Dullah Omar

Politician of post-apartheid South Africa
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The Independent Online

Abdullah Mohamed Omar, lawyer and politician: born Cape Town 26 May 1934; Minister of Justice 1994-99, Minister of Transport 1999-2004; married 1962 Farida Ally (two sons, one daughter); died Cape Town 13 March 2004.

Dullah Omar was part of the African National Congress team in the negotiations for the end of white rule in South Africa. With the end of apartheid in 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed him Minister of Justice.

In that role he piloted legislation through parliament to transform discriminatory laws and judicial practice. He also handled the law which set up the Truth and Reconciliation Committee whose work became the benchmark for societies emerging from tyranny in other parts of the world. In 1999 he was appointed Transport Minister by President Thabo Mbeki.

Abdullah Mohamed Omar was born in Cape Town in 1934. As a small boy, I used to walk a mile every weekday afternoon to "cheder" (Hebrew school) from my home in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory. On the way I passed a fruit and vegetable shop owned by a "coloured" family. I stopped to buy fruit and was often served by a dark-eyed boy of my own age. We had different skin-colours and in the South Africa of that time did not become friends.

Many years later the boy and I, now adults, found each other again. He was "Dullah" Omar, and was then a lawyer fighting legal cases against apartheid. I was a journalist, focusing on reporting apartheid. Somehow we recognised each other from the years before. We overcame the racial apartheid barriers to form a friendship which remained until his death.

Merely to say that he fought cases against apartheid does not convey the courage which he displayed. Few solicitors were willing to challenge the government of South Africa. Dullah Omar, however, did not shrink: with degrees in law from the University of Cape Town he defended the accused in a range of political trials, became the legal representative of the banned Pan-Africanist Congress and acted for ANC leaders.

To keep an office in the city centre, he had to apply each year for a permit under the Group Areas Act which decreed which people of what colour could live and work where. Later he was forced to move to the suburbs.

He also became active politically. At first he was with the Unity Movement which argued for non-collaboration with the government. In 1983 he switched to the United Democratic Front (UDF), newly formed as the domestic front of the underground ANC.

By then Omar's working life had also changed. The government withdrew his passport three days before he was due to go abroad to study for a Master of Laws degree at Harvard University. Locked inside South Africa he became a barrister, still representing apartheid victims. He led the UDF in the Cape Town area, and was also vice-president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, an organisation which he helped to found.

He paid a price: he was repeatedly detained without trial, and was "banned", which meant he was restricted to a specified area of Cape Town; nothing he said could be reported; and he was barred from taking part in the UDF and attending meetings where the government was criticised.

As pressures for change mounted in South Africa, and black resistance spread day by day, Omar went back into the UDF leadership, despite suffering several heart attacks. With Nelson Mandela the focus of public attention, Omar became his widely quoted spokesperson in the months leading up to Mandela's release in 1990.

Later it emerged that Omar had been the target for government assassination attempts. On one stay in hospital, his wife, Farida, was suspicious of drugs given to him and refused to let him take them. Subsequent evidence proved her right when a commission of inquiry heard that poison pills were to have been substituted for his heart tablets.

A government agent, with the unlikely name of "Peaches" Gordon, also later came to Omar to tell him that he had stalked him in order to assassinate him. But he had been unable to get close enough to kill because of the number of Security policemen who were always following Omar.

As a cabinet minister from 1994 Dullah Omar was entitled to a luxury official house. But Farida refused to move. They had for years been living in a comfortable house in Rylands, a suburb of Cape Town which in the apartheid era had been designated for coloureds under the Group Areas Act, and Farida insisted she wanted the family to remain among their friends. And even as a minister's wife she went early each day to run the market fruit stall inherited from her father.

Omar cracked down on burgeoning crime. That brought him into conflict with a local vigilante group which was outdoing the worst of gangsters in robberies and rapes. Under threat of attack, the Omar family had to leave their home for a while.

After five years, Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, put Omar into the transport ministry. On my visits to him, we chuckled over the fact that he was now occupying the plush offices created and furnished by the previous white masters. He would eagerly tell me about the changes he was making - one of the most important was to bring order into the taxi industry which was beset by violence as competing groups fought for control.

Omar fell ill with cancer 15 months ago. He was buried on Saturday according to Muslim rites at a funeral attended by President Mbeki, former President Mandela and most members of the cabinet. Mbeki spoke of Omar's humbleness. An ANC spokesman said he would be remembered "for his modest demeanour, his intellect, compassion and unwavering commitment to the cause of freedom in this country."

I retain my memory of the dark-eyed boy and of the later years, of the adult who spoke to me with quiet passion and strength about the struggle to bring freedom to South Africa. And who lived to enjoy success.

Benjamin Pogrund