Kader Asmal – Freedom’s friend

Posted by admin | June 7, 2012 1

Kader and friends

With the passing of Kader Asmal who has died of a heart attack at the age of 76, in a Constantia hospital in Cape Town freedom has lost a great friend, the Rule of Law a great advocate and both his beloved native South Africa and his adopted home of Ireland have lost somebody who enriched them immeasurably. It was my great privilege to know Kader and I am both saddened by his passing but also grateful to have known somebody who reeked of integrity and made such a difference in life.

For Kader, an always polite and enthusiastic Law Professor much given to smiling and laughter has left a large footprint on this earth. He had led the campaign in Ireland against apartheid and went on to hold two ministerial posts in South Africa. Asmal left Ireland in the early 1990s, returning to South Africa, where he was a senior figure in the African National Congress. Although he served as a minister in the Mandela government from 1994 to 2004, he regularly returned to Dublin.

After leaving his native South Africa in 1959, he helped found the anti-apartheid movement in London, before moving to Dublin. He lectured in Trinity College for 27 years. Kader Asmal came to Ireland in 1963, a South African exile and member of the African National Congress, fresh from a degree at the London School of Economics.

As a founder of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) with former President Mary Robinson, (one of his former students) he championed the rights of workers in Dunne’s Stores when they refused to handle South African oranges. In Trinity College, he specialised in human rights, labour and international law and from 1980 to 1986 he was dean of the faculty of arts. He met his wife Louise Parkinson in Dublin. They had two sons and two grandchildren.

Kader with his former student Mary Robinson, later President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Kader was the best type of lawyer, one who truly believed in the Rule of Law as the glue which binds a civilised society, who led by example and who influenced a whole generation of lawyers, judges and legislators in Ireland before returning to South Africa. He said;

“The state is not the enemy, it’s the abuse of power” that is the enemy, he says. In order to fight such abuses – and he stresses that the abuse of power can come from private as much as, or more than, public interests – a strong state is vital. “One thing I’ve learned, don’t always counter pose the state as the enemy.” He cited economic globalisation and US imperialism as further evidence of the need for a strong state, able to assert its sovereignty.

Kader grew up in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal and while still a school-boy he met Chief Albert Luthuli who inspired him towards human rights. In 1959, Kader qualified as a teacher, moved to London where he enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

While in London he started the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and when he joined the Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland as a teacher of human rights, labour and international law, he started the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Kader qualified as a barrister in both the London and Dublin Bars and received degrees from both the London School of Economics (LL.M. (Lond.)) and Trinity College, Dublin (M.A. (Dubl.)). He was a law professor at Trinity College for 27 years, specialising in human rights, labour, and international law. In 1983, he was awarded the Prix UNESCO for his involvement in the international inquiries into human rights violations. Kader served on the African National Congress’ constitutional committee from 1986.

In 1990, Asmal returned to South Africa and shortly afterwards was elected to the African National Congress’ National Executive Committee. In 1993, he served as a member of the negotiating team of the African National Congress at the Multiparty Negotiating Forum. In May 1994, he was elected to the National Assembly, and joined the cabinet as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.

Kader in Trinity College, Dublin

Trinity College, Dublin

Trinity College, Dublin

In 1996, the World Wide Fund for Nature-South Africa awarded Asmal their Gold Medal for his conservation work. During his tenure he supported the Global Water Partnership (GWP). As Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry he spearheaded the recognition of the concept of “the environment as a prime water user.” While serving as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, he also served as the chairman of the World Commission on Dams (1997–2001).

In 1999, after the South African general elections, he became Minister of Education. Among his initiatives as Minister of Education was the launching in 2001 of the South African History Project “to promote and enhance the conditions and status of the learning and teaching of history in the South African schooling system, with the goal of restoring its material position and intellectual purchase in the classroom”. Asmal emphasised that children should not be measured by outcomes only, “but measured by the successes achieved getting to an outcome”.

He was a professor of human rights at the University of the Western Cape, chairman of the council of the University of the North and vice-president of the African Association of International Law.

On 5 October 2007, he severely criticised Robert Mugabe for the situation in Zimbabwe, lamenting that he had not spoken previously, at the launch of a book Through the Darkness — A Life in Zimbabwe, by Judith Todd, daughter of former Southern Rhodesia prime minister Garfield Todd, an opponent of white minority rule under Ian Smith.

Asmal resigned from parliament in 2008, in protest against the ANC’s disbanding of the elite Scorpions anti-crime unit. He felt it was a poor decision, and that it was improper that politicians who had been investigated and found to be engaged in corruption by the Scorpions then took part in the vote to disband the organisation. Just six days before his death, Asmal called for the controversial Information Bill (also known as the “Secrecy Bill”) to be scrapped.

I first met Kader in 1974 when I was Secretary of the Student’s Union in Bolton Street. One of the few redeeming features in this utilitarian 3rd Level Educational institution was a small payment from the college for guest speakers. Kader came along to state the case for fighting Apartheid. What struck me then and since was his own personal experience of Apartheid, its pervasiveness and how every aspect of your life was controlled by your official designation as white, coloured or Bantu, as black people were called under the system. The whole nonsense of separate development which led to the creation 10 Bantustan which led to three and half million black South Africans being deprived of South African citizenship and being forcibly relocated to these nonsense puppet states. The detail Kader outlined was shocking but this was no bitter ranting exile. On the contrary with his ready smile and laughter he was an optimist that human goodness would prevail no matter how grim the present reality seemed. It was inspirational and it inspired me to join the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement (IAAM).

For more about Bolton Street see; 

 Bob Geldof and Me!


Dunnes's Stores, Henry Street, Dublin

Dunnes’s Stores, Henry Street, Dublin

This in fact was run from Kader and Louise’s family home at Beechpark Road, Foxrock but as a campaigning organisation it always punched above its weight with many high profile protests, for instance when the Springboks Rugby Team toured Ireland. But its high point came when a Dublin shop girl refused to sell two Outspan oranges to a customer in a major supermarket chain.

In July 1984 a 21-year old cashier Mary Manning was suspended by management at the Henry Street branch of Dunnes’s Stores where she worked. Two days earlier, Mary and her worker colleagues received a directive from their union IDATU (Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union) not to handle any products that originated from South Africa. This was as a consequence of a motion adopted at the IDATU annual delegate conference that said that because of the apartheid system, union members were to refuse to handle South African goods. This lead to a strike and campaign lasting 2 years nine months during which the Dunnes’s Stores strikers stood firm with public support against management and Garda intimidation and in the latter case sometimes violence. It took a heavy toll on the principled strikers, some of whom ended up losing their homes, but in the end Ireland passed a law forbidding the import of South African produce which stayed in force until the end of Apartheid.

In 2008 a plaque was embedded in front of Dunnes’s store on Henry Street to commemorate the strike and the workers who participated in it. Speaking at the ceremony, Kader Asmal who had been Chairperson of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement during the strike and who went on to become a Minister in post Apartheid South Africa delivered a message on behalf of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

According to Mandela “young workers who refused to handle the fruits of apartheid 21 years ago in Dublin provided inspiration to millions of South Africans that ordinary people far away from the crucible of apartheid cared for our freedom”.

Kader at the unveiling of the plaque outside Dunnes’s Stores, Henry Street, Dublin in 2008

I, like many others in Ireland, have warm memories of Kader, the bustling academic lawyer, whose love of liberty stemmed first and foremost from his love of life and people. I never remember a trace of bitterness in his being even when he was telling me in the dark days of isolation about his ANC contemporaries in South Africa who had been killed or were rotting in prison. Louise was vice-chair and very much his equal partner in his campaign and when he left Ireland she went with him to South Africa, a country whose freedom she had spent many years campaigning for but which she had never been to. Their son Rafiq was a student and part time club promoter in Dublin and used to rent a basement night club in Dublin’s Grafton Street where he ran a club called “Risqué” on a Saturday night. He was astonished around 12.30 one Saturday night when this part time club was graced by David Bowie, his Band and entourage who crashed in after performing in 1987 to 50,000 at Slane Castle earlier. He wasn’t the only one who was astounded as so was I being there that night and I ended up chatting to David whose management asked for the doors to be closed but very kindly insisted on picking up a bar tab until four in the morning by way of thanks!

Kader and Louise Asmal

Kader too was avuncular, enjoying company, a “jar” and unfortunately chain smoking which no doubt contributed to his ill health in recent years. I had left Ireland before he went back to South Africa but I remember afterwards reading an interview with him where he regretted that he had gone back at the age of 55 and not 45 when he was in his prime. Be that as may be and though our thoughts are with Louise, Adam and Rafiq in Rosebank, Cape Town we cannot feel sad after a life which has accomplished so much and has served as an example of the importance of Human Rights and the Rule of Law and how with courage and determination these values will prevail. But there is another reason why we must not be sad for that was not Kader’s way. Whilst he gave a great deal to Ireland he also felt wanted there and took from the country as a little story illustrates.

Kader and Mary Robinson at an Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)  meeting in 1976

Kader and Mary Robinson at an Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)  meeting in 1976

At a formal dinner of the SA Brandy Foundation, in 1999, Kader told the guests: “This is an occasion when I should declare my interest in relation to brandy versus whisky, without further ado. For, as you know, it is incumbent on parliamentarians and ministers to declare their interests, and we are here to salute brandy and its responsible consumption.

“So I must declare that, if I do have the odd diverting dram, it is whiskey, spelt with an ‘e’, the Irish way. In fact, it is generally totally misspelled, the more correct being P A D D Y,” he said. “I mention this in case any of tonight’s esteemed audience passes through Heathrow duty-free and is heretical enough to purchase some Paddy on my behalf.”

Farewell to Kader who showed us the way, a true friend of Freedom.

Kader Asmal – 8 October 1934 – 22 June 2011

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