Anti-apartheid struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years imprisoned with his close friend and confidant Nelson Mandela, 18 of which were spent on Robben Island, the isolated land mass off the coast of South Africa that was a place of banishment and imprisonment for many who fought for freedom from racist rule.

Before Mandela’s death on Thursday, Kathrada spoke to Al Jazeera’s Sumayya Ismail about the early years of the anti-apartheid movement, the harsh decades spent in prison, the transition to democracy, and his 50 year friendship with South Africa’s most famous reluctant hero.

AJ: When did you first meet

Nelson Mandela?

Ahmed Kathrada: [I first met Mandela] about 50 years ago …. We were in awe of this man who had gone to university, because there were not many people who were non-white who were at university.

Thereafter, of course, we met politically and there was a long history, but the main things were the three major court cases and we were [the] accused. During the court case that sent us to jail in the first place, we only saw lawyers for the first time three months after detention. And when we saw them for the first time, they told us to prepare for the worst.

What stands out in my mind is Mr Mandela. His whole aim was to treat that as a political trial and not as a criminal trial. There was a very well-known speech that Mandela made in court in which he ended by saying: ‘All my life I have devoted to the achievement of equality and democracy. It is what I hoped to achieve and if need be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

So that was the whole tone of the trial and until the very last day, the expectation was that [it would be a death sentence]. And of course there was a collective sigh of relief when it was not a death sentence, but a life sentence.

What do you remember most about your decades in prison together?

He spent 27 years in prison and I spent 26. But we were together for many, many of those years [and most of all, I remember] his leadership qualities.

What I remember, when we landed on Robben Island, his words were: ‘We are no longer leaders, we are now just prisoners. Because we don’t make policy, we don’t give instructions. Our leaders are outside of prison, they make policy, they give instructions, and we are ordinary prisoners.’ And that is how he engaged.

We never imagined that Mandela would be president of the country or that I would be sitting in parliament, we never imagined that. But we knew the ANC would win one day - and it has happened in our lifetime.

What was Mandela like during the prison years?

Years after we were [on Robben Island], he was offered to be released - alone. He refused, saying first of all he does not want preferential treatment. Secondly, they wanted to send him to some little part of South Africa, and he said: ‘I’m not prepared to go there, the whole of South Africa belongs to us - black and white.’

What was it like when you finally got off the island?

After 15 years [in prison], we got newspapers, after 20 years we got television, so we were more and more in touch with everything happening outside. We got more letters, we got more visits, so we kept in touch.

But in terms of deprivation, the worst deprivation was the lack of children [on the island] .... I saw a child, and touched a child, after 20 years. When we came out it was a different world.

Why was Mandela always the reluctant hero?

In his own books he says that the thing he dislikes most is the way people are trying to make him into a saint. He says he has the weaknesses and strengths of ordinary human beings, he is not a saint, he dislikes the idea of being one. So he did not ask for it.

But looking back on his background, he was born into royalty, brought up to be a leader, and when he got into politics, after years of activity he becomes leader of the [ANC] Youth League. He graduates from that and becomes president of the provincial ANC, essentially the deputy national president .... So he evolved over the years as a leader, it wasn’t as if he suddenly became a leader.

When he was asked to go underground he had to give up his family and his two little girls, he had to give up his law practice, he had to live like an outlaw, disguised as a labourer or a chauffeur, whatever suited him at a particular time to continue his political work. That took courage and sacrifice.

Should South Africa’s transition have been more ‘revolutionary’?

The policy of the ANC, which is the governing party, was a policy of a non-racial, non-sexist democratic South Africa. Unlike other colonial countries, ours was different.

 Our rulers were white, but they were South African. They were from here, there was no other country. And it wasn’t a question of a few thousand like other colonial countries. We were talking about millions .... So our policy of non-racialism was absolutely crucial, because you got to build one united nation with everybody, you can’t exclude anybody. So the element of forgiveness, nation-building, became paramount.

When [Mandela] became president, among the first things he did, was he called the wives and the widows of former apartheid presidents and prime ministers and invited them for tea. The widow of the worst apartheid leader [Hendrik] Verwoerd, she couldn’t come, because she was ill. He got into his helicopter and decided to visit her. And that was all because of nation-building, of forgiveness.

Has South Africa achieved what struggle stalwarts like you and Mandela hoped for?

The Freedom Charter is enshrined in the constitution of the ANC and in the constitution of the country. If there is any violation of these, it can be a criminal offence.

I cannot for a moment say - because we are only 19 years old - I can’t for a moment say that everything is fine, that a country which has had freedom and democracy and will have [for many more years] will claim that everything is alright. Our aim is to build one united nation and we are taking major steps.

The first thing we achieved on 27 April 1994 is dignity and equal human rights. Prior to that, all over South Africa there were signs saying ‘Europeans only’ in libraries, restaurants, hotels, parks, railways, everywhere you go, and signs that said ‘non-Europeans not allowed’. There were even signs that said ‘non-Europeans and dogs not allowed’, which reduced human beings who were not white to the level of animals.

When I say we have achieved dignity as human beings, we must always still be aware that the challenges are no longer apartheid. We are on the road. We can only be satisfied, as Nelson Mandela has said, when we are convinced that every child goes to bed with a full stomach, gets up smiling with a full breakfast, proper clothing, goes to a proper school, plays on a proper sports field, comes home, there is always food, clothing everything, when that happens. And it is not going to happen in our lifetime because the challenges are huge.–Aljazeera