Kader Asmal by Albie Sachs

23 June 2011

Some people are so indistinct, its difficult to imagine that they are there, even when alive.  Others have so much presence, that its impossible to imagine they have gone, even when dead.  Kader Asmal was irrepressible, wonderfully so, at times unrestrainedly provocative.  He engaged lustily with life.  Ever full of spirit, he fought the battle of existence with words, humour and deep passion.

I’m not sure when I first met him, but I really got to know him when he headed the anti-apartheid movement in Ireland.  He was famous.  He claimed to be the only South African-Indian-Irishman in the world.  Wherever he went, whether to buy a newspaper or in an aeroplane,  people came up to greet him – always with love, affection and pride.  The Irish knew about fighting for freedom .  They loved him for his passion, but also for his wit.

Then we worked together on the Constitutional Committee of the ANC in Lusaka.  Oliver Tambo had summoned a number of legal people in the ANC and told us that so-called solutions for the South African problem were pouring in from all over the world, from friend and foe alike.  The time had come for the ANC to come up with its own proposals, presented with its own voice, and derived from its decades-old struggle for freedom and democracy.    We were a diverse bunch – Zola Skweyiya, Jack Simon,  Penuell Maduna, Brigitte Mabandla, Jobo Twana, Kader, myself and others.  Oliver Tambo was the guiding force, taking a constant interest both as president of the organisation and as someone who had practiced law with Nelson Mandela. I suppose all of us were combative in our different ways.  But now we had to fuse our various energies and experiences to create a common narrative about how a new South Africa should come into being and construct itself.  Sometimes when we met, Zambian troops would surround our building to protect us from being taken out by South African commando raids.  Oliver Tambo was a great believer in dialogue, giving everybody his or her voice.  And one of the sharpest, best informed and always confident voices, was that of Kader.  He expressed himself with certainty.  He didn’t budge easily, but when he changed his mind he did so with the same conviction he had displayed when coming to his original position.  The debate never lacked fire when he was around.  In one area we all acknowledged his special expertise, and that was the way international law was bound up with and supported our struggle.

The high point for both Kader and myself was when Oliver Tambo and the Constitutional Committee asked us to prepare a draft of a proposed Bill of Rights for a democratic South Africa.  The mandate was to convert the vision of the Freedom Charter into a set of inviolable rights to be entrenched in a new constitutional order.  We worked on a kitchen table in the home of Kader and Louise in Dublin.  When Kader was under pressure, he smoked non-stop.   He knew that I was particularly sensitive to smoke, and for the whole of that weekend he would go out into the Dublin drizzle to have his puffs.  We were aware that we were literally helping to write part of South Africa’s history.  And we were moving from a phase of critique and denunciation to one of affirmation and construction.

Kader was very proud of his origins and early life in Stanger.  Yet he did not go there when, after decades of exile, he returned to South Africa in 1990.  He made Cape Town his home.  I suspect he enjoyed its cosmopolitan atmosphere.  And it didn’t take long before he, Louise the magnificent companion in life and struggle, and their children, Adam and Rafiq, settled down here.   And now it was the Community Law Centre at UWC, directed by Dullah Omar, that became  the place where his sharp and telling observations could be heard.  It became a major intellectual energy room for the new constitutional project.  When Kader gave his inaugural lecture at UWC, he took us all by surprise.  He raised a topic that none of us had even considered – how to deal with the people responsible for the crimes of apartheid.  His lecture ranged far and wide as he told us of the different ways in which countries in Europe had dealt with officials who had been involved in various forms of authoritarian and repressive rule.  He didn’t actually mention truth commissions at the time, but his thinking prepared us on how to find appropriate methods of transitional  justice. And some years later at a heated meeting of the National Executive of the ANC over how to deal with violations of human rights committed by ANC members in camps in Angola, Kader was the one who advanced the idea of South Africa having a truth commission that would deal with violations of human rights on all sides in the conflict.

Kader loved to be involved in everything.  At the same time his compulsive smoking compelled him to leave the room in which the Kempton Park negotiations were taking place.  More often than not, we would see him darting in and out of the doorway not wanting to miss a word of the discussion.  He loved nothing more than a good political debate.

Kader always had something independent and fresh to say.   It was not without sadness for me that his going into Government and my going onto the Bench meant that we when we met, we no longer discussed what was going on in the ANC.  But I was able to keep up with his ideas through his appearances on television and his use of the letter column of the press.  Kader was not one to turn the other cheek.  If he felt he had been unjustly critisized or misrepresented , he told the world so.  Not from him boring, stodgy, predictable statements of treating something ‘with the contempt it deserves’.   His responses were spritely, his voice always alert.  His mischievous sense of humour ever-ready to strike.    He was a great communicator, who understood the media, and appreciated the vitality that a free press gave to society.

As I write these words, I feel drawn into dialogue with him.  He is joking about the fact that people, who on occasion had not been totally kind to him, are now observing his memory in an official State funeral. “I can understand that they would dip the flags 5% for me, but not half mast, that’s really an exaggeration!”.    But secretly he would have been very proud.  Lie back and enjoy it Kader.  You deserved it.

Albie Sachs