Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Famous Grouse: June 25

 Latest Weekend Argus column. As submitted. -- AD

TO Mahogany Ridge then with heavy hearts and there dust off the old Victrola to replay the drinking songs and ballads on treasured Pogues and Christy Moore albums and root in the darkened corners for the better whiskeys, the bottles we were perhaps saving for less solemn occasions, and bid farewell to Kader Asmal and reflect on both his extraordinary achievements and the challenges he faced in this vale of tears.

It is true that I didn't know the man well but, importantly, I believe I knew what he stood for, and perhaps I’m not alone in thinking that with Asmal now no longer with us, our own struggle to safeguard the constitution he helped draft has overnight grown immeasurably more daunting. The forces of basket-case totalitarianism are massing.

Many of the tributes have noted Asmal’s tireless pursuit for human rights and justice. Many have pointed out that it was only last week that he spoke out once more against his own party’s maddened efforts to scramble into law the Protection of Information Bill.

In his tribute, his colleague and comrade, Trevor Manuel, the minister in the Presidency, told the National Assembly that, for that very reason, it was sometimes “very  tough” to be friends with Asmal.

“He continued arguing . . . against the government of which I am part, albeit on a few issues that he considered fundamental,” Manuel told MPs. “Such has been our comradeship, premised on values that are far greater and bonds much stronger than the tactical issues about which we need to differ.”

Let’s not mince words here. Asmal’s principled stance did not endear him to many ANC members. He had bitter enemies.

Perhaps it is churlish to dredge up such memories, but readers will recall the alarmingly tasteless statement released by Kebby Maphatsoe, the national chairperson of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’Association, and Mangaliso Khonza, the association’s spokesman, in response to an address by Asmal to the Cape Town Press Club in October 2009, in which he had poured scorn on the political ambitions of the then deputy police minister, Fikile Mbalula, who, it was speculated, was rather keen on becoming the next ANC secretary-general. Asmal had said that he hoped he would be dead before that happened.

Maphatsoe and Khonza, like good little corporals, immediately sprang to Mbalula’s defence, accusing Asmal of arrogance. Fully aware of his battle against cancer, they added, “We advise Kader Asmal to go to the nearest cemetery and die if that is the choice he has made.”

Mbalula’s own view of Asmal was that he was “a raving lunatic” and a “latter-day Don Quixote” for having the gall to oppose the militarisation of the SA Police Service.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe also joined in the fray, warning Asmal, rather cryptically, that “self-destruction can bleed you to death”.

In his response, Asmal said of Mantashe’s “extraordinary” comments: “I think it justice and confirms the prejudice that if you are questioning a policy which is regressive, that means . . . [it would be] helpful if in fact you just died from your cancer.”

Moreover, he was adamant that he was not going to shut up about anything.

And, boy, could he talk. My fondest memory of Asmal was of the time I first met him. It was in 1993, and, oddly enough, at a record company beano on board a motor launch out at sea in a very choppy Table Bay.

The Irish rock band, Hothouse Flowers, were in Cape Town to promote their Songs From The Rain album, and their label here had organised a boat trip with journalists to Robben Island. I was rather surprised to learn that Asmal had insisted on joining the party. “Oh,” he told me, “I know the boys very well. That’s Fiachna [Ó Braonáin], that’s Liam [Ó Maonlaí], that . . . ah, that is somebody else. They hang around my local in Dublin. I’m a very big fan. Very, very big fan. Fantastic music.”

As we ploughed off towards the island, the band stripped off their shirts and lay about the upper deck trying to catch a tan. Downstairs, in the cabin, Asmal, a glass of whisky in his hand and an audience of awed journalists at his feet, held court with tales of Dublin and Trinity College, where he had taught, and shared with us his vision of our new country.

We never got close to the island -- the sea was too rough -- but it didn’t matter. Asmal had made the trip worthwhile.

That was an incredible time, I now realise, of promise and hope. It’s gone now, that optimism, and there’s a grimness and uncertainty in our lives once more. We’re going to miss the guy.

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