Back to top

Kader Asmal (1934 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Kader Asmal (1934 - ) Awarded for:
His immense contribution to the liberation struggle, the South African education system and the environment.

Profile of Kader Asmal

Kader Asmal was born on 18 October 1934 in the historic town of KwaDukuza, formerly known as Stanger, in KwaZulu-Natal. His passion for politics started at an early stage of his life. Growing up in Stanger in the 1940s and 1950s, Asmal became acutely aware of racism. He first felt its sting as a teenager, when he was chased away from a shop by the owner for trying to buy a newspaper.

He came from a hard-working, lively, lower middle-class family where he learnt the importance of work ethics. Although they were not political, his parents encouraged debate among their eight children, hence his fearless fight against the apartheid sys-tem. His mother kept house and his father was a shopkeeper. While still at school, Asmal met Chief Albert Luthuli who inspired his interest in human rights. He witnessed the Defiance Campaign’s leaders marching in prison uniforms through the dusty streets of Stanger and responded by leading a school stay-at-home.

In 1953, Asmal went to Durban to study for a teacher’s diploma. Here he came into contact with the congress movement and strengthened his links with his mentor, African National Congress President Albert Luthuli, who had been banned and restricted to Groutville, near Stanger. Luthuli’s humanism and courage introduced Asmal to the non-racial heritage of the ANC. In 1954, he qualified as a teacher. In 1959 he went to the UK to study law at the London School of Economics.

In 1963 he graduated as a lawyer, and then accepted a teaching post at Trinity College, Ireland. He spent 27 years in Dublin lecturing in law, rising to become Dean of the Faculty of Arts (Humanities). Through all these years, Asmal campaigned steadfastly on behalf of the ANC. He was a founder member of both the British and Irish Anti-apartheid Movements. In 1983 Asmal was awarded the Prix UNESCO in recognition of his exemplary contribution to the teaching of human rights.

He was honorary legal adviser to the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, and was vice-president of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF). He also added his efforts to the civil rights campaigns in other parts of the world, including Palestine and Northern Ireland, and served on international legal commissions. He still found time to publish widely, to compile reports for international organisations like the UN and to speak on South Africa at conferences the world over.

Asmal returned to South Africa in September 1990 and became Professor of Human Rights at the University of the Western Cape. Shortly thereafter, he was elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee, from which he retired in 2007. He was also a member of the Constitutional Committee of the ANC, which produced the first Bill of Rights by a liberation movement. In 1993 he was a member of the negotiating team of the ANC at the Multiparty Negotiating Forum. He was elected to Parliament in 1994, and was then appointed Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.

In 1996, the World Wide Fund for Nature-South Africa awarded him its Gold Medal for his conservation work. He was a patron of the Global Water Partnership (GWP), and as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry he spearheaded the recognition of the concept of the environment as a prime water user. He also served as chairperson of the World Commission on Dams, whose report became the benchmark for dam construction. Over the years he has received many honours, including the Légion d’Honneur awarded by the French Government.

He was appointed Minister of Education after the June 1999 election. His initiatives in this portfolio included the adoption of a new curriculum, the revision of Outcomes Based Education, the provision of free schooling for the poorest children, and the launch of the South African History Project. This project aimed to promote and enhance the teaching of history in the South African schooling system, with the goal of restoring its position and intellectual purpose in the classroom.Kader Asmal could have opted to make a permanent home for himself and his family in Dublin but his love for his country saw him return to South Africa to help build the new democracy. After serving the ANC in various capacities, Asmal retired from formal politics in 2008 to become Professor Extraordinary at the University of the Western Cape and Honorary Professor at the University of Cape Town.