Obituary – Mario Ambrosini: A blinding intellect; a worthy opponent

2014-08-17 15:00

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Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) MP Mario Ambrosini (53) died at his home in Hout Bay, Cape Town, early yesterday morning – before his battle for legalising the medical use of dagga in South Africa was completed.

Ambrosini, who was diagnosed with phase 4 lung cancer in April last year, controversially burst on to the South African political scene in 1991 as IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s constitutional expert during predemocracy negotiations.

He was resented by ANC and the National Party negotiators because he was seen as the architect of the IFP’s often obstructionist positions and strategies.

In February, he shocked the National Assembly into silence when he addressed a plea to President Jacob Zuma to legalise the use of medical dagga.

After doctors gave him only weeks to live, he was convinced it was this unusual treatment that enabled him

to remain alive for longer than a year.

“Everyone who knew Mario knows he has challenged boundaries all his life, but always with a greater goal. This is what made him the remarkable fighter that he was,” his family said in a statement yesterday.

Ambrosini, whose father was a professor of constitutional law, was raised in Italy but lived in South Africa for 23 years.

He studied law in Rome and later continued his studies at Harvard University.

After arriving in the country in 1991, he and Buthelezi developed a close friendship. After the 1994 elections, he followed Buthelezi into the home affairs department as an adviser.

This earned the ire of Buthelezi’s ANC Cabinet colleagues, who were uncomfortable with a foreigner being responsible for crafting immigration policy. In 2009, he became an IFP MP.

An emaciated and weak Ambrosini stood up from his wheelchair in May to take his parliamentary oath, and last month, connected to a ventilator, made his last speech in Parliament.

Koos van der Merwe, former IFP chief whip, said he would remember Ambrosini for his conscientiousness and “brilliant mind”.

“As an American-trained lawyer, he adapted very well to the South African legal system. He excelled especially with his thorough research. He had an extremely good memory.”

In February, after his plea to Zuma, Ambrosini tabled a bill on medical innovation in Parliament.

Van der Merwe said he did not believe Ambrosini’s death would be the end of the struggle to legalise dagga for medicinal use.

“I’m sure the battle will be pursued by the IFP and by his family. He investigated and used every possible solution – and that’s why he lasted so long.”

Former DA leader Tony Leon said Ambrosini was “one of life’s most original people”.

“He was an extraordinarily intelligent man,” Leon said.

The ANC said Ambrosini would be remembered for his bravery and determination.

“Since being diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago, Dr Ambrosini was a determined and brave fighter for people’s right to be in control of their destiny and have the right to choose to use dagga for medicinal reasons.”

The DA said he was a man of integrity who will be remembered for the contribution he made to the country’s Constitution and also in Parliament.

Joanmariae Fubbs, the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on trade and industry, said Ambrosini’s “fresh insight has contributed to more robust legislation”.

“His capacity to focus on issues differently encouraged the committee to conduct effective oversight,” said Fubbs.

His family said they would remember the MP “not only as a warrior, but as a caring husband and a loving father, completely dedicated to his son Luke”. His son is seven. – Additional reporting by staff reporter

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