I have just heard the sad news of the passing away of Professor Kader Asmal. I hope that most readers will know who he was, but for those who might not, I should explain that Kader was a South African (who spent a long period in exile), an academic lawyer, an anti-apartheid activist, a human rights campaigner and a politician.
I got to know him first when I was a student in Trinity College Dublin and he was a senior lecturer. Kader was an amazing teacher. Intellectually curious about everything, irreverent about most things, side-splittingly witty, wholly passionate. He had no concept whatsoever of time. His lectures could last some 40 minutes longer than the allotted span, with fuming staff and students waiting outside for the venue to be vacated, but nobody inside the hall cared. He and his wonderful spouse Louise issued open invitations to all students to join them for tea at their home on a weekend. He had strong views but loved a good argument, and appreciated those who had a go. Throughout it all, and despite the impact on his health, he was the most extraordinary chain smoker I have ever known.
In my own case, when at one point I needed to take a complex decision about where I was going in my life, he offered me advice in a spirit almost of parental concern: he kept calling on me to see him, again and again, until he was satisfied that I had made the right choice. I shall never forget that generosity of spirit.
Later, for a few years, we were colleagues in TCD. When apartheid collapsed in South Africa he returned home and satisfied a deep longing he had felt during his involuntary (but not unhappy) exile. He became Professor of Law at the University of the Western Cape, and subsequently a government Minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, staying on for Mbeki. Eventually he left active politics on a matter of principle. He made a huge contribution to post-apartheid politics in South Africa, and this newspaper summary will undoubtedly be seen as accurate:
‘Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum last night for a man widely regarded for his outstanding moral rectitude, his people-centred political ideas and his unflinching independence – a personal characteristic he displayed humbly to the very end.’
I last met Kader on February 24 last year. He was on a visit to Ireland, and had written to me beforehand to suggest we have dinner. We did so in a Dublin city centre hotel, and Kader was in wonderful form. He was much frailer than before, but his spirit was indomitable. Recognising some other diners, he made hilarious and much too loud comments about them, some not too complimentary. But he also held court at the table, as one person after another came to greet him and share one or two reminiscences. His assessment of South Africa was downbeat: he believed the country he loved was becoming corrupt and unprincipled, and it pained him visibly. It was a wonderful, spirited, informative, lively, enriching evening.
I shall always be grateful to Kader Asmal, and will always remember him. He had interesting views on religion – he was not really a believer in the traditional sense, but he felt there was something more than the here and now and a saw himself as a seeker after spiritual truth of some kind. I suspect he will not be cross if I say that I hope he may rest in peace, and that Louise may find some comfort in the many many tributes pouring in.