ISMAIL VADI: Keep the activism fire burning by living the legacy of Kathrada


On 28 March 2020, we commemorated the third year of the passing on of ANC veteran, Ahmed Kathrada. What lessons can we draw from his inspirational life?

Kathy’s life was one of humble, self-effacing and life-long activism, not conceited and egotistical leadership.

His is a legacy of hard work, sacrifice, persistence, tenacity, commitment, loss of personal comforts, and an enduring love for oppressed people and humanity at large. It is a legacy of total dedication to the struggle for national liberation and freedom in South Africa. It is one of immense courage and fearlessness.

Even when there was a legal chance of him getting off with a lesser sentence during the 1964 Rivonia Trial, he chose to stand alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and the other trialists and accept the final judgement, be it life behind bars or a death sentence.

With COVID-19 at our doorstep, the resilient activism of Kathy's must inspire all activists countrywide and globally. The fire of activism must burn bright in all of us.

Where there is a cry for help, a family in distress, a hungry person - activists must respond with nerve.

That does not mean that we adopt a reckless abandonment of protective and precautionary measures. We must also take personal measures to protect ourselves from viral infection. But we must never abandon activism – going out in the field and engaging in the fight against the pandemic when called upon to do so.

It is early days of the pandemic; the peak has not been reached. The health and social crisis will deepen in the very near future.

We will have to focus on food security to feed hungry children, the unemployed and the destitute; the distribution of sanitising materials; the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to volunteers and medical personnel; and healthcare and support for the infected, seriously ill and those in the throes of death.

Fear should never overtake an activist. We will have to overcome our personal anxieties and we must rise to the challenge. Real activists respond with nerve when the plight of humanity is at stake.

Targeting State Capture

Secondly, our minds are pre-occupied with COVID-19. That is correct. But let us not let go of other important struggles and campaigns. In our case, the fight against state capture must go on. Our mass campaigns against it will have to be modified in the short term, but it should not stop.

Already some alleged perpetrators of state capture are talking about a general amnesty for the corrupt. That’s simply not on! There must be public accountability. Civil society activists must be on alert and on guard. The fight against state capture must continue.

We should not forget that state governance systems were weakened by a decade of capture and corruption. Fiscal resources meant for critical public services were systemically diverted to enrich a corrupt few, thereby robbing the poor and now weakening our capacity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting in the downgrading of our country by rating agencies.

Kathrada’s public letter in March 2016, calling upon former President Jacob Zuma to step down from office, marked a high point in the fight against corruption. That is his legacy to our generation. We dare not turn back from that call!

Tackling Pandemic – Form Integrated Partnerships

Social activists in civil society organisations should create an integrated partnership with religious and welfare groups, business and the local government disaster management and emergency services for:

  1. Coordinating the safe and speedy collection and distribution of food, sanitisers and other essentials to people in need;
  2. Coordinating medical response and homeopathic teams to attend to the infected;
  3. Identifying additional medical sites for emergency medical assistance should the need arise;
  4. Ensuring that burials are carried out in terms of the biomedical safety requirements and relevant regulations, bearing in mind religious prescripts; and
  5. One central social media communication platform should be created where possible to send out timely and credible and accurate information to residents in localities. Too many social media platforms create confusion and uncertainty in communities.

Our activism should cut across political, cultural, racial, ethnic, gender and religious divides. As we fight the pandemic, we must work explicitly on a non-partisan basis in communities. Coronavirus does not discriminate.

We pray that the virus will be contained, and the viral curve flattened. We must mobilise our communities to fight the pandemic by staying indoors during the lockdown – which may be extended beyond the three-week period announced by government – and take the necessary precautions as advised by government. There is no stigma attached to the virus – if you test positive let people know so that others can be saved from infection.

Students should continue with individual learning programmes.

Our activism must focus on the actual and immediate needs in our communities over the next few months. In this, activists should remember that households and localised initiatives should become the locus of the fight against the virus.

Ismail Vadi is a board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.