He could have celebrated his birthday in any way he liked, but veteran activist and struggle icon, Ahmed Kathrada, chose to spend it with Bonteheuwel High School pupils on Monday August 22.
Mr Kathrada, who celebrated his 87th birthday on Sunday August 21, requested the visit to the school himself. Bonteheuwel High School has a rich history in the anti-apartheid struggle, and the slain Umkhonto we Sizwe commander, Ashley Kriel, is a former pupil of the school.
Another former pupil and activist Henriette Abrahams, said it was Ashley Kriel who “introduced” her to Mr Kathrada, when he shared information about the Rivonia Trial. The trial, between 1963 and 1964 would find most of the 10 arrested, guilty of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mr Kathrada, who spent 20 years in jail, and Nelson Mandela, were among those convicted.
Ms Abrahams were among the speakers at the birthday celebration of Mr Kathrada.
She said: “I get emotional every time I come to the school, because of the experiences we had here. This school made me the activist I became. I want to thank Ahmed Kathrada, because you inspire us. Ashley taught us about the Rivonia Trial. You said the one thing you missed the most while being in jail for 20 years, was children. We also missed you. (As anti-apartheid activists), we gave up a lot of our time as youth to fight for our leaders to be among us. And although Ashley (Kriel) is not here today to welcome you, on behalf of the activists of my generation, I would like to thank you.”
Addressing the current pupils, Ms Abrahams added: “You have a lot of challenges, but let us rise above it. There are many good stories to tell in Bonteheuwel. Apart from protecting our younger generation, we, as adults, even if we are former residents, have to assist you (to make positive changes). How many of our parents can assist their children with algebra, for example? This is why the Ashley Kriel Skills Development Centre is so important. How do we make it a better place? What we have today at the school, is but a third of what it was. It is a shame to see the spot where my classroom used to be and now it’s no more. Drug addicts and gangsters steal from the school. We must work together as a community to tackle all these issues. Also, do not let people label you – because you are from Bonteheuwel. Our lives matter too.”
Grade 10 pupil Lincoln Perrang, also thanked Mr Kathrada for the sacrifices he made in the struggle for freedom.
In a passionate speech, Lincoln said: “What we as young people are going through today, is nothing compared to what people went through in apartheid. I want to thank Mr Kathrada for choosing to visit Bonteheuwel High. People like you and Nelson Mandela could have so easily given up, but you didn’t, and today we can enjoy our freedom because of that. You inspire me to not give up hope, and to strive to make a success of my life.”
Principal Nicola Pather said the interaction Mr Kathrada had with the pupils would be etched in their hearts.
Asked about the plans for the school’s Ashley Kriel Skills Development Centre, Ms Pather said the idea for the centre was born when the documentary about his life (by filmmaker Nadine Cloete), called Action Kommandant, was shown in Bonteheuwel.
“Next year it will be 30 years since Ashley’s death, and we want to continue his legacy. The skills centre will empower the youth with engineering, plumbing, and hairdressing skills, etcetera. And we are hoping to partner with businesses from our neighbouring industrial area, Epping, for employment,” Ms Pather said.
Grade 11 pupil Brent Freeman, handed Mr Kathrada a portrait he sketched of him as a gift, while Grade 12 pupil, Asheeq Adams’ rendition of the song, I am still standing, dedicated to Mr Kathrada, left many with a lump in their throats.