The charismatic minister's call to action came just days after a civil servants' pay strike crippled some black schools. Unlike the rolling mass action that paralysed South Africa in the 1980s, however, most teachers ignored the strike and turned up to work.
Asmal said everyone agreed that the education system had major weaknesses and carried "deadly baggage" from the past.
"Large parts of our system are seriously dysfunctional. It will not be an exaggeration to say that there is a crisis at every level."
There is "rampant" inequality in education, with poor rural
African children the worst off.
For such children, he said, "the promises of the Bill of Rights remain a distant dream". Other problems are low teacher morale, bad management and poor quality learning.
One aim is to "break the back of illiteracy" in five years - an impossible task, because the state lacks the money.
Schools will be made centres of community life to encourage extra-curricula activity, stop vandalism, and teach peace and values. Asmal will also press for more money to repair schools, though this could cost 12 times the pound;103 million already committed to building new ones. Millions of children are forced to learn in squalid conditions.
Another priority is teacher development. Morale is low due to staff cuts and redeployment, crime, violence, and ill-discipline in schools and lack of professional training. Asmal wants job insecurity to end, large-scale professional development, rewards for excellent teachers, and new laws to ensure professional standards.
Implementation of "Curriculum 2005", an outcomes-based system being phased into schools, will be reviewed and Asmal has set a target for all children to be competent in reading, writing and numeracy by age nine.
Urgent action is needed to tackle the HIV-Aids epidemic among pupils. "This is the priority that underlies all priorities," said Asmal.