Kholvad House: Flat 13

Pics courtesy of Ahmed Kathrada
AHMED KATHRADA writes a special tribute to ‘The Flat’ for the Kholvad SA Centenary Brochure

The history of Kholvad House records Dr. Yusuf Dadoo as one of the early Chairpersons of the Board of Trustees, and the Communist Party leader Rusty Bernstein as the building’s architect. This combination may not have been planned, but may unconsciously have presaged a place for Flat 13 as part of the history of the struggle. In any comprehensive history of the struggle for democracy, Flat 13, Kholvad House is sure to earn its rightful place.

In his book “Long Walk to Freedom’, Nelson Mandela writes:-

“At Wits I met and became friends with Ismail Meer, J. N. Singh, Ahmed Bhoola and Ramlal Bhoolia. The centre of this tight-knit community was Ismail’s apartment, Flat 13, Kholvad House. . . . . . There we studied, talked. . . . . . and it became a kind of headquarters for young freedom fighters . I sometimes slept here. . . . . . . . . . ” (Page 105, Long Walk to Freedom)

After the Law-firm of Mandela and Tambo closed in 1960, Mandela continued to do whatever legal work he could. Numerous lawyers offered their offices, staff and other facilities, “but most of the time I preferred to work from Ahmed Kathrada’s flat, No. 13! Kholvad House. . . . . . . . . Soon, the lounge of No. 13 and the passage outside were crammed with clients. Kathy would return home and discover that the only room in which he could be alone was in his kitchen. ”!(Page 301 Long Walk to Freedom)

In his Autobiography -”A Fortunate Man”, Ismail Meer writes:-

“My flat in Kholvad House became sort of socio-political centre and a think and talk place, as comrades from the Communist Party, the TIC (Transvaal Indian Congress) the APO (African Peoples Organisation) and ANC congregated, shared ideas and planned action.” (Page 75, Ismail Meer – A Fortunate Man)

In the Biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, its author Elinor Sisulu writes:-

Flat 13, Kholvad House “. . . . had been a central meeting point for leader’s when Ismail Meer occupied it during his student days. The tradition continued when Kathrada took over the flat. . . . ”Walter Sisulu – (Elinor Sisulu:- Walter and Albertina Sisulu).

At Ismail Meer’s suggestion I moved into Flat 13 in 1947. He completed his studies in 1948, and returned to Durban. He also arranged with the owner to allow me to continue to occupy the flat. Sometime thereafter I managed to get the Flat transferred onto my name. Life in Flat 13 continued as before. Visitors would pop in and out, while some would stay there for days. Among the latter was Chief Albert Luthuli, who occasionally stayed with us. Ismail gave the Flat key to the Rev. Michael Scott, to use it at his pleasure. (Rev. Scott was an Anglican priest and a Human Rights activist. In the Indian Passive Resistance campaign of 1946 he was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment)


The other visitors included Walter Sisulu, Advocate Duma Nokwe, Robert Resha, Joe and Ruth Slovo, Tommy and Bob Vassen, Aggie Patel, Treason Trialists Dr. Chota Motala, George Peake, Alex La Guma, Reggie September and many others. When I was under house arrest, one of the restrictions was the prohibition of visitors. Not even my mother was allowed to enter the flat. But my neighbour on the 4th Floor, Mrs. Sarah bhai Mogalia arranged with different neighbours to take turns in sending (me) food. Every evening, just after 6p.m. there would be soft knocks on my door, and a group of little girls would bring the food, each carrying a different dish. They would not be regarded as prohibited visitors. In turn they got chocolates from me. The Kholvad House kids became experts at recognising police. Whenever they noticed a strange white person entering, they would run up the fire escape, shouting:- “Uncle, uncle, Police”!

After having stayed there for 17 years, one day in March or April 1963 I was instructed by the leadership to leave the flat and go underground. Because I was given only about 4 hours to do so, I left everything in the hands of my friend, comrade and flat mate, the late Amien Cajee to attend to necessities such as disposing of my car etc. He and his wife continued to occupy the flat.

Following my release after 26 years, Amien made Flat 13 available to me again. I took advantage of the offer, and stayed there for a short period. Afterwards I returned it to Amien. Much more can be written and said about Kholvad House, and especially Flat 13. Because of its rich history, Flat 13 (and by extension, Kholvad House as whole) deserves to be declared a Heritage Site.

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Madressa Anjuman Islamia of Kholvad South Africa

Madressa Anjuman Islamia of Kholvad South Africa