Last week Barbara Hogan made headlines following the death of her husband, struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada. The two shared a life-long commitment to the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle – both served extensive time in prison for their political activities. Barbara Hogan is an experienced and accomplished activist and political leader in her own right. Here are nine things about her you probably didn’t know.

1. Born to an ordinary white family in Benoni, Barbara became involved in politics while she was a student at Wits in the 1970s. She was part of a student movement to resist apartheid policies, and she played a key role in mobilising progressive white people to actively resist apartheid. She also helped to build the trade union movement in this time.

2. She’s been a member of the ANC since 1976, when she joined following the Soweto Uprising. She worked underground to provide information on resistance activities in South Africa to the ANC in Botswana.

3. The apartheid state really did not like Barbara Hogan. She survived an assassination attempt (the bomb was attached to the wrong car). She was arrested in 1981 and kept in solitary confinement for a year, subjected to interrogation and torture in that time. She was the first South African woman to be convicted for high treason, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison – the judge deliberately gave her a long sentence to destroy her chances of having children.

4. Ironically, Barbara became an icon of the ANC’s non-racial struggle as the first white woman to be tried and convicted for high treason. During her ten years in jail, she also became a constant thorn in the side of the apartheid government by challenging the rules of long-term incarceration with the help of human rights lawyers and international organisations. Her battles with the prison authorities became legendary as she accumulated slow victories that improved prison conditions.

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Barbara Hogan delivering a speech in Los Angeles in 2009 (Rex Features)

5. Barbara obtained qualifications in accounting and economics while in prison, in addition to her existing development studies qualification from Wits.

6. Barbara met Ahmed Kathrada shortly after they were both released from prison in 1990. He was a Rivonia trialist who had been in prison for 26 years, mostly on Robben Island.

7. She played important roles in both the ANC and the transitional government in the 1990s. She served in the ANC NEC from 1990 to 1992; and in 1993 she became head of policy development at the Development Bank of South Africa.

8. Barbara has been minister of health and minister of public enterprises, and is internationally acknowledged for reorientating the country’s policy on HIV/AIDS in her tenure as health minister from September 2008 to May 2009.

9. She has become an outspoken critic of President Jacob Zuma, first calling for him to step down in 2015. When President Zuma reshuffled the cabinet last week, a day after Ahmed Kathrada’s death, she called on all ANC members and all South Africans to mobilise against President Zuma, saying that his poor decision making about key appointments was a sign of his ineptitude.

barbara hogan ahmed kathrada

Graça Machel greets Barbara at Ahmed Kathrada’s memorial on the 1st of April in Johannesburg. Graça was Nelson Mandela’s second wife; Madiba and Ahmed were close friends and comrades.


Sources of biographical information:

Constitution Hill

SA History Online

TAC Tribute to Comrade Barbara Hogan

University of Kentucky Honorary Doctor of Letters Introduction