What do you say about a man who gave his whole life to a struggle?
I’ll never forget standing with Ahmed Kathrada in his Robben Island cell two years ago.
The thing that struck me about his cell was the size of it. You stretch your arms out and you touch both walls. If I had laid down my head and feet would have touched the other sides.
The cell had a small window that looked out over the scrubland towards the Atlantic Ocean. The window was tiny, but still it had bars on it.
Overhead was a fluorescent light, on the ground were three thin, grey government-issue blankets and a steel bucket for ablutions.
Ahmed spent 18 of his 27 jail years as a political prisoner in this cell. I remember how he looked up at the ceiling and said, “That light was on every single day and every single night, 365 days a year.”
He liked us to call him ‘Uncle Kathy’. That’s how I addressed him when I said I could not begin to imagine what it had been like.
“If I had to describe it in one word,” he answered, “I would say cold.”
He talked about the cold wind coming in off the Atlantic Ocean, the cold food, the cold showers, the cold warders and the cold concrete underneath him when he slept at night. “To be perfectly honest Lewis,” he said, “It feels as if that cold permeated my bones and I don’t think I ever quite thawed out.”
I think I understand cold very well. And I know that cold has a way of gnawing into you like nothing else. Cold is more than something that you can physically warm up from. It makes its way into your mind. Once you’ve experienced real cold, you can never get it out of you again.
Which is why the steadfastness, the tenacity, the bravery and the suffering of those struggle stalwarts is so enduring, and so remarkable.
Today I’d like to say a big thank you to Ahmed Kathrada for bringing freedom to South Africa, and for the cold he and his comrades endured.
Rest in peace my friend.
Lewis Pugh is a cold water endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans