Kader Asmal: Human rights and anti-apartheid activist who became a minister in South Africa

When Kader Asmal became Minister of Water Affairs in the liberated South Africa he gave urgent priority to one small but rewarding project; connecting clean drinking water to the home of the widow of Chief Albert Luthuli, Nobel Peace laureate and one-time president of the African National Congress. He saw Luthuli, a non-violent Methodist minister, as his mentor. Asmal was noted for his robust criticism of the ANC government's drift away from the protection of human rights. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he had "served his people and his nation without a thought of self-enrichment or aggrandisement. Short of stature, big of heart and mind, he enriched us all."

Abdul Kader Asmal grew up in Stanger in Kwa-Zulu Natal, one of10 children of a shopkeeper fatherwho had emigrated from Gujarat in India. As a 14-year-old he met Luthuli, who lived in the nearby African village of Groutville. Asmal said later that Luthuli "enabled me to see the possibilities we could achieve in a country free of racialism."

On leaving school he qualified as a teacher then obtained a BA degree by correspondence. But his real aim,having seen reports of concentration camp victims at his local "bioscope', was to be a lawyer. In 1959 he cashed in his teacher's pension and boughta ticket to England. His arrival coincided with the first boycott of South African goods, and in the same year he was one of the founders of theAnti-Apartheid Movement, which would grow into a worldwide pressure group. All his student days, he recalled, "apart from one month studying for my finals, were devoted to the AAM, five or six hours every day." It was enough to make him persona non grata in the land of his birth.

After graduating at the London School of Economics he began a lengthy stint at Trinity College, Dublin, lecturing in human rights and international and labour law. He was known for a voluble, teasing, always encouraging teaching style. He practised human rights in public life as well, founding the Irish version of the AAM, chairing it for many years, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which he presided over for 15 years. He was vice-president, under Canon John Collins, of the International Defence & Aid Fund for Southern Africa (1968-82). He lent his weight to civil rights campaigns in Northern Ireland and Palestine and participated in several international inquiries into human rights violations. In 1983 he was awarded the Prix Unesco for the advancement of human rights.

At last, with Mandela's release from prison, Asmal, with his English wife Louise, could return home. TheUniversity of the Western Capeoutside Cape Town hired him asprofessor of human rights but there was more urgent work to be done. The exiles had been out of circulation for as long as, often longer than, the leaders imprisoned on Robben Island, and they too longed to get to grips with the democratic South Africa project.

Election to the ANC's National Executive Council guaranteed him aninfluential role in the negotiations. He had joined the ANC constitutionalcommittee in exile at its inception in 1986; now, in talks within the liberation movement, then, in tough bargaining with the Afrikaner nationalists, he was more insistent than most on the inclusion of a bill of rights in a new deal for the riven multicultural nation. It has since become a cornerstone of the country's judiciary.

When Mandela appointed him Minister of Water Affairs he joked that "the only thing I know about water is the ice I put in my John Jameson's." But he set about with a will to connect clean water to millions who did not enjoy this basic human right. Bringing water to Mrs Luthuli gave him especial pride, but then to his disbelief he discovered that ancestral home of the President of the Republic in Qunu, Transkei, was not connected. He was careful to tap into private funding to remedy the situation. He drove himself tirelessly and would stand in for ministerial colleagues at all sorts of occasions, speaking with facility whatever the subject.

In 1999, the new president, Thabo Mbeki, switched him to Education, where the remedies required to repair the ingrained injustices of apartheid were much more profound. He had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer but this hardly seemed to inhibit the energy, the constant debating, the cajoling about the best and quickest way to reduce illiteracy and give more black pupils the chance in life that had so long been beyond their reach. The former "white" universities were told to enrol more black students and hire more black lecturers or face having quotas imposed on them. With the 2004 elections, he was, to his disappointment, replaced at Education.

Out of office but still a senior party member party and an MP, he began to speak out about what he saw as worrying trends in the ANC. At the launch of Judith Todd's book on her native Zimbabwe in 2007, he delivered a powerful condemnation of Robert Mugabe, in contrast to the government line of persuasion by "quiet diplomacy". A year later he resigned from Parliament in protest at the disbanding of the Scorpion police unit that investigated corruption in high places. In the wake of its disappearance, graft and showy materialism have increased alarmingly.

A week before his death, in what turned out to be his final public pronouncement, the lifelong defender of human rights urged his own party to drop the Protection of Information Bill. The measure will jail journalists for disclosing "unauthorised information", while excluding protection for whistle-blowers or a public-interest defence. "My conscience will not let my silence be misunderstood," he said. "I ask all South Africans to join me in rejecting this measure in its entirety."

Kader and Louise lived modestly in Cape Town's southern suburbs, where he might be seen walking on Rondebosch Common with his grandson Oisin. He was a patron of Friends of Rondebosch Common.

Abdul Kader Asmal, lawyer, human rights activist and politician; born Stanger, Natal 8 October 1933; married Louise Parkinson (two sons); died Cape Town 22 June 2011.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Midsummer swimwear season is well and truly upon us – but diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice