Former cabinet minister and ANC veteran Kader Asmal was an activist up until his death: before he fell ill last week, he had been reading up on human rights and on Tuesday was reading newspapers and talking politics.
Last night, the book, Human Rights Acts, which contains the Promotion of Access to Information Act, was still neatly placed on a wooden stand next to his black leather chair where he had been reading in the lounge of the family’s Rosebank home before being taken to hospital last Friday.
He died in hospital yesterday, aged 76.
Long-time friend Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel said Asmal had been reading the book before he was taken to hospital.
Manuel said Asmal had still been sitting up in his hospital bed reading newspapers and talking politics on Tuesday. It would be the last time friends and family spoke to him.
Last week, Asmal publicly slammed the government’s proposed Protection of Information Bill, calling for it to be scrapped.
Communications Minister Roy Padayachie, referring to that call, said Asmal’s recent comments on the bill would be “seriously considered”, while other ministers agreed that Asmal’s views had given the ANC food for thought.
His wife, Louise, sat silently in their lounge last night as family and friends streamed in offering condolences. Among them were Manuel and former cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils.
Family spokesman Allan Taylor said Asmal had been admitted to a general ward in Constantiaberg Medi-Clinic on Friday with a minor stomach ailment.
Later on Tuesday night Asmal had gone into cardiac arrest, had been resuscitated and placed in the intensive care unit.
He never regained consciousness, and died yesterday at 4pm.
His family described Asmal as a “strong multiculturalist” who respected many religious traditions.
Asmal’s wish was to be cremated. Taylor said the family would have a private cremation ceremony, and details of a private memorial service would be announced in the next few days.
Taylor said that while Asmal had been ill for some time, his death had shocked his family.
“It was unexpected.”
An emotional Manuel described Asmal’s death as “a big loss to us all”.
He said Asmal, who had been battling bone marrow cancer, had coped extremely well and was open about his illness. “One is torn between knowing the inevitability of what cancer does to the body, and the loss of a dear friend. Nothing prepares one for the sensation of loss.”
He spoke of when he and Asmal shared a house in Pretoria between 1994 and 2004 when they were cabinet ministers. Asmal’s cabinet portfolios included water affairs, forestry and education.
Describing Asmal as committed and disciplined, Manuel recalled how Asmal had started the first drafts of the constitution on his kitchen table.
Asmal had lived the values of the ANC and was “fearless” in his debates and discussions.
President Jacob Zuma said last night that Asmal would be remembered “for his energy, forthrightness, efficiency and commitment to making this country a better place each day”.
“He will also always be remembered for his passion for human rights for all,” Zuma said.
Funeral arrangements will be announced after consulting the family, the Presidency says.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation expressed its deep sadness last night, as Asmal had been a close associate of Nelson Mandela.
“The sacrifices you have made and the role that you played will remain in our history books forever,” Mandela wrote to Asmal on his 75th birthday last year.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said Asmal had added substance and vigour to whatever he did. He had served his people and his nation without a thought of self-enrichment or aggrandisement.
“Short of stature, big of heart and mind, he enriched us all,” he said.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille described Asmal as far more than a politician, saying he represented the best of a generation of Struggle heroes who made unimaginable sacrifices to realise a democratic South Africa.
Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille said Asmal had been a fearless fighter for freedom and human rights, and she was saddened that his “independent voice” would no longer be heard.
The SACP said he had been an intellectual who loved robust debates. “Although we did not always agree with his ideas… we respected his intellectual contribution.”
Former president Thabo Mbeki said Asmal had spent his life trying to fulfil “the mission of his generation” and in many ways had done so. “His life therefore serves as a challenge to our youth to define and fulfil its own mission.
“Comrade Kader had a keen intellect, a fierce loyalty to principle and a firm and sustained commitment to serve the people of South Africa.”
Fellow ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan said Asmal’s death was “a terrible loss for the country”.
”He was one of those rare human beings: a stickler for certain principles.”
Members of Parliament were informed of Asmal’s death minutes before a session of the National Assembly adjourned.
Among the sad faces braving the chill outside the parliamentary complex a few moments later were
members of the cabinet, including a successor in a portfolio previously held by Asmal, Education Minister Angie Motshekga, who said: “I am still very shocked. It is very sad.”
Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane said he had got to know Asmal well during their time on the ANC’s disciplinary committee: “I worked with him very closely. It is sad that he has passed. He was a very interesting character.”
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande described Asmal as a “towering intellectual”, and expressed “on behalf of the SACP and the Department of Higher Education... our condolences to his family.”
Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said the news was “very, very sad”.
“We had some good fights,” he said, reflecting Asmal’s reputation as a ferocious and energetic debater.
Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel said: “I have very fond memories of Kader. I am taken aback,” he said as tears welled.
Padayachie said he was “extremely saddened” by the loss of a Struggle veteran so soon after Albertina Sisulu.
Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk described Asmal as a “wonderful man, a thoroughly decent person”.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said his death was not only a great loss to his family, but also the country, while IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said it had “weakened our democracy and impoverished our republic”.
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa described Asmal as “one of those independent ANC intellectuals who ably assisted in the Codesa negotiations”.