are gathered here in the name of a giant. He is fallen but lives forever because his spirit will live in the hearts and minds of many generations to come, for Ahmed Kathrada was one for the ages.

Today’s event is dedicated to the memory of Ahmed Kathrada. I am here to propose it is much more. Correctly recorded, memory provides a deep sense of moral grounding and identity, providing inspiration and clarity in times of great difficulty.

The times in which we live, and the deep challenges we see and experience demand that today’s event is simultaneously a moment of great regeneration, and inspiration.  

Mkhulu Kathy’s is a life story that provides many lessons about what we should ground our efforts if we are to build a deep democracy and a just society.  Today we are called upon to strengthen our democracy, deepen democratic participation, fix our political and government institutions, and build a modern, competitive, inclusive economy in which all South Africans can build a better tomorrow.

Today I am going to talk about the pillars of that story and how they inspire the work we must do next. These are:

  • Boldness
  • Bravery
  • Moral clarity and consistency, and
  • Commitment to action

Poverty and Inequality

Just weeks ago, the World Bank released a report in which, out of 164 countries, South Africa was the most unequal. 10% of the population owns 90% of the wealth, with race and education accounting for 71% of the reasons. If you are black, you are more likely to be poor and unemployed. The same is true if you have limited or no skills whatsoever, which happens to be most prevalent amongst black people.

In a few weeks, Statistics South Africa will release another grim report on unemployment. In the latest report released in November last year, a total 46% South Africans either could not find work or had given up looking for work altogether. It is generally accepted that up to 60%, sometimes more of the unemployed are under the age of 35.

This means we have a generation of people who have never worked, and for whom long term economic prosperity will probably remain a dream.

Therefore, we cannot be surprised when, in a desperate search for opportunity and food, they are animated by a recent campaign to rid the country of black and brown immigrants. I fear that left unchecked, we will have an orgy of violence bigger than 2008 and July last year combined.

More crudely, we now have the possibility of poor black people brutalizing one another – a shameful outcome were it to happen.

Moral degeneration

Also, in the country of towering moral giants like Ahmed Kathrada, Lillian Ngoyi, Nkosi Albert Luthuli and Denis Goldberg, people who have been repeatedly found culpable of wrongdoing feel emboldened to seek election to leadership positions and get supported.

This is even when they shamelessly stole money meant for scared, sick, dying people in the depths of a global pandemic. I fear our society is so morally distorted they may get elected again and again.

With righteous indignation, insults dripping from their mouths, they and their fellow travellers wag a menacing finger at our constitutional order for daring to have mechanisms to hold them to account. Flanked by thieves who want to remain unaccountable, they use the most disgraceful language to attack black judges for doing the work our Constitution obligates them to.

They are engaged in a concerted campaign to build a chaotic, corrupt, and amoral society in which values mean nothing. They want a moral jungle in which the law and moral obligation only apply to the weak or poor, who will certainly get arrested and jailed if they dare steal toilet paper.

This happens because the millions of capable, morally righteous people, have opted to remain silent and leave the work of fighting for a better country to the poor, the working class and the NGO sector.

That is unsustainable. Democratic accountability and national prosperity are not outcomes we get after procuring the professional services of political parties, journalists or NGOs that we turn around and insult when they do the work we refuse to do ourselves.

So, I am not going to ask what Mkhulu Kathy would have done in a time such as this. He ran his race well and lived a life of purpose. Instead, I will say what lessons his legacy provides in this moment of inflection in our national life, and what we must to honour his memory.

Boldness

The first lesson relates to boldness. From Mkhulu Kathy we learn that even for a boy who grew up on Schweizer-Reineke and left home practically a baby, there is nothing bolder than a relentless sense of national mission, wanting to create a different society with your own efforts.

What he took is a path that was certain to strip him of whatever little privileges he could have had as a professional, and a South African of Indian descent. And he lost it all, his freedom and nearly his life. He knew it would come to that, but his sense of moral conviction and outrage was bigger.

Our task now is to define a new national mission premised on a clear set of values that represent the best of our national constitution and the struggle that gave birth to it. We must fight to realize that mission.

There will be no messiah to save this democracy and its institutions, to miraculously elevate morally upright people to leadership. These are all choices that are realized through hard work, collaboration and sacrifice, which we must now do if we do not want a failed democracy and a failed state.

Bravery

The second lesson is about bravery.

In December 1956, Mkhulu Kathy spoke at the meeting of People’s Defence Committee following the arrest of liberation leaders on charges of treason. His words were prescient:

We have said that the time is coming when we must begin to change these things and that time is past for us to just sit. We want to change this country into a happy country, a beautiful country. Instead of dividing this country into group areas, we want all the people to live more and more together, and if that is Treason, then tell Mr. Swart that as far as I am concerned, as far as the people of South Africa are concerned, we will continue to commit Treason. And no force on earth is going to stop us.”

Treason carried the death penalty. Less than a decade later, he would face the possibility of the death penalty, and do so bravely. Today we have an inheritance, a democracy and a constitution that affirms our right to be up and about, wanting to change this country into a happy country, a beautiful country.

Mkhulu Kathy’s life story should tell us something about how we measure progress. Fundamentally, we must measure progress by whether we have eliminated racialized inequality, poverty, and unemployment. We must look at whether the most vulnerable have access to a clean, open, and accountable government that centres its work on their happiness and well-being.

We will only have that government if we create and sustain it, when the best of our society do not think public service is beneath them. Yes, our politics is degenerate and corrupt but there is no other way out. We must get in the fight and change it with a better idea, with better conduct and moral clarity. None of this will be realized overnight, but long term gain comes with painful sacrifices. That is what we learn from the life of Ahmed Kathrada.

Moral Clarity

The third lesson is about moral clarity.

Mkhulu Kathy and his comrades knew that the benefits of their struggle would also accrue to the very people that oppressed the people, brutalized them and imprisoned them. Yet, they persevered. For decades of hardship in prison.

And when he came out, and for the rest of his life he continued being up and about, fighting for a happy country, a beautiful country. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did, nonetheless.

Mkhulu Kathy’s legacy compels us to call a spade a spade. Having moral clarity means not insulting thousands of years of history and tradition, and centuries of moral struggle by suggesting that we must support people even when they wrong society just because they are black! Alternatively because they are comrades who fought in the struggle, so they get a free pass to wreak havoc and not be held accountable.

Moral consistency

Moral consistency means it is entirely possible and correct to condemn George W Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the sovereign state of Ukraine. Moral inconsistency means that having supported Putin in your actions, you are still not able to tell us which of our sovereign neighbours should seek our permission before making geopolitical friends. If you can’t answer that question, then our position on the matter is morally inconsistent and disconnected from the heritage we claim to hold dear.

Moral consistency means fighting through the pain of being a lifelong member of the ANC, one who nearly lost his life under its colours, and still be able to call out its president when he or she errs. It means not mistaking blind loyalty for moral rectitude by engaging in whataboutism, or attempts to silence those who choose to take a clear moral stand.

The final lesson I want to share is about commitment to action no matter how difficult or long it will take. I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that it was to be decades before the slogan, Freedom in our Lifetime, was to be realised. It was decades of hardship and pain, and hard work.

A mission for our generation

My generation must be bold by having a strong sense of national mission, to translate the values of our constitution into very specific, tangible goals. In my view, which is shared by my colleagues at the Rivonia Circle, those values are Freedom, Equality, Justice and Solidarity.

This is a mission for which no one is divinely anointed. It is a sacred duty that is at the heart of our democratic social contract.

We must see these values as indivisible, and as the centre of our politics. We must define freedom as the time when individual, family and communal wellness and happiness define how we engage with politics, and not power for its own sake so we can ask the people to bow to us instead of serving them.

It is time for a new political framing, attitude and language that places human development, safety, health and wellbeing at the top of our national priorities. It is a language that is simple and grounded in the lived realities of millions of South Africans rather than false notions of ideological purity. At the Rivonia Circle, we call this Democratic South Africa Version 2.0

How are people free when municipalities cannot carry out basic functions, and public transport is expensive privately owned transport used by the public? That transport is usually unsafe and forces already downtrodden people to endure daily abuses from people who don’t see them as clients whose need they need to cater to? How are people free under such circumstances?

Therefore, we learn that being bold means wanting the very best, for the least seen and heard.

Second, we learn that unless those of us who are fortunate enough to have professional skill and the means to organize resources seek out and work in solidarity with the marginalized, nothing, but absolutely nothing will change.

There is no democracy or country on this planet that can sustain itself and produce national prosperity when its most capable lock themselves behind high walls and pretend that Twitter and Facebook are the real world. Now is the time to engage with matters of public import directly and consistently at all levels, beginning with community structures.

Participating does not have to mean protest or criticising the government. Participating means deciding to own this country and its challenges enough to want to do something about them yourself, and directly influence political power outcomes in the process.

Our country has an abundance of talent and resources. What we lack is the bravery and boldness to plot a national vision, bringing South Africans from all walks of life. This is not new. The 1955 Congress of the People was the same.

Just over 60yrs on we face yet another critical moment when we must get together in the same way. The difference now is that we can call upon the deep experience of thousands of activists who have carried communities and families, and the many brilliant South Africans who sit inactivated across our land and in the diaspora. We can change our country’s destiny, but we can’t do that if we don’t take it into our hands.

In pursuing this work, we must avoid the temptation to pursue fake miracle cures that promise much but will, in the end, bring more disappointment to millions of South Africans who fight for hope every day.

We must challenge ourselves to be thorough and creative, to cut no corners and to forever be diligent. Such an approach demands that we reach for and accept a higher calling as an act of undiluted lover for this republic we call home.

Lessons from History

49yrs ago, Amilcar Cabral was clear on the same – “Every responsible member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of others. Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures.

So, no, printing more money to give to corrupt politicians to steal or squander is not going to make the hardships of our compatriots go away no matter how shrill the voices that say so are. However good, no policy will lead to prosperity in a vast expanse of moral degeneration and lack of democratic accountability.

Infusing an urgent sense of national mission, being bold and dreaming big, and bringing South Africans from all walks of life to reimagine our country, and to then fight for that new vision – is the mission we have allocated ourselves at the Rivonia Circle. As a free country, the outcomes we seek can only happen through deep and consistent democratic participation, and a state whose very orientation is restoring the soul of our nation.

Finally, I want to say that Mkhulu Kathy was only 34 when he was sent to Robben Island for Treason. By then he was already battle-hardened from years of struggle. It will be a shame if my generation fails to grab the baton and run with it.

I do not subscribe to the view that the founding mothers and fathers of this democracy sold out. They simply did what they could. If we want a different future for ourselves and future generation, then we must fight for it just as hard as they did.

As one historical figure once said, “Fate does not spare the man whose convictions are not matched by his readiness to give them effect.”

We must prove our mettle now.

EventIn Memory of Ahmed Kathrada
Date27 March 2022 (14h30)
VenueConstitution Hill