The decisive and brilliant influence of Kader Asmal


During his time in Ireland as an anti-apartheid activist, Kader showed us what a politician should be

KADER ASMAL, who died last week, was the bossiest man I ever knew – and the least authoritarian.

Of all of those whose lives were influenced by Kader, by far the most important were the South Africans whom he helped to liberate from apartheid and then served in the first post-apartheid cabinets. But he influenced mine too. I was a foot-soldier in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement that revolved around him and a member of the executive of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties which he founded.

And in one way he was a terrible influence. Kader was the first real politician I ever knew. Being one of his acolytes when you’re barely out of your teens was like having Marilyn Monroe as your first girlfriend or having Einstein as your maths teacher in primary school. Irish politicians were likely to be something of a disappointment.

Kader was what a politician should be: deadly serious. He had to be. He was dealing with big stuff. The anti-apartheid cause to which he devoted his life was one of the great moral crusades of the second half of the 20th century. It was concerned with the obscenity of biologically-based power, of the idea that a few tiny genetic quirks entitled one group of people to rule and condemned others to be subservient. But the way the cause was pursued was almost as important as the cause itself. There was every reason to fear that the collision of a bone-headed white elite with an enraged black majority would lead to barbarism. Trying to ensure that it did not was an immense moral burden.

In the often petty, tribal backwater of Irish politics, Kader thus had the air of someone for whom politics could never be a game. He was funny and urbane and immensely charming. He was as good at glad-handing, schmoozing, remembering names and constructing networks of contacts as any Fianna Fáil ward-heeler. But there was so much more at stake – a significant chunk of 20th century history.

Hence the bossiness. Kader simply didn’t have time for messing, for intellectual or organisational sloppiness, for the Irish love of talking about everything and doing nothing. He wasn’t a bully, but he did run meetings in a way that was utterly foreign to Irish mores. Discussion was quick, to the point and intended to be decisive. And the decisions were invariably the ones Kader wanted. People almost always found themselves agreeing with him, not just because he was charismatic and eloquent and possessed of a rigorous intelligence, but also because he was generally right. He didn’t allow himself the luxury of being wrong.

Bossy, then, but never authoritarian. What makes Kader Asmal such an important figure in modern history is that he was that rarest of things – a non-authoritarian revolutionary. Revolutionaries have to believe they are right, and Kader was no exception. Indeed, the struggle against apartheid was one of the most clear-cut causes you could imagine, dangerously close to being a war between good and evil. Such circumstances are perfect for breeding an intolerance of dissent, an impatience with formalities.

Knowing you’re right is an essential asset when you’re struggling against an obscene power. It’s a deep danger when you have become the power. Hence the tendency of revolutions to produce tyrannies.

Kader was proud, occasionally imperious, always conscious of his own outstanding abilities. But he was deeply humble in the way that mattered most. He did not believe that any government, any authority, any movement could ever be good enough to dispense with accountability. He lived and breathed and loved the African National Congress and would certainly have given his life for it. But he didn’t believe it could ever be infallible. He knew with all his heart that everyone with power – including, eventually, himself – should be accountable, open to dissenting opinions and subject to the rule of law.

I had a very small example of this when I was editing Magillmagazine. The ICCL had commissioned a report (prescient as it happened) on child sexual abuse, but then decided not to publish it. It was leaked to us and we published its details. Kader ought to have been annoyed at this – he had been party to the decision not to publish. In fact, he was pleased. Even though it didn’t suit him, he said it would be ludicrous to complain about the release of information.

This was a tiny foretaste of the immeasurably more important role he played in the establishment of democracy in South Africa. He had a significant influence on its liberal constitution, maintained a passionate belief that the oppressed must not become oppressors and spoke out against failures by his own beloved ANC. Of how many others can it be said that they remained so faithful in power to the principles they enunciated in opposition?

His return from exile was wonderful for his homeland and Ireland was just lucky to have had him for more than two decades. But he left a hole where the ideal Irish politician should be, a small, bustling, curious, courageous, indefatigable absence.