Millions of South Africans were saddened by the passing of Struggle icon, Ahmed Kathrada, better known as Kathy or Uncle Kathy. I never met the man, but I have always admired Kathrada as one of South Africa’s greatest leader.
Great leaders are principled men and women who are willing to stand up and be counted when they strongly disagree with what is happening around them. Kathrada was such a man. He spent 26 years behind bars fighting for what he believed in.
Kathrada paid a very high price for his beliefs; he dedicated his life to the Struggle and for dream of achieving freedom for all South Africans.
Ironically, Kathrada wrote to President Zuma almost a year ago urging President Zuma to resign. What stands out is not that he pre-empted the call for President Zuma to step down, but that even as an old man, he continued to fight to create a South Africa that he had always dreamt of.
He was a man, who was always driven by a strong moral compass. He was a man who epitomised morality and ethical leadership. He was also known for his humility.
Despite being critical of the ANC, Kathrada remained loyal to the ANC and wanted to see the party “do the right things”. He was part of the so-called 101 veterans.
What lessons can we learn from Kathrada’s life?
Kathrada never did anything without first consulting; he always consulted Madiba and Walter Sisulu first. This is a very important lesson for leaders in business and in government. The failure to consult over the recent Cabinet re-shuffle may cost President Zuma dearly.
Doing the right thing carries a heavy price – Kathrada went to jail because he believed it was the right thing to do. Leaders need to recognise that they may be called upon to abide by their principles; this may entail paying a heavy price for doing the right thing.
Kathrada had acrimonious disagreements with Nelson Mandela over strategy and tactics. Here, the lesson for ANC leaders may be that disagreement over strategy and tactics should not be construed as disloyalty to the party. A lesson for leaders in general, is that debate and disagreement can be very healthy.
Kathrada never “pulled rank.” Writing to President Zuma he wrote: “I’m just an ordinary member of my branch. I am writing not because I was a Rivonia trialist (and) I hung out with Walter and Madiba”. Great leaders are humble.
Kathrada left school at the age of 17 before matriculating. He was the first prisoner on Robben Island to obtain a degree. He completed another three degrees. There is an important lesson for all South Africans, commit to lifelong learning.
Honouring Kathrada’s legacy
How can we honour Kathrada’s legacy? We can do so by being driven by a strong moral compass and by embracing ethical leadership.