The two were imprisoned together on Robben Island under white-minority apartheid rule. They still see each other, most recently in Johannesburg, just before Mandela returned on May 28 to his village home of Qunu where he is living out his retirement.
“When I last saw him just before he went back to Eastern Cape… he was already busy with a pile of newspapers and at that particular time, he was reading the Beeld, the Afrikaans newspaper. He keeps in touch,” 82-year-old Kathrada said.
“When I go and see him, there is no agenda. Especially we don’t discuss about present politics, unless he raises something, or he has seen something special in the newspapers,” said Kathrada, known fondly as Kathy.
“I avoid talking about that – we have been long enough in politics – unless he is reading the newspaper and asks me a specific question, but it happens so seldom.”
Mandela, a boxer in his youth, often walks with a cane but remains attentive to his health, he added.
“He is very strict about carrying out doctors’ orders. He is very disciplined on that. He is a very disciplined man normally… and when it comes to health he is disciplined about what doctors recommend,” Kathrada said.
“Even in prison he used to encourage others to exercise regularly,” he said. “If you are not in good health, there is very little one can do.”
In recent years, Mandela has withdrawn from the public eye, last making an appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup.
“He is not a character that you can put into one box. He’s a combination of peasant and aristocrat. A combination of the ordinary person and the chief. He’s a combination of all that. But as a human being, he’s very compassionate, very courageous, very caring,” Kathrada said.
“He has the ability to laugh at himself.”
Mandela’s African National Congress has governed for 18 years, but South Africa’s first black president has stayed out of politics in recent years.
He doesn’t even comment about the troubles in South Africa’s schools, an issue close to his heart.
But Kathrada, speaking in his simply furnished Johannesburg apartment filled with books and souvenirs, said South Africa’s new challenge is connecting with youth in a nation where half the population is younger than 25.
“The majority of the population of South Africa is still young. Our biggest challenge is to reach our young people, to make contact with the young people, to tell them that freedom just did not come from heaven,” he said.
“People sacrificed, they went to prison, they were tortured badly, hanged, assassinated. So with freedom comes responsibility”.
“You can make a contribution without doing politics. We don’t expect that every engineer, every scientist, every medical doctor, every accountant must be a politician. We say, they have got a responsibility to themselves, to the community, to the country.”
Although Mandela is unlikely to make a public appearance on his birthday, Kathrada said his presence remained important to South Africa.
“Although he is in retirement, the very fact that he is still with us continues to be a source of inspiration to all of us, to the whole country,” he said.
“So the wish is that he enjoys many, many more years with us, and continues to be an inspiration to us.”