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Conversations with a Gentle Soul



AHMED KATHRADA with Sahm Venter




ISBN 9 781770 105409


A biography, or simply bio, is a detailed description of a person's life. It involves more than just the basic facts like education, work, relationships, and death; it portrays a person's experience of these life events. Unlike a profile or curriculum vitae (résumé), a biography presents a subject's life story, highlighting various aspects of his or her life, including intimate details of experience, and may include an analysis of the subject's personality.

Biographical works are usually non-fiction, but fiction can also be used to portray a person's life. One in-depth form of biographical coverage is called legacy writing. Works in diverse media, from literature to film, form the genre known as biography. [Wikipedia]


At 88, Ahmed Kathrada, who at the time of writing - Monday 6 March 2017 - had just been released from a Johannesburg hospital after “surgery relating to blood clotting on the brain”, does not remember much of his early life.

This does not present much of a crisis as his life story is well documented. But if, as is the norm in the genre of biography, much rests on what the subject regurgitates about their life, Conversations with a Gentle Soul is almost like a casual on-a-rocking-chair veranda talk with one’s favourite elder.

He does not remember the little things about his illustrious political life that the Wikipedia definition terms “intimate details of experience”.

It is a good thing that journalist turned researcher Sahm Venter is au fait with the life of her subject and thereby brings this book alive with her pertinent questions and prompting.

Including overseas trips and specifically one to the subject’s ancestral village in India, Venter spent considerable time with Kathrada, the ex Rivonia Trialist who famously regards the departed Nelson Mandela as his blood: “I don’t consider him to be my friend, he was my elder brother,” he said in the eulogy he penned to Madiba.

He read these words out to a packed audience in Qunu on Sunday 15 December 2013 when his elder brother, with whom he spent years on Robben Island, was laid to rest.

Much of what he says in the book revolves around the impact of Mandela on his life.

He talks about growing up in Schweizer-Renecke, the son of a shopkeeper and moving to Johannesburg to find school as there weren’t any for Indian children above a certain Grade at the time.

In his dotage Kathy, as he’s fondly called, loves doling out toys to children who visit him, including sweets.

The book, a biography, would have had added impetus if he remembered his own days as a child, perhaps pinching sweets from his father’s general dealer.

But these gaps do not render it a lesser effort at biography. It is candid. What is left out is not hidden, furtively. No. It just happened to evade the octogenarian’s memory.

But a lot of what he remembers makes for fascinating reading for those who place a high premium on learning humility from the feet of those, like Kathy, who have been this way before.

He considers himself a part of the collective of leadership that defied Apartheid and laid the foundation for this new South Africa.

He takes no personal credit, almost Madiba-like.

It is playful, it is light. It tells the story of a great man. Indeed it is a conversation with a gentle soul.

Above all, it adds to the cannon of writing on those to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.  


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