Letters from Robben Island

Remarkable stories of suffering, humour, humanity and the triumph of the human spirit
Kathrada, Ahmed
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Letters from Robben Island

Author: Ahmed Kathrada
Zebra Press
Cape Town, 2000
ISBN: 1868723658
Soft cover, 15x21 cm, 336 pages, several photos

Publisher’s note:

A soul-stirring book filled with remarkable stories of suffering, humour, humanity and the triumph of the human spirit. It is a journey of the heart to be read by all South Africans. Letters from Robben Island is a selection of the over 900 letters that political stalwart Ahmed Kathrada wrote during his years in prison, having been sentenced to life in the Rivonia Trial in 1961. The letters recreate the experiences and lives of the those who spent many years in prison - their day to day experiences and all the difficulties as well as emotions that went with them. Kathrada's vision for a new South Africa shines through the letters he wrote to individuals, giving us insight into his life, his country and his people.

After serving 26 years mainly on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor Prison, Ahmed 'Kathy' Kathrada was released on 15 October 1989. He was advisor to President Nelson Mandela, and now serves as the chairperson of the Robben Island Museum Council and of the Ex-Political Prisoner's Committee. He pursues these jobs with the same vigour and passion with which he embraced his political responsibilities over a period of six decades.

Media Reviews:

Daily Dispatch - Saturday (Cornelius Thomas):
"Ahmed Kathrada's correspondence reveals the humility of the struggle leaders, their patience, and the orderness of their engagement with elites and commoners alike. Letters bears a refreshing frankness about the existence of prejudice in all South African communities, especially the wealthy who hid their prejudices in the safety of upmarket parties and the private consumption of luxury."

Introduction by Walter Sisulu:

I first met Ahmed Kathrada, or Kathy as we have come to know him, when he was a dynamic youth leader in the mid-1940s. This was the beginning of a wonderful personal relationship between Kathy and me, and one that has endured to the present day - so much so, that over the years Kathy has come to be regarded by my folks as a member of the Sisulu family.

That meeting also was the beginning of a political association that has spanned a period of more than half a century. It is not possible for me to mention the many highlights of this association in so brief an introduction. Suffice it to say, though, that Nelson, Kathy, and I participated in the important political campaigns of the day, as well as the major political trials of the 1950s and 1960s. Among these were the Trial of the Twenty, which followed the Defiance Campaign of 1952, the Treason Trial, which lasted for more than four years from 1957 to 1961, and, of course, the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial.

It was during the Rivonia Trial that this book of his letters from prison had its humble beginnings. It was while he was on trial that several of Kathy's letters were smuggled out of prison by Bram Fischer, who was defending us, in turn, the letters were delivered to Sylvia Neame, a friend of Kathy's, by Bram's wife, Molly Fischer.

This was only the first instance where Kathy was able to smuggle correspondence out from prison. During our imprisonment on Robben Island and Pollsmoor he managed to smuggle out a number of letters - often with political prisoners who were being released after completing their sentences.

Writing letters from prison was a privilege which we cherished very dearly. During the early years of our imprisonment, we were only entitled to write and receive one letter every six months. But this was not the only restriction. We were not allowed to make any references to other prisoners, or to our prison conditions, nor to make comments which the prison authorities construed as "political." Failure to adhere to these restrictions invariably resulted either in the letters being heavily censored, or not being posted at all. It was therefore inevitable that through pseudonyms, oblique references, innuendoes etc., prisoners became adept at conveying more than what was actually stated in words. We were also not allowed to keep copies of letters we wrote.

Kathy had the enviable habit of making a copy of each and every letter he wrote and he managed to keep them. Copies of letters written between 1964 and 1971 were confiscated by our jailers. After his release, he managed to obtain many of these from the persons to whom they had been written. He continued to make copies after 1971; but these, too, were confiscated. On this occasion, his letters and the study material also taken from him, were stored under lock and key in one of the vacant cells in the same section where we were imprisoned.

One weekend, when the permanent guards were not on duty, Kathy and Laloo Chiba asked the replacement guards to open the cell so that it could be cleaned. This was done. As soon as they were left alone, Kathy and Chiba stole the letters and hid them elsewhere. Kathy managed to keep the correspondence until his release. These letters make interesting reading. Despite the restriction imposed by prison authorities regarding the nature and contents of the letters, what clearly comes through is his engaging personality, his uncompromising views, and his sharp wit and humour.

Many things could be said about Kathy, but these need to be reserved for his own memoirs. Suffice it to say several things though. First, Kathy was a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old, and across the political spectrum. Second, it was at his initial suggestion and recommendation, not to mention his subsequent involvement and guidance, that Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, actually became a reality. Third, he pursued his academic studies with vigour on Robben Island and he acquired several degrees by the time he was released from prison. Finally, it is important to mention that Kathy was the recipient of the ANC's highest award for meritorious service to the liberation movement. The Isithwalandwe Award was, in fact, bestowed upon him while he was in prison, although it was not given to him physically until after his release. For me, and I am sure for discerning readers everywhere who can "read in between the lines," this selection of correspondence presents a picture of Kathy as we all came to know and love him.

Essop Pahad – 3 April 1968:

This letter is addressed to a whole group of South Africans, all of whom are in exile in London. Essop and Aziz Pahad are brothers and it was their mother to whom Kathrada refers as his "Joburg Ma." They were neighbors, living about a block from Kathrada. Tommy Vassen, who Kathrada refers to as his "cousin" in "Letters to Sylvia" and Bobby, "the young cousin" are brothers; Herby Pillay, referred to as "H," is their cousin. Harry Naidoo went to London in 1962. Billy Nannan arrived in London in 1965 after being detained under the 90-Day Detention Laws, where he was tortured and placed in solitary con-finement. All continued to be active in ANC politics and political structures. Billy Nannan, one of the shining lights in the ANC, died in London in 1993, robbing the movement of one of its true intellectuals.

Abdulhay Jassat and Mosy (Moosa Moolla), together with Wolpe and Goldreich, made a daring 1963 escape from Marshall Square, a jail in Johannesburg. In the reference to Abdulhay being unwell, Kathrada wants to know if the torture Abdulhay had suffered while in detention is still affecting him. In fact, to this day Abdulhay still has occasional blackouts as a result of the torture in 1963. The Pahad brothers are both in the present South African government; Tommy, Herby, and Harry are still living in London, and Bobby Vassen is at Michigan State University in the United States. Kathrada, now coming up to four years in jail, is still the same indomitable spirit. While he admits that life in jail "is no bed of roses," he is finding a lot for which to be thankful: time for reflection, time to study, and even perhaps time to take up the guitar. We learn that for three years they had no access to reading matter. The magazines he quotes are certainly not ones to inspire, but for political prisoners, getting permission to subscribe to them was a "breakthrough." It was little battles like these that kept their spirits up. After almost four years Kathrada was still a "D" prisoner - the lowest category possible. It took him thirteen years to be reclassified "A." In the interim, he became a "B," and on two occasions while a "B," he was demoted. He was the last of his group to get to the "A" category, probably for his uncompromising stand. The other names Kathrada mentions in this letter are South Africans in exile, most of whom are active in ANC politics.

To Essop Pahad, London, United Kingdom. 3.4.68
Robben Island

My Dear Essop, Aziz, Tommy, Harry, Herby, Bobby, Billy and the boys - and Ursula, Dela, Theresa, Fati,1 and the girls, and of course all the children, my aunties, etc. It was really wonderful to receive your letter on 29th March. Needless to say it brought back heaps of memories of the many years we spent together. It is not without a tinge of anguish that I think of you all who are so far away from home. Therefore your letter was like a happy reunion; only, instead of the conventional beverages that go with such occasions, we satisfy our thirst and hunger with the good news about all our near and dear ones. From this point of view the last weekend for me has been a veritable orgy. Your letter arrived on Friday, my brother Solly visited me on Saturday, and the authorities were kind enough to allow an additional visit on Sunday from my nephew. So you can imagine what a feast I've been having. I was happy to hear that Mummy & Daddy are presently in South Africa and that they are well. I expect Hassim will write again one of these days and tell me more about them. You can't imagine how happy and proud I am of your academic achievements. What pleased me even more is the subject of Essop's thesis.2

How often have I not wished, outside and inside jail, that some of our younger graduates should get stuck into research on different aspects of our history. Bobby & Billy will remember our discussing it. I hope there are other South Africans pursuing similar themes & should like to hear some details. Last year I read an MA thesis by some chap called Pachhai on the "History of Indian Opinion up to 1916." It wasn't up to much - in fact parts of it positively offended one's nostrils. I hope a group of you could do something to replace Joshi's book!3 And, if you'll allow me to indulge my fancies, perhaps one day even Walker's book will be suitably replaced. What has made Sylvia invade the "all man's-world" of Oxford to do her doctorate? What is her topic? What about her research on the ICU?4 I'm surprised when you say that "she looks much better" as I was not aware other being unwell. I'm anxious to know about her health & hope she is looking after herself. Give her my love. I should like to know about you all, your studies, social activities, etc. And also about people like Ismail, Dasoo,Vella, Barney, M.P, Issy, Paul, Abe, etc., and their families and kids. Has Abdulhay also been unwell? Has Juby joined Mosy? We heard some terrible gossip some time ago about Mosy's "second marriage" and about Issy following suit and were happy to hear it was untrue. Also heard some rumours about a squabble in Moosabhai's family and hope it is likewise untrue. Thab5 has been very naughty in not keeping in touch with his family. Give him my regards. Is he also doing a doctorate? There are so many other friends about whom I should like to know; but as a lot of them are political, I'll have to resist the temptation to enquire after them. It may just rub the authorities the wrong way and may prejudice our communications. Incidentally I am not allowed to write or receive any messages as relating to my fellow prisoners.

Give my regards to Joel and the colony of South Africans working with him. What ever happened to the book he wrote? When I see some of the local asthmatics suffer in the English-type climate on Robben Island, I often wonder what happens to Oliver6 in London. Or has he succeeded in curing himself? Is his wife a doctor already? If you ever happen to see them, please convey my fondest regards and wishes to them. I can rely on you chaps to set up a little bit of Fordsburg7 wherever you go. I suppose the pub on the corner has taken the place of "aunty's shebeen" in Terrace Road,8 which you used to frequent. I hope Tommy is taking it easy. Now I suppose you'd like to hear a bit about life here. Healthwise, I'm fine, i.e. besides the bit of arthritis and other little aches and pains that go with prison life. Spiritwise, I couldn't be better. I suppose a very important factor here is that, long before my arrest, I had conditioned myself to the prospect of spending a long time in jail. And, as you will probably imagine, almost everything depends on one's mental attitude. So I don't for a moment regret my refusal to accept the suggestion in 1963 that I should take refuge in Swaziland or overseas. Having said this, I don't of course mean that I'm finding prison life to be a bed of roses, or that I shouldn't like to be with my loved ones. But at the same time, looking back over the past few years, I must say that my being in prison has not been without its advantages. It has been a real boon to have been able to devote time to reflection and thought and also to be able to acquire a bit of education. Almost everyday that passes reveals to me how really ignorant I've been, educationwise; and I cannot but be thankful that I've had a bit of opportunity to make up a little in this direction. As you most probably know, I've been trying to do a B.A. since ±May 1965, with majors in History and Criminology. I should have completed at the end of last year, but unfortunately flopped Criminology. So I'm doing it again this year. My original intention was to do History Honours, but unfortunately the new prison regulations won't allow me to. So, as things stand at present, it seems as if I shall be tackling another B.A., i.e. if the prisons and university agree. I'm toying with the idea of 3 majors - Anthropology, Sociology, "Native" Administration. I've also managed to do a bit of general reading.

I suppose you are aware of the games we are allowed to play since August last - Table Tennis, Scrabble, Chess, Monopoly, Bridge, Klaberjas, etc. And, believe it or not, I'm contemplating learning to play the guitar; Alec's influence of course. Esu9 is already doing fine with the Melodica, though his tunes are rather Indianized. And we are also allowed monthly visits & letters. We may subscribe to Huisgenoot, Panorama, Farmers Weekly, Lantern, Landbon Weekblod & Reader's Digest; not exactly an inspiring list but nevertheless a welcome breakthrough. And the smokers are allowed to buy cigarettes. Not doing too badly, are we? I am still a "D" group prisoner. That's all about myself. I suppose both Mummy and Daddy speak English well nowadays. Have you folks a lot of English friends? Do you also find them cold & reserved? I hope you don't get influenced by some of the unfortunate English habits and customs - you know, "special invitations" for tea, the insipid food, and the surfeit of manners, etc. I couldn't stick England at all & ran away as quickly as I could to the Continent. Is Mota10 back from India? Give him my love. You must write again. It is so much better if you can, or get Tommy to, type your letters. No reflection on your writing, but it will be easier for my old eyes. And please write directly to me at the Island. You can just inform Nassim when you do write. Keep well. I wonder if our Yasmin still remembers me. She was small when I was arrested. My very best wishes and love to all of you.


Foreword, Nelson Mandela
Introduction, Walter Sisulu
Editor's Note
About Ahmed Kathrada

The Letters


Sylvia Neame, February or March 1964
Sylvia Neame, February or March 1964
Sylvia Neame, May 1964
Sylvia Neame, 9 June 1964
Sylvia Neame, 11 June 1964
Ahmed Kola, 30 August 1964
Kathrada Family, 18 October 1964
Kathrada Family, 24 December 1967
Essop Pahad, 3 April 1968
Goolam Hoosenbhai, 29 December 1968
Sylvia Neame, between 11-31 December 1970
Solly Kathrada, 26 March 1972
Zivia Shaban, 12 May 1973
Mrs. Neville Alexander, 16 February 1975
Sonia Bunting, 16 February 1975
Choti and Ismail, 28 March 1975
Prof. Ramfol, 26 April 1975
Ruth and Use Fischer, 11 May 1975
Raman Chiba, 20 September 1975
George Peake, 22 November 1975
TomVassen, 22 November 1975
Dr. Frene Ginwala, 24 December 1975
Sukhthi Naidoo, 25 January 1976
Tom, 20 March 1976
Sukhthi Naidoo, 28 August 1976

Rooki Saloojee, 24 December 1976
Dr.YusufCajee, 11 February 1978
Zohra Kathrada, 25 February 1978
Dasoo lyer, Easter, 1978
Tom Vassen, 17 June 1978
Zohra Kathrada, 24 June 1978
Tom and BobVassen. 25 July 1978
Zohra Kathrada, 25 November 1978
Bob Vassen, 21 April 1979
Poppy Kola, 19 May 1979
Aadil Jassat, 28 July 1979
Dasoo lyer, 17 November 1979
Head of Robben Island Prison, 24 November 1979
Shamima Kola, 15 December 1979
Zohra Kathrada, 22 December 1979
BobVassen, 19 January 1980
Dr. Karim, 14 June and 30 July 1980
Aziz Kathrada, 19 July 1980
Farida and Ahmed Bhoola, 20 September 1980
Shamima and Neelan Poonen, 4 October 1980
Djamilla Cajee, 25 October 1980


Tahera Kola, 14 February 1981
Dasoo lyer, 28 March 1981
Dr. Karim, 24 October 1981
Zohra Kathrada, 17 July 1982
Zohra Kathrada, 21 October 1982
Bob Vassen, 29 January 1983
Mammie Seedat, 29 May 1983
Roshan Dadoo, 1 October 1983
Zohrabibi Kathrada, 5 November 1983
Shireen Patel, 28 January 1984
Zeenat Cajee, 27 May 1984
Essop Jassat, 15 July 1984
Leila Issel, 1 December 1984
P.W. Botha, 13 February 1985
Helen Joseph, 17 March 1985
Navi Joseph, 23 March 1985
Shehnaaz Meer, 6 April 1985
Dr. Karim, 25 May 1985
Dullah Omar, 31 May 1985
Essop Jassat, 2 June 1985
Farieda Omar, 1 September 1985
Nazir Kathrada, 26 October 1985
Shireen Patel, 10 November 1985
Zamila Ayob, 7 December 1985
Khatoon Patel, 18 January 1986
Navi and Daso, 8 February 1986
Shehnaaz Meer, 23 February 1986
Daso and Navi, 31 August 1986
Ameen Akhalwaya, 9 November 1986
Wolfie Kodesh, 14 November 1986
Helen Joseph, 30 November 1986
Enver Bharoochi, 14 December 1986
Veena and Ramesh Vassen, 2 January 1987
Mukesh Vassen, 6 December 1987
Amien Cajee, 17 January 1988
Oliver Tambo, Sometime in 1988
Sonia Bunting, 13 March 1988
Zohra Kathrada, 12 June 1988
Zuleikha Mayat, 2 July 1988
J. N. and Radhie Singh, 16 September 1988
Zohrabibi Kathrada, 19 September 1988
Ben Shek, 29 October 1988
Zohra, 5 November 1988
Shehnaaz Krige, 12 November 1988
Yasmin and Nazir Kathrada, 18 December 1988
Typical Day in Prison, Sometime in 1988
Fazlin, 7 January 1989
Fati and Kader, 14 January 1989
Helen Joseph, 5 March 1989
Zuleikha Mayat, 25 March 1989
Mohamed, 16April 1989
Patricia Long, 13 May 1989
Aysha Gamiet, 3 July 1989
Marie Kola. 19 July 1989
Ghengis (Eddie Daniels' dog), 22 July 1989
Zuleikhabehn Mayat, 17 September 1989
Navi Joseph, 3 October 1989