Kader Asmal: ‘Prof Peacock’ — a man of principle

Former education and water affairs minister Kader Asmal knew better than most that sticking to one’s principles is not easy in a political system where jobs and opportunities are based on loyalties — where criticism can be a death knell for any career, however promising.

When he spoke out against the “quackery” of Aids dissident Matthias Rath — at that stage the late health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s best buddy — he was left to foot his own legal bills when Rath took him to court.

Today nearly everyone agrees that Asmal was correct in telling Rath to “voetsek“, but at the time they were all conveniently quiet.

Asmal’s blazing energy as education minister for five years (1999 to 2004) fuelled changes so radical that even now it remains hard to be sure whether they were for good or for ill. But his exuberantly independent intellect and his willingness to grasp many nettles turned the lacklustre post-1994 education department into a powerhouse of ideas and action.

Schools and universities remain the sites of his major legacies. It is worth recalling the vivid public excitement and enthusiasm Asmal ignited when, in one of his first acts as minister, he critically confronted the post-apartheid Curriculum 2005, which had turned out to be incomprehensible to teachers, parents, learners and the public alike.

“To his eternal credit,” the Mail & Guardian wrote four years later, “Asmal bit the bullet and ordered a review of that curricular mess.”

He took serious political flak for doing so, as he did when he then turned his reforming zeal to the country’s 36 tertiary institutions. Seemingly flying in the face of the “massification” calls of the 1990s, the institutional mergers Asmal tirelessly drove from drawing board to implementation gave us the 23 universities we now seem to have had forever.

It is Asmal we have to thank for a landmark pro poor review of the costs of schooling. Responding to mounting anecdotal evidence that schools were illegally demanding fees and other payments from poor pupils, Asmal’s intervention resulted in a scorchingly honest and thorough 2003 report.

This found that the reported abuses of fees policy amounted to the tip of an iceberg, and the report’s recommendations provided the momentum that by now has resulted in 60% of the country’s schools charging no fees at all, among other key pro poor interventions.

It was he, too, who introduced surprise visits to schools in an attempt to shame delinquent teachers into being in the classroom from day one of schooling. And it was he who enabled a closer scrutiny of provincial education delivery than ever before — and arguably since too.

He managed that by introducing two mechanisms. The first, still with us, was his creation of the statutory Council of Education Ministers, which meets monthly. The second, regrettably no longer in existence, were his quarterly reports to the president on the provinces — a journalist’s godsend of hard-to-find data about the most far-flung schools and districts.

Asmal was also a supreme showman (Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts privately called him Professor Peacock), a maestro of spin who courted the media and often succeeded in seducing them to reflect the glory he felt was only his due. The downside here was his prickly anger when facts were produced showing that reality did not always measure up to his invariably impressive rhetoric — his hugely inflated promises about adult education being only one example.

It was that tendency to overplay the smoke and mirrors that many suspected led to his ejection from the Cabinet after the 2004 elections, coming as it did only months after public incredulity had reached crescendo levels when Asmal unveiled the 2003 matric pass rate — a gobsmackingly implausible 73%, never before (or since) attained.

More recently, Asmal was outspoken in his criticism of the Protection of Information Bill — dubbed the “Secrecy Bill” — currently before Parliament.

With the refusal of the ANC, both in Parliament and outside of it, to make concessions on the Bill, Asmal said in an open letter: “My conscience will not let my silence be misunderstood. I ask all South Africans to join me in rejecting this measure in its entirety.

“The Constitution is quite clear — in Section 16 it embraces this right as including freedom of the press and other media.”

He argued for an independent and non-party political committee to draw up legislation that would protect legitimate state secrets without short-changing the man on the street.

Legal expert Pierre de Vos, who was special adviser to Parliament’s ad hoc committee set up to review chapter nine institutions, recalls Asmal’s intellectual tenacity and appreciation for those who were brave enough to challenge it.

He might have been bossy, according to De Vos, but he lacked self-importance and topped it with a sharp sense of humour.

Smuts recalled smuggling Asmal into Parliament on the eve of democracy.

“I smuggled Kader into Parliament in my little car for his very first visit to an institution that we would soon, during the negotiation of the two constitutions, change beyond recognition and open up to the public both for visits and for the public participatory processes which so enrich legislation today.

“His enthusiasm for constitutionalism, the law and Parliament was boundless and he simply could not wait for democracy before he visited it,” she said.

Legend had it that the first draft of the Bill of Human Rights was done at his kitchen table in Dublin where he spent his exile years as dean of law at Trinity College.

She said it was fitting that his “last blast” was on the subject of the Secrecy Bill, as free speech and the access to information that formed part of it were close to his heart.

It was no accident that the Chapter Nine Review became known as the “Asmal Report”.

He is survived by his wife Louise and two sons Rafiq and Adam.

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