Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela, can trace his roots in the South African liberation movement back to his first encounter with forced racial segregation. In 1939, his small-town childhood was interruped by segregation policies that forced him to attend a school for Indian children in Johannesburg, hours away from his home.

That early separation from his family gave birth to the man that would work with the African National Congress (ANC) in its long struggle against apartheid. Johannesburg became the center of his life as an activist. He joined the Youth Communist League when he was 12. When he was 17, he left school to organize against South Africa’s anti-Indian legislation. And when he was a university student in the late 1940s, his apartment was the unofficial headquarters for the city’s activists, many of whom would later become leaders of the ANC.

As Kathrada became more and more involved in the movement, he earned the perpetual harassment of South Africa’s security forces, and was sent to prison on numerous occasions. He went underground shortly after the South African government banned the ANC, only to be captured in the raid that netted much of the group’s senior leadership. At the historic Rivonia Trial, eight men, Kathrada and Mandela included, faced charges of government sabotage, and were eventually sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-six years would pass before they saw their freedom, but it was the truest freedom, with South Africa’s government finally bowing to pressures to end apartheid.

Kathrada helped lead the ANC after its legalization in 1990, was elected to Parliament in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, and went on to be a parliamentary counselor in the office of the president. He retired from parliamentary politics in ’99.

Kathrada’s new book, Memoirs, details his days in South Africa’s liberation movement. With a spirit of optimism, he recounts his childhood in the small farming town of Schweizer-Reneke, his youth in Johannesburg, his days spent underground and how he sustained his spirit and remained active in the liberation movement all those years in prison. Recently, I spoke with Kathrada about his book and the state of South Africa’s democracy more than 10 years after the end of apartheid. It was easy to forget that I was speaking to a lion of South Africa’s liberation movement and a former member of the transition government because his demeanor was so gentle. Still, his commitments to justice and democracy were clearly unwavering.

Independent: What are you hoping to gain from this visit to the States?

Kathrada: I am really hoping to convey the message of the book: that no matter how unjust a system is, justice will prevail in the end. Almost all conflicts end at the negotiating table. Twenty years ago, if somebody had said that South Africa would transform through negotiations, nobody would have believed it. The odds against this were so great. But we succeeded.

And then there is the message that after all the suffering and hardship of people like President Mandela, they emerged with a message of forgiveness, reconciliation and nation-building.

How have members of the African National Congress and apartheid’s other political prisoners managed to reach this sense of forgiveness and reconciliation? It seems almost contrary to human nature.

It’s not as if the President sat down one day and said, “Let’s forget about the past. Let’s reconcile.” It comes from the ethos of the Congress movement in South Africa, which was led by the African National Congress. Right from its inception, it believed in a non-racial democratic South Africa. That was reaffirmed in the Freedom Charter of 1955, which proclaimed that South Africa belongs to all people–black and white. Consistently, the policy has been to bring the enemy to the negotiating table. We could not wish away three million white people into the sea. They were born in South Africa. They had no other home. We had to live together to build another country.

The Freedom Charter is the document that set out the democratic ideals of the ANC. Have you noticed any shifts away from the Charter’s ideals with the ANC’s assumption of power?

The Freedom Charter’s ideals have been enshrined in the constitution of the country. I don’t think there is any departure from those principles.

It’s been said that the upcoming trial of Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who was recently forced to resign because of charges of graft and corruption, is the biggest test of South Africa’s new democracy. Is his trial a threat to the unity of the ANC?

Mr. Zuma himself has said that we should let the courts decide. He is a very powerful man and highly popular, but I don’t think he is going to lead us to any split in the organization. There will be some new appointments, but it’s not going to lead to any split. Mr. Zuma is committed to the policies of the ANC. He was at a major rally last week where he asked people not to do anything to harm the ANC. There were rumors that people would boycott the upcoming local elections in response to his resignation, but he called on people to go vote.

South Africa is emerging as a capitalist regional power that’s investing in the infrastructure of countries across the continent. The country has strong economic ties to Europe. Is this a departure from the communist ideologies that inspired so many that were involved in South Africa’s liberation movement?

The African National Congress, especially during its armed struggle, appealed to the whole world for assistance. The West turned down our appeals. The communist bloc supported us. They trained our soldiers and gave us arms. But at no stage did the ANC depart from the policy it set out in the Freedom Charter. At no stage could it be said that the ANC was communist or communist-influenced. During our history we’ve had communists, non-communists and anti-communists in our membership and leadership. That will never change.

But is it fair to say that South Africa is emerging as a powerful capitalist government?

I am no longer in government and I may be wrong, but I think that we take the best of what’s in other countries and apply it to South Africa. I don’t know if one can be so specific as to say it is a capitalist country. But I may be quite wrong.

You and the others who were involved in the freedom struggle were labeled by the South African government and media as terrorists. I’m wondering what you think about the way we Americans use the word terror.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher refused to have anything to do with the ANC because they said we were terrorists. So it’s a term that is being used and abused. I don’t think that one can just label any freedom struggle. It may be in fact that there are some excesses committed, but that doesn’t mean that they are terrorists. One thing we can say, of course, is that where violence leads to the murder of or injury to innocent civilians–men, women and children–that we never condone. In our own struggle, we went out of our way not to do anything to harm the civilian population. By and large we stuck to that.

Ahmed Kathrada will speak at The Know Bookstore in Durham on Saturday, Oct. 29, at 2 p.m. and the Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Sunday, Oct. 30, at 3 p.m.