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The lighter side of Kathrada's prison life on Robben Island

By Munira Bismilla | Dec 24, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

WHEN Ahmed Kathrada was convicted of treason and sentenced to life on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba and Wilton Mkwayi in 1964, the apartheid government hoped that they would be forgotten.

Visits and letters from family and friends were restricted and a strict quota had to be adhered to.

But to the majority of South Africans these men were heroes and freedom fighters. People found ways of making their lives in prison tolerable. They never stopped visiting them and writing letters.

Kathrada once said: "Letters to and from friends and family are the lifeblood of a prisoner's existence. Because of the restrictions on subject matter and length, great thought and care go into a letter."

Dear Ahmedbhai Dear Zuleikhabehn is a collection of 70 letters between Kathrada and Zuleikha Mayat over a period of 10 years.

The two did not know each other before Kathrada was imprisoned, but he was a friend and former flat-mate of Zuleikha's brother, Abdulhak "Bis" Bismilla.

Zuleikha's husband had passed away in a car accident in 1979 and Kathrada wrote a letter of condolence to his friend, who had emigrated to Canada. The letter somehow reached the widowed Zuleikha, who is a freelance writer, community organiser and editor of best-selling cookery book Indian Delights.

Her mother advised her to respond. She did. Kathrada replied and they continued to write to each other until the political prisoner was released 10 years later.

Both Kathrada and Mayat are very good writers and their letters make for captivating reading.

They discussed a very wide range of issues such as poetry, religion, current affairs, the press, food, children and grandchildren.

They didn't discuss politics, though, because they knew that the prison authorities would censor their letters.

Dear Ahmedbhai Dear Zuleikhabehn is compiled by Goolam Vahed and Thembisa Waetjen and is published by Jacana Media.


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