In profile: Kader Asmal (8 October 1934 – 22 June 2011)

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Kader Asmal was a man who achieved much in life and, gave back to his country. An activist, 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.  He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, received a doctorate Honoris Causa from Queen’s University Belfast (1996) and was a laureate of the 2000 Stockholm Water Prize. Sadly, he passed away on 22 June 2011 after suffering a heart attack. He is survived by his wife Louise Parkinson and two sons.

Early life

Kader grew up in Stanger, Kwa Zulu Natal where he met inspirational activist Chief Albert Luthuli. In 1959, Kader qualified as a teacher and relocated to London where he enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Legal career

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, specializing 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.

Political career

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.

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”.

On 5 October 2007, he criticised Robert Mugabe for the situation in Zimbabwe. 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.

Six days before his death, Asmal called for the controversial Information Bill (also known as the “Secrecy Bill”) to be scrapped.

South Africa has lost a true hero indeed. Do you have any photos or stories to share?