Professor Kader Asmal

Names: Asmal, Professor Kader

Born: 8 October 1934, Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Died: 22 June 2011, Cape Town, South Africa

In summary: Minister of Education (1999 – 2004), Minister of Water Affairs,(1994 – 1999) and a member of Parliament in the National Assembly from 1994– 2007.

Kader Asmal was born on 8 October 1934, in the small rural town of Stanger, KwaZulu Natal (then Natal). Young Asmal was raised in a vibrant, lower middle-class family. His mother was a home-maker while his father was a shopkeeper, a shop assistant and unemployed respectively. Although not overtly political, his parents encouraged lively debate in the family of 10.

A consistent concern for human justice stems from Asmal’s childhood. Like the vast majority of South Africans then, his first brush with racism was as a teenager when a White shop-owner barred him from buying a newspaper. A transformative moment in his political understanding, according to Asmal, occurred when footage of Nazi concentration camp victims was shown to him, and he decided on a career in law in order to oppose such oppressive mentality.

He gradually saw a link between this tragedy in European history and his own life under apartheid. A significant turning point for Asmal in the 1950s Defiance Campaign era came as a politicized Matric pupil, when he saw the Campaign's leaders marching in prison uniforms through the dusty streets of Stanger. He responded by leading the school stay-at-home. 

Asmal met African National Congress (ANC) President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Chief Albert Luthuli while still at school. Whilst studying for his teacher's diploma in Durban in 1953, he strengthened his ties with Luthuli, his mentor, who had been banned and restricted to Groutville, near Stanger.

While teaching, Asmal obtained a BA degree through the University of South Africa (Unisa).

In 1959 he went abroad to study law. He graduated from the London School of Economics four years later.  After qualifying in Britain and Ireland as a barrister, Asmal lectured at Trinity College in law.   Asmal was a member of both the London and Dublin bars and obtained two master's degrees during this time.

Precluded from returning to his land of birth because of his political activities, Asmal began teaching at Trinity College. For the next 25 years, specializing in human rights, labour and international law, he lectured in Dublin and rose to Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1980-1986). In 1983, he received the Prix UNESCO in recognition of his work in the advancement of human rights. On his return to South Africa, he became Professor of Human Rights at the University of the Western Cape (1990-1994).

Throughout these years, as a founder of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement in London (1960) and as founder, Vice-Chairperson (1963-1972) and Chairperson (1972-1991) of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Asmal effectively opposed apartheid on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC). From 1986, he served on the ANC’s constitutional committee. 

He worked for South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) and was vice-president of International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) for Southern Africa from 1968 to 1982.Asmal also added his efforts to civil rights campaigns in other parts of the world, including Palestine and Northern Ireland, and served on international legal commissions.  He was also president of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties between 1976 and 1990.

He was elected to the ANC's national executive committee in 1991 and was one of the party's delegates to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), as well as the subsequent Multi-Party Negotiating Forum.

The popularizing of a culture of human rights throughout society has been a contemporary goal of Asmal’s. This he has done via his service on the African National Congress’s (ANC) structures, especially the National Executive Committee (NEC), and through his chairing of the Council of the University of the North, to which he was appointed in December 1992.

In the April 1994 general election, Asmal was 22nd in the ranking for the ANC's National Assembly, and became a member of parliament. He was appointed Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry in May 1994, a position he held until 1999. He was also appointed as Minister of Education in the June 1999 elections and served in this position until 2004.  Asmal also chaired the National Conventional Arms Control Committee which decides to whom South Africa should sell arms.

Asmal has written two books, co-edited another, written nine chapters in books and has penned 150 articles on legal and political aspects of apartheid, labour law, Ireland and decolonization.

Asmal is also an Honourary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and a laureate of the 2000 Stockholm Water Prize, for his work on water issues in South Africa.

Asmal had moved away from mainstream ANC thinking in recent years, speaking out against the party's proposed Protection of Information Bill and the formation of a media appeals tribunal.  A vocal opponent of the Protection of Information Bill, Asmal had recently urged South Africans to reject the Bill, and warned the ANC that rushing it through Parliament would destroy trust in the democratic process.  Asmal said he had hoped the weight of public opposition to the so-called "Secrecy Bill" would have persuaded the relevant ministers and MPs "to take this appalling measure back to the drawing board".

He was just as vocal in his opposition to the disbanding of the Scorpions.  ANC youth league leader Julius Malema, "tenderpreneurs", and the National Youth Development Agency have also been the target of his criticism, with the NYDA being described as worse than a farce.  In 2009, he described then deputy police minister Fikile Mbalula's idea of militarising the police service as "craziness" and smacking of "low-level political decision-making".

Kader Asmal was a fearless fighter for freedom, human rights and his death had weakened South Africa’s democracy, political parties, and civil organisations said on Wednesday [22 June 2011] after the ANC veteran's death in Cape Town. Former President Thabo Mbeki called Asmal an outstanding fighter for the liberation of South Africa and one of the architects of democracy.  "All of us who knew and worked with him ... could always depend on him as a steadfast fighter for the liberation and advancement of the interests of all South Africans," he said.

 PresidentJacob Zuma said Asmal made a "sterling" contribution to the struggle for liberation and made sacrifices to ensure the attainment of freedom and democracy. "He will be remembered for his energy, forthrightness, efficiency and commitment to making this country a better place each day. He will also always be remembered for his passion for human rights for all."

Leaders from across the political spectrum paid tribute to Asmal among them the Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille and Patricia de Lille,  the Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, former National Party leader and State President F W de Klerk, Congress of the People’s  Mbhazima Shilowa and the South African Communist Party.

He had a passionate love for sport and particularly for cricket. Cricket South Africa chief executive officer Gerald Majola said Asmal seldom missed a game involving the Proteas cricket side at Newlands, Cape Town. "He had a passionate love for sport and particularly for cricket. He served on the national executive of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (Sanroc) and, in spite of his commitments to the government from 1994 onwards as a senior Cabinet minister, he did a lot of significant work for cricket," said CSA chief executive officer Gerald Majola.  "Perhaps his greatest contribution was the work he did with the then Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, to recognise sports that had credible development programmes and allow them to get tax rebates so that the money could be ploughed back into amateur and grassroots level sport."

In 2009, Asmal applied to join in proceedings to set aside the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) decision not to hold a formal hearing on the dispute between Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe and Constitutional Court judges.  His application to be a friend of the court follows refusals by Hlophe and the JSC to consent to his joining the case. The dispute between the judges began in May 2008 when 13 Constitutional Court judges complained to the JSC, alleging Hlophe sought improperly to influence the outcome of Constitutional Court cases involving ANC president Jacob Zuma.

Asmal is married to Louise.  They have two sons and two grandchildren.

Professor Kader Asmal died on 22 June 2011 at the age of of 76.

Read passages from the latest publication on Kader Asmal: Politics in My Blood 

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