"The less you have actual power, the more incestuous the battles are"

  • 22 March 2006
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Kader Asmal talks to Colin Murphy about his 27 years in Ireland, ending Apartheid in South Africa, and life on the world stage

Kader Asmal is off, and for the next hour and more, it will be difficult to stop him. His conversation – in as much as it is conversation – is charming, erudite, occasionally patronising, and unstoppable. It is peppered with intimate references to Irish figures and history, rooted in deep reflection on the nature of democracies, and driven by conviction – chiefly, the conviction that he, Kader Asmal, is right.

Chain smoking in a straight-backed chair in his room in the Merrion Hotel, he leans forward, waves his hand imperiously, peers over his rimless glasses, smiling knowingly throughout. He is content: busy, acclaimed, and writing his memoirs – when time allows. South Africa is a success. He is moving on to a more international role. His air is part that of donnish academic, indulging a slow student, and part that of benevolent statesman.

Kader Asmal came to Ireland in 1963, a South African exile and member of the African National Congress, fresh from a degree at the London School of Economics.

What does he remember of the Ireland he found then?

"Barefoot tinkers – travelling people – on O'Connell St. Rot. I remember going down to Limerick, and it smelt of decay, damp and decay. Buildings were being pulled down in Dublin all over the place… The general sense was a degree of helplessness."

Asmal joined the law department at Trinity College, and became involved in politics in the college and outside. He set up the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, and in was elected Dean of Law in Trinity, which he held for six years.

"Academic life is much more complex that running a country. The less you have actual power, the more incestuous the battles are. I had to fight for the humanities – the arts were being downgraded. The 'bitch goddess' was science and engineering. So you fight your corner, you make alliances."

In 1976, with Mary Robinson and others, Kader Asmal founded the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

He recounts being given documents describing the activities of the Garda "Heavy Gang", in 1977, and taking them to then editor of the Irish Times, the late Douglas Gageby.

"Gageby said, 'there must be overwhelming evidence before I attack the police'", Asmal recalls. Douglas Gageby told him that publication of the allegations would be "a frontal assault on the institutions of the state". Later, the paper obtained further evidence, and broke the story, Asmal says. Asmal took a lesson from this incident back to South Africa: the need to "strengthen the institutions of state".

"The state is not the enemy, it's the abuse of power that is the enemy", he says. In order to fight such abuses – and he stresses that the abuse of power can come from private as much as, or more than, public interests – a strong state is vital. "One thing I've learned, don't always counterpose the state as the enemy." He cites economic globalisation and US imperialism as further evidence of the need for a strong state, able to assert its sovereignty.

Even recalling events since his return to South Africa, in 1990, Irish references pepper his conversation. He compares the challenge facing the the post-Apartheid government, and his particular department, Water and forestry, to the work on electrification done by the Cumann na nGaedhael government in 1927. He contrasts the South African government's refusal to take World Bank loans with the borrowing by Jack Lynch's government in 1977. He compares both his work on the international stage, and that of Nelson Mandela, to Seán MacBride.

"The most formative thing for me was my 27 years in Ireland", he says.

At one point in government, Kader Asmal says, he was called by then deputy president Thabo Mbeki (now president) to an emergency meeting to discuss the government's response to a flooding crisis.

He arrived at Thabo Mbeki's house: "As I came into the drawing room, I heard this voice – I said, 'that's Micheál MacLiammóir!'"

It was a recording of MacLiammóir, in which the actor was talking about the nature of Irishness. Thabo Mbeki asked Kader Asmal: "MacLiammóir says this act was 'un-Irish' – can you say that something is 'un-South African'?"

"So we just ignored the other ministers for an hour, to talk about what was this cement that holds the country together - this extraordinary idea (of) what makes a nation."

In 1990, Kader Asmal returned to South Africa, to take up a position at the Western Cape University, near Cape Town, one of the key black universities in South Africa and a solid ANC base. He joined the ANC team negotiating the end of Apartheid with FW de Klerk's National Party. Those years, he says, were "the most stimulating time of my life".

"We were putting into application things that had been going around in my mind all my life."

Nelson Mandela gave the negotiating team their core objectives, and then let them get on with it, he says. The two key objectives were "a unitary state" and "one person, one vote", Mandela told them, says Asmal. "How we get there is a matter for negotiations and compromises", Mandela said.

"In the end you had to accept, however painful it might be, the need for peace in South Africa", says Asmal. "You couldn't have negotiations if you kept in the background the threat of armed struggle."

One of the key elements, says Asmal, was the proportional representation electoral system.

"Under 'first past the post', the ANC could have won every seat in south Africa. No good. You had to be an inclusive system. We wanted the extreme dissident right wingers and the racist party, the Pan Africanist Congress, to be in.

"It was the particular genius of Nelson Mandela to get the right wing Afrikaners associated with the army – three months before the election – to get them in (to the elections)." The promise of potential gains under PR brought them in to the elections, says Asmal.

"We removed political violence in South Africa. The great gift from South Africa to the world is the consolidation of the democratic order." Asmal cites the firing of the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who is facing charges for corruption, as an example of the strength of this.

"My only regret was that I wasn't able to go back to South Africa when I was 45, not 55. Forty-five is at the peak of your intellectual performance. I regret I wasn't there ten years earlier."

He picks up a well-worn copy of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa from the table.

"The first principle of the constitution, the founding principle, is 'non-racialism' and 'non-sexism' - the first time the word 'non-sexism' is in a constitution", he says, with pride. "Our cabinet now is 43 per cent women, in strategic posts."

It is difficult, nigh on impossible, to get a question in. Asmal has been criticised, on occasion, in the South African media for being overbearing, arrogant, very quick to impose top-down solutions but unwilling or unable to follow through with careful management; for being an ideas man rather than an implementer. He is seen as having been more successful with the Water and Forestry ministry (in the first democratic government, under Nelson Mandela) than with the more prestigious Education ministry (in Thabo Mbeki's first government).

With each ministry, as with his role in the democratic negotiations and the writing of the constitution, he is bullish about his achievements.

In Water and Forestry, he found the department peopled entirely by "Afriakeners, engineers". "They know nothing about community water", he says, "I knew something about community water".

"The hardest thing was to bring water near people. Why I became very popular in South Africa was, the women used to walk five to six kilometres to collect water. Within five years, we got water to ten million people, not in their homes, but within 50 metres of the homes, in a sandpipe."

The ANC is widely perceived to have moved to the right since the end of Apartheid, as it faced the challenges of implementing its early, idealistic programme, starting under Nelson Mandela but accelerating under Thabo Mbeki, who is often referred to as a neoliberal in the South African press.

He laughs off the idea of a rightward move.

"I know you're young, and I don't want to patronise you", he says, and launches into a lengthy dissertation on the figures and policies. Changes in ANC policy were based on "an understanding of the economic order", he says. In Zimbabwe after independence, Robert Mugabe financed a huge expansion in health and education facilities with loans from the international financial institutions. "And then five years ago, before the land invasion, the World Bank called in the loans", Asmal says. South Africa, instead, hewed to a rigid policy of not taking loans: "we didn't even take loans from the world bank because there was so many conditions attached to it".

Instead, they compromised on promised welfare programmes and idealistic targets for free services. Fee education was a central part of the 1955 Freedom Charter, but instead Asmal introduced a system of targeting subsidies at poor schools. Universal free education would be "vote catching", he says, and the ANC "don't need to catch votes" – no fees is simply "giving a subsidy to the middle class".

"That was a decision taken largely because I pressed for it", he says. Along with other initiatives he took in his time in office, these were "revolutionary concepts", he says, which he partially attributes to his academic imagination.

"I could do that because first of all I had passion. You have to have passion in politics, conviction and belief in what you're doing."

"Not in an arrogant way", he adds.

Macroeconomic stats have improved considerably in the last three years. The governnment has budgeted 33 billion rand (€4.3 billion) for public works programmes to boost employment, says Asmal.

"Now that's not a conservative position, or a right-wing position... The iron law was, how do you get inflation under control. Now that may sound to you like a neoliberal position, (but) I'm not a neoliberal."

"So, not guilty." He concludes his dissertation on how the ANC has not moved to the right.

Kader Asmal is working, intermittently, on his memoirs, which he says will be political rather than personal.

"I can't write a personal memoir, too many people are alive.

"It is largely about, in the end, the need for transparency in government and openness in society."

He is 70, and has been ill – though he looks younger and appears fit. He resigned from government on the eve of Thabo Mbeki's appointment of his second government, in 2004. Since then, he has maintained a hectic and high-profile political life, though on the international rather than the national stage. He chaired the international anti money-laundering body, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and spent 2004 and 2005 chairing the International Convention on Cultural Diversity, "for which the French gave me the Legion d'Honneur", he says.

"Very much like Mr (Sean) McBride, it's a world stage", he says. "It's very exciting, stimulating, diverting – it's flattering."

It doesn't leave much time for the memoirs. He knows the secret – "the discipline is every day, single-minded, five hours. You don't travel, you have two large Jamesons at night, you sleep well. Five hours" – but the practice evades him.

A friend asked him didn't he ever feel like he wanted to move back to Ireland. He says he misses much of the social and cultural life of Ireland – "I feel an easygoing familiarity with the theatre, journalists, writers; I miss that in South Africa".

"If I hadn't gone back to South Africa in 1990, I would have comfortably, slowly eased into retirement. But I can't retire in South Africa.

"I feel redeemed in South Africa", he says.p