You needed money to study at ‘Robben Island University’ – Ahmed Kathrada recalls prison life in Conversations with a Gentle Soul
During his 26 years in prison, Ahmed Kathrada earned four university degrees: a BA (in History and Criminology); a B Bibliography (in African Politics and Library Science); a BA Honours (in History) and a BA Honours (in African Politics). He wanted to read for a master’s degree, but honours degrees were as high as prisoners were then allowed to go.
The small patch of land where many Struggle icons spent decades is often referred to as ‘Robben Island University’, because of how education and studying were prioritised by the prisoners. And even the small number of prisoners who couldn’t read were included. ‘No prisoner left Robben Island illiterate,’ Kathrada told Sahm Venter in an interview for Conversations with a Gentle Soul. ‘Everyone could read and write.’
‘Studying formally with a university or college, you had to have money. You see, they tried to prevent people from studying. If the lawyers sent money to a prisoner or if the Red Cross sent money, they used to send it back. The money had to come from your family.’
According to Venter, ‘Kathy’ often used President Zuma as an example of one of those who couldn’t enroll for conventional studies in prison.
‘He came from a poor family. He came to jail with only a Standard Two education. All his education he got in jail. But he left jail after ten years without a certificate. In fact, he had one certificate, Ballroom Dancing, but he didn’t have an academic certificate because he didn’t have the money to study. He left jail an educated man but without certificates.
‘So what I have always said is that you don’t need a certificate to be educated. He got all his education through the informal prison system.’
Kathrada recalled how ANC leadership used to tell prisoners, ‘Don’t waste your time, study. And don’t neglect your political studies.’ The party even had its own syllabus, which was taken very seriously:
‘In the ANC in prison we also had our own syllabus which every ANC person had to go through. We had a syllabus on the history of the ANC, the history of the trade union movement, our international relations – everything. So they had to go through that syllabus. But equal emphasis was put on academic education.’
More about Conversations with a Gentle Soul:
Without much fanfare Ahmed Kathrada worked alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other giants in the struggle to end racial discrimination in South Africa. He faced house arrest and many court trials related to his activism until, finally, a trial for sabotage saw him sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Mandela and six others.
Conversations with a Gentle Soul has its origins in a series of discussions between Kathrada and Sahm Venter about his opinions, encounters and experiences. Throughout his life, Kathrada has refused to hang on to negative emotions such as hatred and bitterness. Instead, he radiates contentment and the openness of a man at peace with himself. His wisdom is packaged within layers of optimism, mischievousness and humour, and he provides insights that are of value to all South Africans.