Education International
Education International

Obituary: Veteran teacher who fought for human rights

published 28 June 2011 updated 4 July 2011

Professor Kader Asmal, who has died aged 76, was a founding member of an EI member organisation in Ireland, and part of the first democratically elected government of South Africa, having previously been a leader of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Born in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, in 1934, he was one of the eight children of an Indian shopkeeper. He recalled his father bringing him up with a deep understanding of freedom and anti-colonialism.

Educated at Springfield Teachers’ Training College, in 1957 he secured a BA degree from the University of South Africa. He moved to London, where in 1960 he was a founder of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He studied law at the London School of Economics and in 1962 qualified with an LL.B, to which two years later he added a masters’ degree.

In 1963 he joined the staff of the law faculty at Trinity College Dublin, where he remained for 27 years. He served as dean of the faculty of arts between 1980 and 1986.

In 1963 also he helped to found the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and was elected vice-chair of the organisation. In 1972 he was elected as its chairman, a position which he held until 1991. Asmal led a highly effective campaigning group, which helped to turn Irish public opinion against apartheid in South Africa and won cross-party political support for reform in that country.

A founder member of EI’s affiliate, the Irish Federation of University Teachers, he also assisted in the establishment of the Free Legal Aid Centres. In 1976 he was a founder member of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which he said opposed ‘extremism from the State and individuals’.

Asmal also described as “neo-colonial” the act of rich countries “poaching” teachers from poorer countries and claimed that South Africa had been losing 2,000 teachers a year. He singled out the UK for particular criticism.

After the ANC was unbanned he returned to South Africa where he became professor of human rights law at Western Cape University.

Elected to the ANC leadership in 1991, he was a member of the ANC team at the multi-party negotiating forum convened in 1993. He was elected an MP in 1994 and was appointed to the government of national unity. He served as minister for water affairs and forestry between 1994 and 1999, then as minister for education. In 1998 he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer but continued his ministerial and parliamentary career for another six years.

Awarded the UNESCO prize for the teaching and development of human rights in 1985, he was the recipient of honorary degrees from Queen’s University Belfast, Rhodes University, NUI Galway and the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland. He was also awarded an honorary fellowship by the London School of Economics.

Asmal authored two books and over 150 articles on the legal aspects of apartheid, labour law and decolonisation.

His wife Louise and sons Rafiq and Adam survive him.