Parliament is poorer

2008-03-13 00:00

ON THE right side of Professor Kader Asmal’s bench in the National Assembly sat Robben Islander Andrew Mlangeni. Behind Asmal was Bertha Gxowa, an activist who participated in the 1956 anti-pass march to the Union Buildings. Behind Mlangeni was the veteran left-wing development economist, Ben Turok, who cut his political teeth in the Congress of Democrats. These veteran activists, in their 70s, represented different strands of the anti-apartheid movement.

But the moment was Asmal’s.

The three were among those who attended the sitting to bid farewell to Asmal, who represented yet another strand: the global anti-apartheid struggle.

Without Asmal, Parliament is poorer.

As he put it in his retirement speech, he is among the “dwindling band” of MPs who took their seats in 1994. He could have added that he is among the “dwindling band”, if not of endangered species, of those who represent the global strand of the anti-apartheid struggle. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel told Parliament that Asmal, through his hard work, “had given meaning to the title, member of Parliament”.

Asmal said he owes his involvement in the struggle to the teachings of African National Congress leader Chief Albert Luthuli, who introduced him to the politics of non-racism. Luthuli made him see the world in which a person was not Indian, white, or African, but South African. It was for this reason, he said, that he had not become a member of the Indian Congress, which fought for the rights of people of Indian descent. He described as “nonsensical” the arguments of those who still believe that the Indian Congress and the United Democratic Front should not have been dissolved after the unbanning of the ANC .

“With the [unbanning] of the ANC, you were either in the ANC or not. For me the ANC is my life. From the age of 16, I felt I was a member of the ANC.”

Asmal’s world view was enhanced by his international campaigns. He left South Africa in the late fifties and became a founding member of the British anti-apartheid movement in 1960. By then he was reading for a postgraduate degree in law at the London School of Economics. Four years later, he founded and became chairman of the Irish anti-apartheid movement, which he led until 1990, when he returned to South Africa.

His international role expanded to the United Nations where he became a rapporteur of UN conferences on apartheid in the seventies and eighties. Shortly after his return from Ireland, where he lived, taught and acquired citizenship, Asmal was appointed a visiting professor of law at the University of the Western Cape.

With his retirement from active politics, he returns to the same institution — this time as Professor Extraordinary. “I have come full circle. I want to bring back to the students the whole experience of non-racialism and values of selflessness. I will teach the conjunction of politics and law,” he said.

He plans to write his memoirs and, as a “loyal member of the ANC”, he has offered to serve in the management committee of his Gaby Shapiro branch. It was at that branch that Asmal last year launched a failed bid to have businessman Cyril Ramaphosa elected ANC president in Polokwane. The tussle between President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma rendered Asmal’s “third way” futile.

Asmal could not hide his disgust at how tensions within the ANC manifested themselves in Polokwane. During the nomination process Asmal banged his table in apparent protest at Tokyo Sexwale’s “stage-managed” withdrawal from the chairmanship race. Asmal, who had signalled his pending retirement before Polokwane, strongly believes in Ramaphosa’s leadership abilities and his potential to uphold South Africa’s Constitution. Ramaphosa may not have lived up to Asmal’s expectations, but Asmal remains unfazed about his belief in the values of the Constitution. He says he is an “unrestrained constitutionalist”.

He told Parliament: “It [the Constitution] is a living instrument that enlarges our freedoms and restricts our power to act arbitrarily and capriciously.”

As has become customary in his addresses, Asmal spoke of the need to maintain the rule of law, guarantee human rights and the importance of “cherishing” press freedom.

MPs of different parties paid tribute to Asmal. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said Asmal was so fierce in his opposition to the violations of human rights that “he must have an anti-prejudice gene!”

The African Christian Democratic Party’s Cheryllyn Dudley confessed to the house that Asmal had been so irresistible and charismatic that she felt God had allowed him to “creep right into my heart”.

Asmal boasts more than 10 awards in recognition of his work. Among his latest is the Order of the Légion d’Honneur from the French government. He has also published widely. His debating skills are legendary.

But what does he make of the future of South African politics?

“The most brilliant Italian Marxist, [Antonio] Gramsci, said he was the pessimist of the intellect and the optimist of the will. Joe Slovo said that too. And that’s my view. If there are things that we want to go wrong, they will go wrong. The pessimist of the intellect [means] that you know what has gone wrong and what can possibly go wrong so you have to ensure that it does not happen. The problem is that if you believe that nothing will go wrong, then you will shoot everyone who disagrees with you, like Stalin.”

And what does he think about the current state of affairs?

What worries him is the emergence of “conspicuous consumption” and “instant gratification”.

“The values that drove us in our struggle are enormously important. And I think if we forsake them for purposes of conspicuous consumption then it becomes a betrayal. Not all of us should drive Jaguars and Mercedes Benzes. Our values should be those of the poor — but we should live comfortably.”

He added: “There is more instant gratification; more than conspicuous consumption. There are young people who got important, powerful jobs in the public service, where anywhere in the world they would have been proud to be in those jobs, but they suddenly give them up for the private sector to earn R2 million to R3 million. The point is that people need to have pride in their work. Until we have that [pride] then we have instant gratification.”

Asmal believes that instant gratification has also taken a toll on Parliament, as a number of young, competent MPs have “sadly” left the institution in pursuit of business interests. He believes that when the ANC compiles its candidate lists for the 2009 elections, it should field workers from the factory floor, shop stewards and intellectuals.

“And there should not be a suspicion of intellectuals. There is impatience by branches against intellectuals because intellectuals raise questions about this or that. But we must learn to appreciate freedom of expression. Workers and intellectuals will bring the fusion of ideas.”

Born 73 years ago, Asmal is still what his former squatter, Manuel, called a complete technophobe.

“He has just learnt to dial a cellphone. He still struggles with a dictaphone and sending an SMS or using a computer — these are all too futuristic [for him].” —

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