One-time exile leads education;Briefing;International

2nd July 1999 at 01:00

The intellectual and effective politician just appointededucation minister is a truly popular choice, reports Karen MacGregor.

Kader Asmal , a former professor who is passionate about human rights, has been appointed minister of education in president Thabo Mbeki's cabinet. The news was welcomed by educators across the political spectrum.

British-educated Asmal, a former teacher and University of Dublin law professor, is seen as a hard-working, effective minister with a high public profile and the ideal person to implement the government's vast array of post-apartheid education policies.

As minister of water affairs and forestry in the first democratic government, he achieved far more than any previous holder of the portfolio, delivering clean water to 3 million poor people and drafting progressive legislation.

Nicknamed "The Bee" for his boundless energy, the erudite Asmal also led the national conventional arms control committee - which investigates arms deals - and was a member of the ruling African National Congress's disciplinary committee and the cabinet committee for security and intelligence.

Asmal said that implementing education policy would now be a top priority. Another would be overseeing the retraining of teachers - in South Africa most teachers are underqualified and the products themselves of sub-standard schooling.

The former professor is also expected to work hard towards ending racial discrimination, violence and prejudice in schools. South Africa's Human Rights Commission recently published a damning report on racism in state secondary schools.

In the words of its chair, Barney Pityana, five years after the first democratic elections "school playgrounds are battlefields between black and white schoolgoers. Formerly white schools have become theatres of struggle for transformation as black parents demand access for their children. In a real sense the task of education and learning has ceased to take priority."

News of Asmal's appointment met with unanimous support from teacher unions, education experts and political parties. Unions cited his ministerial track record and academic background as reasons why he was well-placed to lead education.

The usually caustic Democratic Party, the official opposition following South Africa's second democratic elections on June 2, described his appointment as "inspired". John Pampallis, director of the Centre for Education Policy Development think tank, described Asmal as a publicist who would sell the government's vision of education to the public.

Mr Asmal left for Britain to study full time in 1959, and graduated as a lawyer from the London School of Economics in 1963.

Forced to remain in exile because of his political activities, he spent 27 years lecturing in law at Trinity College, Dublin, and rose to Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He returned to South Africa to teach at the University of the Western Cape in 1990, before being elected to Parliament in 1994.

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