Ebrahim Moosa - Radio Islam International | 14 Rajab 1438/12 April 2017
When I express my intention to interview Fordsburg resident Djamila Cajee soon after the demise of struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, I can hardly conceive of the interaction producing more than the one or two particular storylines I have in mind, based on my prior research. Djamila, as Ahmed Kathrada personally notes in his memoirs, was given her name as an infant by Kathrada whilst he was still a political prisoner on Robben Island. I am keen to explore what his death now means to someone who will forever carry on their person a ‘badge’ personally endowed by Uncle Kathy. Simultaneously, I would like to probe deeper the deceased stalwart’s legendary love and longing for children, particularly whist he was still incarcerated.
In 2010, Kathrada had recounted to me what a vacuum the absence of children left in his and fellow political prisoner’s lives.
“There are many deprivations in prison. The greatest deprivation is the absence of children. I saw and held a child for the first time after 20 years,” Kathrada mentioned to me, before proceeding to vividly chronicle his first encounter with a child after 2 decades in the wilderness, and the effect it had in boosting his forlorn spirits.
In speaking to Djamila Cajee, I do find affirmation of my conceived storyline. But I do also find so much more – in truth, a testament to the so many treasure troves of history that lay dormant within our communities.
Djamila indeed was named by Ahmed Kathrada whilst he was on Robben Island. She visited him whilst he was still in detention, and Uncle Kathy took special interest in her as a child.
However, what fascinates me, is that the intersection between the Cajees and Kathrada does not emerge suddenly in the 60’s or just on Robben Island. In fact, it can be traced all the way back to dusty Schweizer Reneke where Kathrada was born in 1929.
Djamila opens my imagination up to a narrative that weaves through the almost 9 decades of Ahmed Kathrada’s life and which coughs up all sorts of colourful and unexpected details and connections in between.
Her father, Ameen, who was older than Kathrada, knew the late icon since youth, as the Cajees and Kathradas owned neighbouring shops in Schweizer Reneke and lived close to each other, behind their respective family businesses.
With changing circumstances, both Ameen and Ahmed made their respective journeys to Johannesburg and continued their lives. However, rapidly evolving political circumstances were soon to draw the two associates close again.
Ahmed Kathrada, by then a notable member of the Indian Alliance and other activist structures was, in 1962, rapidly compelled to go underground. With little time to manoeuvre, he gathered some possessions and hurriedly left the flat he was inhabiting in the care of trusted pal, Cajee.
Cajee and his family moved in to the home, today famously known as Flat 13 of Kholvad House, Johannesburg.
Kathrada had resided in the flat which previously belonged to struggle stalwart Ismail Meer, and had played host to a number of high powered resistance strategy meetings over the years.
Not too long after Ahmed Kathrada’s untimely departure, Djamila was born to the Cajees and grew up in that very flat.
But for as much as he was a close friend of Kathrada, Ameen was also an activist in his own right. He recurrently encountered harassment from the Apartheid police, and together with his wife played an important background role in assisting those who had already fallen prey to the Apartheid prison apparatus. The couple, for instance, would collect dirty laundry from those incarcerated at the Pretoria Central Prison, and be at the service of political prisoners.
It was around 1964 whilst Ameen, who was serving jail time under a 60 day detention order, received news that his wife, who was pregnant, was due to give birth soon.
Through lawyers, Ameen sent a message to Ahmed Kathrada, who was now on Robben Island informing him of the good news, and requesting name suggestions for the soon to be delivered infant.
Kathrada responded. The newborn should be called Jamila if it was a girl. If it was a boy, he’d be Zubair, I am told.
The proviso was that if it was Jamila, it be spelt with a ‘d’, making it Djamila.
The choice was deliberate. True to his activist blood, Kathrada had chosen the name of an Algerian female freedom fighter who had stood up to the French colonial rule of her country.
As a youth activist with the Algerian National Liberation Front(FLN), Djamila Bouhired had come to represent one of the prominent faces of the Algerian Revolution. Whilst she was still in school, she would chant ‘Algeria is our mother’, when others would be saying ‘France is our mother’. She was arrested and sentenced to death by guillotine, but was subsequently released. Nonetheless, Bouhired would recount painful tales of torture and other indignities she faced in prison.
“He was very specific about the spelling,” Djamila tells me.
As she grew up, she grew an affinity to Uncle Kathy and would write letters to him, whilst he was still in prison.
“My mom used to write him letters. My dad could not as he was red flagged. But the letters used all sorts of code names. They even referred to the police, but they were never aware of it,” Djamila shares.
“When I was old enough, I used to scribble my childish things to him, although I was not very regular with the correspondence.
“He once asked me so send a photograph of myself, but I instead sent pictures of my kitty cat, and he would never let me forget about that.”
Djamila says she hopes her childish talk provided some relief for Ahmed Kathrada from the rigours of prison life.
“I would tell him about all the things that would happen at home – like my mom deciding to paint or change the house wallpaper a few days before Eid and what a disaster it was when I decided to help her,” she recounts.
Eventually, Djamila got to see Ahmed Kathrada in person when he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison.
She still has vivid recollections of the day.
“It was a contact visit in one of the warden’s offices which was surprising and nice. My dad and Uncle Kathy were so busy catching up on their things that I got bored and ended up eating one little chocolate from a gift we had brought for him.
“He never let me forget about that. He would say, ‘I was a prisoner in jail and you ate my chocolates up!’ He subsequently sent me a touching letter after that meeting”.
Upon his release, Djamila remembers a huge welcoming reception held for Ahmed Kathrada at Kholvad House. Kathrada also celebrated one of Djamila’s birthdays soon after.
The Cajees handed back to Ahmed Kathrada the famed flat he had left in their safekeeping for over a quarter of a century. It was full furnished with a few recent modifications.
Whilst Kathrada took up residence of it for a while, he eventually settled in Killarney where he spent the remainder of his life.
Residing in Kholvad House all those years, Djamila says the significance of the grounds she grew up on hardly dawned upon her in youth.
“When we grew up, it was our home and we would never think about it. Only in hindsight you realise you were on a place that is historic”.
Djamila was witness to several police raids at Flat 13 in Kholvad House.
“Initially, you don’t realise what is happening. But as you grew older, you remember them coming, knocking on the door at 3/4am in morning, upsetting everything, scratching through wardrobes”.
Whilst the police concentrated their efforts on Flat 13, Djamila says they remained oblivious of the wider role Kholvad House was playing.
“My father would hide people going for military training in the Musafir Khana. Police would raid the flat but were unaware of what going on two floors upstairs”.
She remembers Kholvad House as one big happy family.
“Everybody knew everybody. Doors were always open to visitors. You could eat in anyone’s house. Everybody would help each other in the case of a wedding”.
Among visitors to her “tiny, little flat” in youth, Djamila vividly remembers Nelson Mandela’s daughters Zinzi and Zenani.
“Zinzi and Zenani would stay with my mom and dad when Winnie had to be in court. Zinzi would take us to Madressah when we were small”.
Asked about the effect the choice of name has had on her personality, Djamila says it was something she had discussed with Ahmed Kathrada in the years following his release.
“I told him he must be very disappointed in me because I am not much of a fighter, but [I would also say] it turns out I am a bit of a fighter”.
A resident of Fordsburg, Djamila is an active citizen involved in various community structures. Whilst embracing of diversity and the wave of foreigners that have now made Fordsburg their home, she is simultaneously vocal against the deterioration of infrastructure and the evasion of by-laws in her neighbourhood.
Right until his final illness, she remained in regular contact with Ahmed Kathrada, and would periodically seek his advice.
“I saw him on February 4 for a book launch and he still reminded me that he wanted to come home to have Kari Kitchri. But he looked frail.”
Djamila visited Ahmed Kathrada a few times in hospital during his final illness. She gets emotional recounting to me her final sights of the icon on his hospital bed, barely hours before his demise.
Whilst all South Africans felt the loss deeply, for Djamila the pain of separation was conceivably magnified. Nonetheless, she says, the shared sense of pain amongst a circle of family and friends has provided consolation and cushioned the loss.
As a father figure, the man who named her, shared advice and lighter moments with her and a national icon, how would she like to see him remembered?
“As important as he was he never acted that way,” Djamila says. “He always did the right thing and that is how I would like to remember and emulate him”.