Ahmed Kathrada campaigns for Palestinian activists’ freedom

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Sailing on calm Atlantic Ocean waters, Qassam Barghouthi pensively looked out at Cape Town’s picturesque Table Mountain and reflected on his road home to Palestine.

He had just been on a private tour of Robben Island with Ahmed Kathrada, 84, who spent 26 years imprisoned alongside deceased icon Nelson Mandela for opposing apartheid.

Ahmed Kathrada (left) and Qassam Barghouthi in Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Ahmed Kathrada (left) and Qassam Barghouthi in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

The two talked comparatively about apartheid South Africa and Israel. They also stood inside Mandela’s prison cell where last October a campaign was launched to free Qassam’s father, the Palestinian intifada leader Marwan Barghouthi, jailed in Israel for the last 12 years.

“It took me 24 hours to travel to South Africa. If we had an airport in Palestine it could take me eight hours direct,” said the young Barghouthi.

“When I go back it’s going to be the same. Israel will give me trouble about where I’ve been. The (annual) Israeli Apartheid Week had media coverage. We participated in activities, meetings and discussions. I’m expecting a hard time at the border. Let’s just hope it will go easily.”

Kathrada hosted Barghouthi, 29, for a week-long tour that concluded in Cape Town recently. He was hosted at public talks in major cities, concluding on Friday night in the same University of Cape Town (UCT) hall where President Barack Obama spoke of African-US relations late last year.

Qassam Barghouthi speaks in the university hall where Barack Obama talked last year. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Qassam Barghouthi speaks in the university hall where Barack Obama talked last year. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

It was also the final day of UCT’s Israeli Apartheid Week activities that included a talk by Miko Pelled, the dissident son of an Israeli army general.

Before heading to Robben Island, Barghouthi met with Marius Fransman, the Western Cape provincial leader of the South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress. Fransman said the ANC pledged its support for a campaign calling on Israel to free all Palestinian political prisoners.

This campaign is outlined in the Robben Island Declaration that Kathrada and Fadwa Barghouthi signed in Mandela’s cell when launching the campaign for freedom for the latter’s husband.

“The declaration gives the legal and political overview of the Palestinian political prisoners. It calls figures all over the world to participate in this international campaign to get freedom from Israeli occupation prisons,” said Barghouthi.

Qassam Barghouthi signs the Robben Island visitor's book. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Qassam Barghouthi signs the Robben Island visitor’s book. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

The campaign started when Kathrada visited the West Bank for a week last April. He then set in motion its South African launch held a few months later.

Kathrada recalled this weekend that Mandela campaigned for Palestinian freedom.

“The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) was an ally of our struggle. When Madiba (Mandela’s family name) was released from prison he was contacted by President (HW) Bush who gave him some advice that now you are out of prison you must break your ties with the PLO, Cuba and Libya,” said Kathrada.

“Madiba’s response was when we came to you, western countries, for assistance, you called us terrorists and you wouldn’t assist us. It would be ungrateful and immoral for us to distance ourselves from those who were our allies. We will not break our ties with them.”

Kathrada added: “We must remember Madiba’s words that South Africa cannot be truly free until Palestine is free. We base ourselves on that and we have to keep involved with the struggle of the Palestinian people.”

The past week was Barghouthi’s first encounter with South Africa. He said its apartheid system, abolished with the country’s first democratic election in 1994, was part of life under Israeli occupation.

“Apartheid means discriminating between people and no equality for people who live in the same space. Palestinians have suffered inequality. One Israeli would consume the same amount of water as ten Palestinians,” said Barghouthi.

“Palestinians are not allowed to use rain water by storing it in wells because Israelis destroy these wells. Israelis collect rain water and sells it to Palestinians in minimum quantities.”

“The apartheid wall separates a brother on one side (of the wall) and his family on the other and they can never visit each other. You see apartheid in the categorisation of Palestinian identity.

“We are not able to use our air space or our sea. We are not able to build an airport or use the Israeli airport when we travel. We have to cross the borders to Jordan via humiliating Israeli checkpoints. We face humiliation on a daily basis. All these things are apartheid against Palestinians.”

For Barghouthi, it seemed that Israel “learned from the apartheid regime”. Kathrada said South Africa’s apartheid regime and Israel shared “closeness”.

“When the pro-Hitler apartheid Nationalist Party came into power in 1948, the first country to invite this pro-Nazi government was Israel. The first South African prime minister was the first foreign head of state to pay an official visit to Israel in 1948. The link between apartheid South Africa and Israel was formalised,” said Kathrada.

“Israel has never ever invited anybody form our liberation struggle to visit. But they have done so with the apartheid regime.”

Kathrada added: “Israel in some respects is worse than apartheid. We didn’t have a road for whites only. They have a road that Palestinians can’t use. We didn’t have checkpoints with machine guns. Every few kilometers you have these in Palestine. That’s worse than apartheid.

“Under apartheid we had separation of people but we didn’t have the wall. And now there is this thick, high wall that is not finished yet. It is worse than apartheid.”

University of Cape Town students held a week of activities. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

University of Cape Town students held a week of activities. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

He said they wanted the campaign to free Marwan Barghouthi and other Palestinian political prisoners to be “internationally on par with the Free Mandela campaign which started small and grew worldwide”.

“That is why we launched it in Mandela’s cell. We want to reach all corners of the world… We strongly feel for those who are not yet free, particularly Palestine, which is the last colony in this world. It is a colony of Israel. That takes priority and we feel close to the struggle of the Palestinian people,” said Kathrada.

Barghouthi said the campaign has a 13-member committee, with at least five Nobel peace prize laureates. It has chapters in 140 countries where the Palestine Authority, considered a government-in-waiting, has representatives.

He said the campaign would “take time” and is headquartered from Ramallah.

“We don’t want to rush the campaign. We want all people to understand it. If we rush it, we will find the big Israeli lobby machine and media trying to put obstacles in front of this campaign,” said Barghouthi.
Kathrada said he wanted South Africans to get involved.

“Wherever we see injustice and people treated as lesser human beings, it’s close to our hearts. We don’t have to be educated or convinced about things. This reflects our own past, where we were the lesser human beings,” he said.

“Wherever there are people in the world treated like lesser human beings, our sympathy is with them. As long as Palestine is not free, our solidarity with them will be there always, until they are a free people.

“It was heartening for us, when we visited Palestine, the Palestinians didn’t behave like a defeated people. From the word go, they made it clear to us that they want to live as normal lives as possible. The Palestinian people we met don’t from morning to night complain about their conditions. They are an undefeated people trying to get on with their lives as best as possible.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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