Twenty-four years and eight months ago on a hot January afternoon, crowds of mourners stretching more than a kilometre walked from Impala Crescent in Lenasia to the Avalon cemetery across the Moroka Bypass separating the former Indian group area from Soweto. Young men journeyed in cars and buses but many, including older folk, insisted on walking the full gruelling four kilometres. “To honour him, was what one old woman said at the time. So they walked when they could have rode in comfortable buses. It took a full hour for them to reach the cemetery. Some had travelled in buses all night from faraway places with names that are hard to remember and now mostly forgotten. All of them had known him as friend, or patient or political ally; some knew him as Hurley, others as Abu and many as Dr Asvat. The Lenasia doctor’s Rockville, Soweto, surgery had become a place of refuge. The surgery was the only hope for a mother who needed medicine for her children and herself; it was the place you would go to when you were broke – or just broken. That surgery was also the place of death. It was where two assassins, one with a gun, shot the doctor twice late in the afternoon on 27 January 1989. He died trying to fight off the hired guns. 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. Dr Asvat was a Muslim so custom dictates that they should have buried him that night. The doctor’s family acceded to requests to postpone the burial to the next day because so many friends, patients, and comrades wanted to pay their last respects, and they lived far away. It is a tribute to the organisers that they were able to arrange fleets of buses to ferry passengers from around the country in time for the funeral the next day.
Dr Asvat had travelled widely around the Highveld with his mobile clinic and band of dedicated volunteer nurses, students, doctors and activists. He took medicine and he recorded the devastation wreaked by a criminal government. To this day, no one knows the regular source of his abundant supplies of food, tents, clothing and medicine.
Who was Abu Baker Asvat?
A R O A D T O H U M A N R I G H T S – Q U R A Y S H P A T E L
In one village – at an asbestos mine – fathers and sons died young. Dr Asvat and a group of activists helped to record the extent of the problem. It is comforting to know that the new democratic government banned asbestos mining in the country in 1998. It is nevertheless disquieting to hear that no one is taking responsibility to clean up the asbestos that lies around in plain sight, slowly poisoning the men, women and children. Holding fort at the surgery was the energetic president of the United Democratic Front, Mrs Albertina Sisulu, who regarded the doctor as “my son”. The doctor was the national health secretary of Azapo and an ardent black consciousness supporter; Mrs Sisulu, like her legendary husband Walter, was an ANC stalwart. Dr Asvat also worked closely with Mrs Winnie Madikizela Mandela for more than 10 years. Every project that he worked on had as its objective a public good. And for that security policemen beat him up, they threatened to hurt his family, they fire-bombed his house, detained him regularly for interrogations, his old surgery opposite a shack settlement that housed many of his patients was gutted – but he continued to speak often and loudly about abuses against black people. It was that stubborn ethical streak that always brought trouble to his door and infuriated friend and foe. A passionate cricketer he led his club and the province to assist in isolating the apartheid government internationally. A generation has grown up since his assassination. They need to know that they can be proud of the many, many people in our country who chose a road that brought neither fame nor fortune; that our history is rich with idealists and visionaries and, curiously, men and women who believed – and still do – that giving, not receiving, makes you wealthy.
He was the recipient of The Star newspaper’s community award and in 1988 the anti-apartheid newspaper The Indicator honoured him with the Human Rights Award. At the ceremony he urged for closer links between Soweto and Lenasia and he spoke movingly about homeless people living in limbo. Disturbing questions continue to hang over the assassination of one of the country’s passionate human rights activists. A second police investigation in the 1990s into Dr Asvat’s death yielded no results. The hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee raised more questions and still no answers. His wife Zohra Asvat and children Akiel, Haseena and Suliman deserve to know.