- Kader Asmal: politics in my blood, a memoir
Of the many lively and engaging figures to emerge from the anti-apartheid and ANC exile movements, few were more influential than Kader Asmal. Many will perhaps remember and respect him now for his pointed critique of the ANC, to which he had a lifelong allegiance, in his last years. Indeed, he resigned from parliament in 2008 in protest over the disbanding of the Scorpions, a move which he could not in good conscious support. But this would be to short-change the immensity of his contributions to the democratic process in South Africa, both in exile and at home after 1990. At the centre of nearly every significant ANC debate of the last 30 years, perhaps his most original and important contributions were in the realm of international law, most specifically in working with the ANC and members of the UN to use law to combat the apartheid government and to frame the principles of the ANC’s struggle. Asmal was the force behind the ANC’s 1980 declaration to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, the first such declaration by any non-state organisation.
Asmal founded and led the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) from the 1960s to 1990, galvanising Irish men and women of all walks of life to identify with and lend their services and time to the IAAM and its mission. He served on the ANC’s constitutional committee that drafted its constitutional proposals in the late 1980s and was a key member of the ANC’s negotiations team over a new constitution in the 1990s. In his 1993 inaugural address as Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of the Western Cape, he proposed the idea of a truth and reconciliation process for post-apartheid South Africa. In the Mandela cabinet, he served [End Page 86] as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry and breathed new vigour and vision into a ministry previously regarded (and forgive the pun) as a ‘backwater’. Little surprise then that President Mbeki moved him in 1999 to tackle perhaps the most taxing of apartheid’s many crippling legacies, the education ministry. In all that he did, Asmal placed the issue of human rights centre stage. It shaped his legal scholarship, his advocacy and his efforts as a cabinet minister.
It needs to be noted that this memoir is an unfinished work. When Asmal died in June 2011, it was in its final stages, but the last chapter that Asmal planned as a tribute to his wife, Louise, was unfinished. In its place is the address given by Louise at Asmal’s Cape Town memorial service. She was a huge presence in not only his personal life, but also in his professional endeavours. He wrote of her as ‘[t]he quiet force behind the IAAM office in our home, she was also a quiet – and sometimes not quiet – force behind all the decisions in my life, large and small … it is unlikely that I could have done what I have achieved in my life – and not only personally but, above all, politically – without her. Every tribute with which I have been honoured for my efforts in the struggle against apartheid and for human rights anywhere and everywhere in the world I … owe at least in part to Louise and share with her’ (p 60). Although Louise’s influence resonates throughout the book, there is a noticeable void left by the absence of that concluding chapter.
Perhaps because of the absence of the chapter on Louise, the core of the book in this reader’s view lies in the first chapter on Asmal’s childhood. It is there that we learn about the experiences that oriented him towards politics, and of the memories that would later preoccupy his recollections about the past and shape how he understood politics and his role as a public servant. Asmal tells us that the Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote ‘our best poetry merges the timeless and the timely, the...