The Atlantic

The Quiet Death of an Anti-Apartheid Hero

The ghost of Ahmed Kathrada will haunt his corrupt successors.
Source: Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Uncle Kathy was the quiet one. In movies and TV shows depicting South Africa’s apartheid struggle, he stood in the shadows of A-listers like Nelson Mandela or Govan Mbeki, ready to offer a chunk of expository dialogue or a well-timed joke. Ahmed Mohamed “Uncle Kathy” Kathrada was, according to these reenactments, a background figure, a gnomic Leatherman tool employed by writers, and occasionally by actual South Africans, to advance the narrative of racial reconciliation and general lovey-dovey-ness. In truth, Kathrada was a fearless political activist and an expert organizer, dedicated to a non-racial Rainbowism that has become dusty and unhip in recent years. Last week, at the age of 87, he passed away following complications from a cerebral embolism.

On March 29, a perfect fall day in Johannesburg, thousands of the most powerful figures in South Africa gathered under a tent at West Park cemetery for Kathrada’s funeral. Many belonged to the African National Congress, the 104-year-old alliance of liberation movements and organized labor to which Kathrada had devoted the bulk of his political energies. The ANC, which employs Mandela’s smiling likeness as its unofficial

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