Dr Abu Baker Asvat
Dr Abu Baker Asvat

Posthumous honour for the ’People's Doctor’Abu Baker Asvat gunned down in his surgery

By Janine Moodley Time of article published Nov 24, 2021

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Durban: Medical doctor and political activist Abu Baker Asvat, who was killed in his clinic in Soweto in 1989, will be honoured posthumously with a National Order – the highest award bestowed by the country.

Often referred to at the “People's Doctor”, Asvat is among 30 recipients expected to be recognised by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday.

The National Orders are divided into categories and comprise:

- The Order of Mendi for Bravery for acts of bravery.

- The Order of Ikhamanga for achievements in the creative fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

- The Order of the Baobab for distinguished service in the fields of business and the economy, science, medicine, and for technological innovation; and community service.

- The Order of Luthuli for those who have served the interests of South Africa by making a meaningful contribution in any of the following areas: the struggle for democracy, human rights, nation-building, justice, peace and conflict resolution.

- The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo, granted to foreign citizens who have promoted South African interests and aspirations through co-operation, solidarity, and support.

Asvat will be awarded the Order of Luthuli in silver for his contribution to the lives of freedom fighters and the poor.

Legacy

His son, Akiel Asvat, said the award was recognition to his father's legacy.

“The ideals that he lived his life by are perpetuated by the memory that lives inside those who were directly and indirectly influenced by his ideals. It is also a recognition for the Abu Asvat Institute that perpetuates and continues his legacy," said Akiel.

“Often history does not remember those who were not aligned with the current governing party. However, being remembered is a real recognition of the work done by my father and others in bringing about change and liberation to the mind and hearts of many in South Africa.”

He said the award was also a recognition that freedom was a collective effort.

“It’s also befitting that Tom Manthata is being recognised at the same award as my father. My father was great friends with Mr Mathatha and worked effortlessly towards the same set of ideals."

Akiel said his sister, Hasina Asvat, would receive the award on behalf of the Asvat family and that it would be kept in his father's Lenasia home.

"He had many other recognitions of his work while he was alive and it will be kept alongside those. My father did not live his life for recognition or fame, but only to change the lives of others and to be an instrument of service to those with whom he came into contact."

Shabeer Randera, a board director of the Abu Asvat Institute which motivated for the award, said the institute was pleased by the acknowledgement.

“For him (Asvat), it was about the oppressed people and the attainment of freedom and human rights. In his lifetime, he was always occupied with practical solutions that he lived by rather than theoretical arguments.

“While he was an avid advocate of black consciousness, he worked with people across the political spectrum, including the likes of Albertina Sisulu and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. There is virtually nobody who has not touched profoundly by his work and beliefs.”

Randera said this included members of political, religious and sporting organisations, health groupings, educational institutions, or the poor.

Studies

Asvat, born and raised in Vrededorp, Johannesburg, was exposed to politics while completing his medical studies in Karachi, Pakistan.

“Because of apartheid quotas, he was not able to study in South Africa,” said Randera.

He soon founded a student liberation organisation – the Azania Youth Movement aligned to the PAC. After obtaining his qualification, Asvat returned to South Africa and worked as an intern at Johannesburg’s Coronation Hospital (now the Rahima Moosa Mother And Child Hospital).

But Asvat was fired after confronting alleged racism at the hospital.

"He was dismissed for standing up for his rights and those of his colleagues of colour."

This, said Randera, led Asvat to take over his brother's surgery in Soweto. There he tended to at least 100 patients a day. “He served the most downtrodden of our people in places like Chicken Farm, often treating people without receiving any payment.”

During the 1976 Soweto uprising, Asvat treated children shot by the police, while residents from a nearby informal settlement guarded his surgery. Randera said Asvat soon became known as the “People's Doctor”.

Shortly afterwards, he became the founding member of the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo), a liberation movement. He served as its health secretariat and travelled to rural areas to provide health care to those unable to access it.

"He set up crèches and mobile clinics and travelled widely throughout the country, including places like Brandfort and Penge in Mpumalanga, where the community, mostly employed by mines, were devastated by asbestos. He was active in all spheres of activity, ranging from his vocal leadership in the then Transvaal Cricket Board to education and health.

"He always saw that people are whole human beings and one cannot simply treat a medical ailment without tackling the underlying social causes. As Azapo's secretary for health, he was responsible for, among other things, a handbook on health, published in a number of local languages and widely distributed among disadvantaged communities."

In his latter years, Randera said, Asvat lived in Lenasia with his wife Zohra (who died this year) and his three children – Suleiman, Akiel and Haseena.

“Zohra in her own right made an immense contribution to nation-building. She often accompanied Dr Asvat in his activities and supported his values and objectives. It was not unusual for Dr Asvat to bring in homeless and destitute people, who were evicted, into his home without any advance notice, or for that matter many veterans of the Struggle. Zohra always hosted these guests with the utmost dignity and respect.”

According to SA History Online, in 1984 Asvat hired Albertina Sisulu to work as a nurse in his surgery after she was unable to practise due to her being banned by the apartheid government. They worked together to provide healthcare to the African community.

In a biography of Asvat, the institute said several attempts were made on his life. In 1989, he was killed by two men, Zakhele Mbatha and Thulani Dlamini, who were pretending to be patients. He was shot twice and died in Sisiulu's arms. Mbatha and Dlamini were later arrested.

“The assassins were convicted and given long sentences. One died recently and the other walks the streets having paid his debt to society. The court found that robbery was the motive for the murder. At the time, rumours abounded that Dr Asvat had come into dangerous knowledge about murderers parading as freedom fighters,“ said the institute.

It said bus loads of people attended his funeral and sang Struggle songs.

Shortly after the killing, Madikizela-Mandela was accused of being responsible for Asvat's death, said SA History Online. Several media outlets reported at the time that Asvat's killing was orchestrated by her as a cover-up for the Stompie Seipei kidnapping controversy.

Mbatha and Dlamini, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also testified that they were paid R20 000 to kill Asvat but they were not deemed credible witnesses.

In 2018, a biography of Madikizela-Mandela by author Fred Brigland delved into accusations that she was behind Asvat's death.

In an excerpt published by a media company, Brigland described how Asvat knew that his life was in danger and how he had driven home with a flat tyre and handed his wife a wad of cash in case something happened to him. SA History Online said Madikizela-Mandela always denied any connection to the killing.

Randera said in 2018, Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson with his first wife Evelyn Mase, called for Asvat's death to be probed but that nothing had come of it.

"Regrettably no update has been received. It is highly unlikely that anything else will emerge in the near future," said Randera.

Other award recipients for the Order of Luthuli for gold include anti-apartheid activists Thomas Manthata and Bertha Mkhize, both of whom have died.

The silver will go to anti-apartheid activists Audrey Coleman, Max Coleman, Cikizwa Constance Maqungu and Hilda Mally Mokoena. Laura Mphahlwa, Zazi Kuzwayo, and Nikiwe Debs Matshoba will be honoured posthumously.

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