Kader Asmal obit: An honour and a privilege

2011-06-25 16:56

Shortly after the nominations closed for the post of ANC president at the ruling party’s Polokwane conference in December 2008, Kader Asmal stormed into the Standard Bank hospitality suite in the networking centre on the conference sidelines.

He was seething and he had every right to be. His efforts and those of others to convince a third candidate to stand instead of then president Thabo Mbeki and deputy president Jacob Zuma, so as to avoid the bloodletting that tore the party apart, had come to nothing. Their choice, Cyril Ramaphosa, had sat quietly grinning on the podium and refused to bite when the time came for nominations from the floor.

A livid Asmal let rip. Ramaphosa had “no balls” for refusing to stand. Soon-to-be-ousted national chairperson Terror Lekota was a “moron with a pea-brain” who was about to split the ANC through his continued support of a third term for Mbeki.

As angry as Asmal was, he was utterly lucid – and really funny.

That was classic Asmal. Enraged by the abandonment of principle, his response was to speak his mind with no fear of the repercussions while remaining steadfast in his loyalty to his party and his acceptance of a decision of which he disapproved.

Leaving the ANC was not an option nor was keeping quiet. For Asmal the only route was to stay on board and continue to stoke the fires of debate – both inside the ruling party and beyond its ranks.

Asmal was born into a family of 10 in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, in 1934 and became politically conscientised at school. He studied law, going on to teach at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

He founded the British anti-apartheid movement in 1960 and later the Irish anti-apartheid movement, which he used to drive the campaign to isolate apartheid.

Former South African ambassador to the UN and Thabo Mbeki Foundation chief executive Dumisani Kumalo said that in exile they used to call Asmal “an architect of democracy” because he had a clear vision of what a democratic South Africa should be like.

After 1994 Asmal served in government, heading the water affairs and education portfolios.

While he was water affairs minister the UN commissioned him to study rivers that straddle national boundaries to avoid future conflicts between countries over water. Kumalo said Asmal agreed to undertake the study because he believed water was a human right. He was later awarded the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize for his work.

Kumalo related how he was forced to negotiate a compromise with the US security establishment when former president Bill Clinton visited Nelson Mandela in Tuynhuis in 1999.

“The US security service wanted snipers on all buildings overlooking Parliament and Tuynhuis ­before Clinton met Mandela. All of us said we couldn’t do that because Professor Asmal would come out for a smoke” (and might get shot by the American snipers).

The compromise was that each American sniper would be teamed with a South African who could recognise the chain smoker.

“When I told him (later) he laughed,” Kumalo said.

As education minister, Asmal presided over the merger of institutions of higher learning, the closing down of teacher and nursing colleges, and the implementation of the controversial outcomes-based education.

Some of the changes – such as the merger of the Medical University of SA with the University of the North – proved unpopular, leading to the ANC under President Jacob Zuma reversing them.

Former chief justice Pius Langa, a close friend and colleague in the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) and the ANC’s constitutional committee, described Asmal as “a truly remarkable fellow”.

“It was actually very exciting working with Kader. When he returned from Ireland he brought a remarkable energy to the work we were doing at the time. I don’t know anyone else like Kader. He never ran out of encouragement.

“He had an amazing sense of humour and loved to talk – and talked well. You could always get words of wisdom from him,’’ said Langa.

There was also a quirky, almost eccentric side to Asmal. He would happily take cellphone calls in the toilet, engaging in lengthy interviews while dealing with nature’s demands.

Lawyer and writer Ronald Suresh Roberts, who met him at a conference hosted by the Institute for Democracy in Africa and later co-authored a book with him, said Asmal’s gift to democracy was to “give us ideas translated, sometimes partially and fitfully, into action.

“He was no respecter of conventional wisdom and was always shrewd in overturning it. He scorned those he wryly called ‘our betters’ and was on the side of those he called (quoting Orwell) ‘the great unwashed’,” said Roberts.

“In the best traditions of the ANC he was a voice from and for the ‘unwashed’ even while his erudition and intellectual elegance outdid ‘our betters’.”

He was also a lover of whisky, with a particular fondness for the Irish version, which he gleefully referred to as Paddy.

At the slightest provocation he would launch into a lecture on its virtues over those of the Scots derivative.

At a Nadel conference in Pretoria in the early 1990s he grinningly berated organisers of the social event afterwards for the lack of whisky and jazz. He then took to the billiard table along with fellow veteran Dullah Omar, whipping a succession of younger doubles pairs who had the temerity to take the old- timers on.

His niece, Fawzia Peer, a member of the eThekwini mayoral committee, described Asmal as the greatest influence on her life.

“He was the one who conscientised me. He taught me you have to work hard, that you have to make a difference, that nothing comes if you don’t work for it.’’

Asmal is survived by his wife, Louise, two sons and two grandchildren.

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