Book review – Politics in my blood

2011-10-15 10:06

The opening chapter of Politics in My Blood draws you in so that, for a moment, post-apartheid South Africa fades away into a distant dream, and you travel back in time to 1940s South Africa to a little town called Stanger.

The writers paint a gripping picture of life in the town, where the great Zulu king Shaka was buried in 1828, and where on October 8 1934, Kader Asmal was born.

The chapter captures in painful detail the glaring racial segregation in the town, where in the whites-only section the streets were neatly paved, the lawns well manicured and the houses spacious.

This, while people of other races were crammed into derelict shacks and houses in overcrowded slums, and where non-white people were forced to move to the other side of the street if they happened to be passing by the white magistrate.

This particular chapter, titled Formative Years, is in my view the best in the book, which in later chapters moves away from the personal to the political. This does not necessarily mean the other chapters are less captivating, but Formative Years, more than any other chapter, gets the reader to understand the world that shaped Asmal.

Here is a glimpse of life in Stanger, as recalled by Asmal: “The part of Stanger in which I grew up was an area of great poverty. There were 10 of us in the Asmal family – my parents and eight children – and we lived in a small, two-bedroomed house.

“The toilet was a bucket located outside in a wooden shack. We had to pick our way through the chicken run to get to it, an ordeal for me especially at night or when a subtropical storm blew in from the Indian Ocean.

“As I suffered terribly from asthma as a child, my parents decided against sending me to school until I was nine. They wanted me where they could keep an eye on me during the day and my bed was moved to a small space under the shop counter.

Here, equipped with a pillow and blanket, I spent much time listening to the world around me, to people coming and going, and interacting with my shopkeeper father.”

The book literally takes you on a lifetime journey from Africa to Ireland, where Asmal spent more than 30 years in political exile. It also demonstrates the pettiness and cruelty of apartheid, which made it impossible for Asmal – besides his political involvement with the banned ANC – to return home after getting married to his Irish sweetheart Louise owing to the unjust and immoral laws prohibiting marriage and sexual intercourse between people of different races.

The story of his years at the forefront of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement is one that can be repeated a thousand times over – a story of sacrifice and the loneliness of exile which many architects of our democracy endured during their hard years away from home in foreign lands.

Asmal, like many others, could have chosen a cosy, quiet life in Ireland where he worked as a law lecturer, but he never forgot the suffering of his people back home.

Although Asmal mentions throughout the book how Albert Luthuli, the late ANC president, influenced his political life, and even dedicates a whole chapter to the Nobel peace prize winner, he doesn’t quite bring out the detail of this man who he tells us remained his biggest inspiration.

Luthuli remains a part player, a sort of mythical figure who doesn’t quite come to life in these pages, yet is constantly mentioned as a source of inspiration.

He also mentions Oliver Tambo, the man who led the ANC during the difficult years of exile and Nelson Mandela, post-apartheid South Africa’s first president, as the men who inspired his political activism. But it is clear that Asmal regarded Luthuli as his political mentor and hero.

He expresses a certain amount of disapproval of the style of leadership and personality of Mandela’s successor and Tambo’s protégé, Thabo Mbeki, under whom Asmal served in Cabinet as education minister.

While his take on Mandela, Tambo and Luthuli are peppered with glowing attributes, he has much criticism for Mbeki. “As a professor, lawyer and an admirer of word-craft, poetry and intellectualism, it might be assumed I readily took a liking to Mbeki. He was engaging, thoughtful and extremely well read.

“He peppered his speeches with quotations from fine authors and thinkers. He was totally committed to the ANC and had spent most of his adult life in exile. He was short in stature, enjoyed a smoke and relished a fine whisky. On the surface, we had a great deal in common,” writes Asmal in the chapter In Cabinet.

“But though Mbeki and I go back a long way, I cannot say that our relationship was ever warm or affectionate. It was certainly unpredictable,” he writes.

He goes on to relate an incident in which Mbeki knocked on his hotel room during an ANC conference in an Eastern Cape hotel and started speaking non-stop for six hours.

“I was so enthralled by the spell of his words that, for fear of breaking it, I didn’t want to get up even to switch the lights on. Slowly, the room was enveloped in near darkness. I don’t recall the details of our conversation, but we covered most elements in the politics of the negotiations.”

He goes on to criticise Mbeki’s style of leadership, which he felt undid the good work done by Mandela in his first and only term as president. “As the months went by in Mbeki’s first term as president, a climate bordering on anxiety began to settle on the Cabinet. It was suddenly difficult to raise issues because you were unsure what kind of response there would be.

“You started to think very carefully about which battles to fight and which to let slide. As minister, you very rarely made any assessment or criticism of Mbeki, if you could help it. You never knew what the response would be.

“With Mbeki at the helm, the truly sensitive or difficult topics of state were kept off the agenda even at the level of South Africa’s executive branch of government.

“While power hovered in and around the Mandela Cabinet, by the time Mbeki had assumed the presidency, this kind of power resided elsewhere.

“Cabinet carried on with the day-to-day business of governance and the managing of our individual portfolios. But the difficult, controversial decisions, strategising and policy formulation took place within the rapidly expanding Office of the President.”

It would have been a travesty of history had Asmal taken his life story with him to the grave, like many influential people from across the spectrum of our society have done and continue to do. This book belongs in the great library of the proud and difficult history of our great country.

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