In a relentless attempt to control every aspect of the state, the day after Kathrada’s funeral, and for the second time in 15 months, Zuma unilaterally fired his finance minister. The casualty on this occasion was Pravin Gordhan, something of a superstar among the global financial elite, who was just settling into his second stint atop the ministry. The sacking was premised on a widely dismissed, undercooked intelligence report claiming that Gordhan wanted to undermine Zuma. But from the moment he assumed the position in December 2015, Gordhan has faced an unrelenting assault from Zuma stemming from his refusal to sign off on spending initiatives in various ministries and state-owned enterprises. His removal, along with a wider cabinet reshuffle, has precipitated what could be one of the major crises of the democratic era.
Kathrada’s funeral, meticulously curated by his family, was a pre-emptive response to Gordhan’s axing, designed as a rebuke for an inevitable act of political sabotage. The Kathrada family had made it clear to Zuma that while his presence at the ceremony would be tolerated, he would not be asked to speak. This was not the first of Uncle Kathy’s political broadsides. At the outset of last year’s treasury crisis, Kathrada sent Zuma an open letter culminating with the line, “Submit to the will of the people, and resign.” From a wooden box draped in the ANC flag, Uncle Kathy was leading calls for the president’s removal, voluntary or otherwise. In this way, it represented a national first: a state funeral without a state president.
This is just not how thing are done in the South African khongolose, or congress, as the faithful call it. ANC stalwarts like Kathrada are treated as local deities, and the unspoken deal is that they serve as such, while observing the strict Omerta regarding the party’s innumerable scandals. Meanwhile, their backstories—Mandela’s long walk to freedom; Walter Sisulu’s unimaginable bravery—have become the party’s moral currency. Kathrada was born into a family of Gujarati immigrants in 1929, and was radicalized in his pre-teen years by the routine humiliations and violence of enforced segregation. At the age of 12, he joined the Young Communist League of South Africa; from there, it was a short walk to the ANC. He was one of the last of the surviving Rivonia Trialists, the group of struggle veterans who were arrested at a safe house in Rivonia in 1963, and were subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Along with many of the giants of the movement, he spent 26 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island.
Kathrada’s release, followed shortly by Mandela’s, was greeted with universal jubilation. But by then, the party he represented was already in trouble. The ANC faced an existential question: Without colonialism or apartheid to combat, what exactly did it stand for? The answer, as far as Western observers were concerned, was uncomplicated— nationalization down to the last privately owned teacup. And yet the ANC was both far more sophisticated and less ideologically monolithic than outsiders could appreciate. If Kathrada and Mandela spent their time on Robben Island reading Shakespeare and developing their own bespoke brand of non-racial liberal humanism, their outlook was not always shared, even if it was promulgated. (“Just call me a Thatcherite,” Thabo Mbeki said shortly before becoming the country’s second president). The yawing back and forth remains the party’s hallmark, and has resulted in an endless loop of convoluted discourse and factional backbiting.