By Ahmed Kathrada – Ramallah, Palestine
(Following is a transcript of a speech delivered by prominent South African politician, former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada at the “Freedom & Dignity” international conference in Ramallah, Palestine on April 27, which coincided with ‘Freedom Day’ in South Africa.)
It has been my lifelong dream to come to Palestine and I had hoped that it would have been to a free Palestine. I was meant to have come here last year but I suspect that the continuous explanations about the ostensible non availability of seats on the Israeli airline for several days were really an exercise to keep me out.
At the outset I’m also glad to announce that over the recent period the various Palestinian solidarity organizations in South Africa have decided to come together under one broad coordinating body, thus adding considerable strength to the South African Movement for Solidarity with Palestine. They will now have to add the issue of political prisoners firmly on their Campaign-agenda.
At great cost of sacrifice, untold hardship, imprisonment, torture, loss of life, the Palestinian people have been waging a courageous struggle for dignity, self-determination and statehood. You don’t have to be reminded of the words of the famous Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chander Bose, who said that “Freedom is not given, it is taken”. You have been actively living those words every day of your lives. You know too well that no people have been given their freedom without having to struggle for it.
Our struggle in South Africa had one great advantage, and that was the world-wide support of civil society and many governments. We are glad to witness the increasing support that your struggle is receiving.
In 1977, the United Nations passed the resolution that inaugurated the `International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people. We have seen an increased level of international solidarity throughout the world. In my view however, much more needs to be done to increase the pressure on Israel. In the South African struggle, international solidarity played a fundamental role in forcing the Nationalist Party government to the negotiating table. The international pressure against the Apartheid government spanned across the cultural, sporting and economic fields.
In this context we are reminded of the words of our former President Nelson Mandela, who said:
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians…”
Our University students, supported by our trade unions and civil society organizations are making it abundantly clearer by the day that apologists of your oppressors are not welcome in our country.
I, like all South Africans who are not white, know what racism means.
I have experienced the racism of the pro-Nazi apartheid regime which had copied its racist laws from Hitler’s 3rd Reich.
I have experienced a State of Emergency during which thousands of men and women were detained without trial.
Today my thoughts, prayers and good wishes go to our brother and comrade Marwan Barghouthi , political prisoner and freedom fighter who languishes in prison sentenced to, not one but five life sentences! I also want to salute Mrs. Bargouthi and her children. You have been forced to live the life of a widow but instead of cowering in the face of all this oppression, you have chosen to keep the flag of resistance flying high.
I can empathize with Mr. Bargouthi fully; because I was in prison for 26 years; I know detention without trial; I know solitary confinement, I know house-arrest, I know what it feels like to be wrenched away from my mother and father at the tender age of 8 to go 200 kilometers to school because the local white school would not admit me simply because I was an Indian;
I am not able to erase from my mind, the trauma of silently and in piercing pain staring at the bare plot of land where the house once stood where I was born. It had been razed to the ground because it stood in an area that had been declared for occupation by Whites only. My visit to the Auswitch concentration camp, five years after World War 2, brought home to me the full extent of the horrors that can come from Apartheid type thinking. There I saw the remains of Jews, communists, gypsies and gays who were killed there.
And the pain came forcefully back to me here in Palestine. I was thinking of the pro-Nazi South African Prime Minister Dr. Malan, whose Government had passed the law that was used to crush my house.
I remember what was called the Public Safety Act, under which at least 3 States of Emergency were declared.
I know what it is to be detained without trial. In the 1960 State of Emergency I spent 5 months in prison without being charged. I was among the thousands who were similarly detained.
It was during the same State of Emergency of 1960 that the 2 liberation organizations, the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress were declared illegal. During the subsequent States of Emergency in 1985 and 1986 the state resorted to greater repressive powers, by- passing judicial procedures. Thousands of children in particular filled the jails of South Africa.
As if detention without trial was not sufficient punishment, in 1962 the regime introduced a law, similar to that which you have here now, that allowed the police to detain suspects for 90 days, renewable. I happen to be a victim not long after it was passed.
For the entire 90 days:
– I was in complete isolation.
– I was not allowed to talk even to those who had been detained with me
– No lawyers allowed
– No family or other visitors allowed
– No news papers, nor any other reading matter
– The only visitors I received were the security police. They came with one message: – “Give us this information and you’ll be free. Otherwise you will be hanged. We have enough evidence against you.”
These were the most trying days of my life. After every interrogation session I returned to my empty cell, and for each waking minute and each waking hour the dominant thought remains death. But at the same time I begin to learn how to deal with my loneliness, anxiety and fear and found that it’s the hours that seem to pass fairly fast, but it’s the minutes that are slow. After a while I overcame my self- pity when I remembered that I was not alone in this situation.
My thoughts took me to the outside, and I begin to ask myself:- How am I going to face my family, my friends, my comrades? And what about the comrades I will be leaving behind? How am I going to live a life of betrayal? And most important; when I joined the struggle didn’t I learn that it entails responsibilities?
Responsibilities to myself, to my near and dear ones, to my comrades, and importantly to the ANC and the struggle .And don’t I have responsibilities to those who were tortured during interrogation? Some tortured to death? These responsibilities gave me the courage to tell my interrogators; NO!
Hundreds of 90-day-detainees were tortured. Many did not live to enjoy Freedom Day.
There are such immense similarities between the tactics used by the Apartheid government and Israel to deal with opposition that one can only conclude that the closeness between the two regimes had a great deal to do with developing common approaches to dealing with resistance. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the National Party government that came to power in 1948 on a program of legalized Apartheid.
And it was ironic, but not surprising that it was the pro-Nazi apartheid Prime Minister, Dr. Malan who was accorded the honor of being invited to pay a state visit to Israel.
And yet, the people of Palestine are treated as if they are foreigners in their own country.
In 1969, Nelson Mandela wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice from Robben Island. In this letter Mandela called on the Government to recognize us as political prisoners and said the following:
“My colleagues have requested me to write to you to release us from prison and pending your decision on the matter, to accord us the treatment of political prisoners. At the outset we wish to point out that in making this application we are not pleading for mercy but are exercising the inherent right of people incarcerated for their political beliefs.
Government regards the prison as an instrument of retribution, punish and cripple us so that we should never again have the strength and courage to pursue our ideals. This is our punishment for raising our voice against the tyranny of color. This is the reason why privileges normally available to other prisoners, including those convicted of murder and rape are withheld from political offenders.
Mandela concluded thus “…We trust that when you consider this application you will bear in mind that the ideas that inspire us and the convictions that give form and direction to our activities constitute the only solution to the problems of our country and are in accordance with the enlightened conceptions of the human family.”
In conclusion, On behalf of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, we once again wish to assure the people of Palestine of our support and solidarity in your struggle for dignity, freedom and Statehood. In our short stay here we have seen and heard enough to conclude that Apartheid has been reborn here. In its reborn form it is however worse than its predecessor.
Even during the worst days of Apartheid we did not have walls to divide and control people, we also did not have separate roads for separate races, and we did not have the system of checkpoints that exist here.
Today, the 27th April, the people of South Africa will celebrate Freedom Day, our 19th since 1994. That day gave us the opportunity to start the process of reclaiming our dignity. I am sure that you to will have your Freedom Day one day.
To assist in getting to that point, I wish that this conference will give serious consideration to the establishment of an international committee for the freedom of Marwan Barghouthi and all political prisoners in Palestine. Such a body will add a new dimension to the International Solidarity campaign and can only be of added value to the overall campaign for a free Palestine.
I thank you for giving me the honor of addressing you at this very important conference.
– Ahmed Kathrada is a prominent South African politician and former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist. His involvement in the anti-apartheid activities of the African National Congress (ANC) led him to his long-term imprisonment following the Rivonia Trial, in which he was held at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. Following his release in 1990, he was elected to serve as a member of parliament, representing the ANC. Visit: www.kathradafoundation.org.