Abu Baker Asvat: a forgotten revolutionary

He was a doctor to everyone, the impoverished and the comfortable. And as apartheid’s forces inflicted injury on protesters, he treated their wounds. He should be better known.

The Presidency has announced that Cyril Ramaphosa will confer the Order of Luthuli in Silver on the late Abu Baker Asvat, known as “the people’s doctor”, during the month of November 2021. This is a surprise development, but a welcome one, in so far as the ANC at this point in its moral collapse has the credibility to honour a person of such courage and upright standing. 

There are many who resisted apartheid who have been forgotten. In numerous cases, this is because they are or were impoverished or working class. In other cases, it is because they fell foul of the ANC’s authoritarianism in its camps in exile, most notoriously at Quatro. Other people have been forgotten because they were members of organisations outside of the ANC. 

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Part of the reason Asvat has not been adequately remembered and honoured is because he was a leading member of the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo). The ANC and Azapo had a very tense relationship in the 1980s and, although Black Consciousness became fashionable with the fallist generation, this did not extend to Azapo and its explicitly socialist politics.

The question of memory is further complicated by the way in which history has often been seriously distorted by a young generation looking for narratives that fit with their aspirations and world views. This has been compounded by sloppy historiography. A crude example of this is the Black Consciousness Reader, published in 2017. It is a book that deeply angered many veterans of the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It has a section on Fatima Meer which contains a serious error in terms of her relationship to the Black Consciousness Movement – but does not even mention Asvat. This is mind-boggling given that Meer’s primary political affiliation was to the often elitist and always racially segregated Natal Indian Congress while Asvat was a major figure in the Black Consciousness Movement.

Championing memory

But there are other more complex reasons for the overwhelming, although not complete, erasure of Asvat from public memory. 

The first of these is that it was and remains widely believed by many people who were activists in the late 1980s that he was murdered on the order of Winnie Mandela in 1989. This has made it very awkward for the ANC to honour Asvat, as well as those in the younger generation whose veneration for Mandela has often chosen to ignore a set of inconvenient facts.

Another issue, although much less significant, is that public memory is often not something spontaneous and organic. It requires work by intellectuals of various kinds – writers, dramatists, academics and activists and so on. Asvat found an academic champion in the Canadian historian Jon Soske, who published an excellent paper on Asvat in 2011. It was widely circulated in activist networks in South Africa and attracted some international interest too.

However, a few years later Soske resigned from his academic post at the prestigious McGill University after a scandal following public allegations of sexual harassment. This put a swift end to his credibility in progressive networks and many people became embarrassed to be seen to be associated with him. The result was that the circulation and use of his work on Asvat largely stopped in activist circles. Asvat deserves credible champions and hopefully they will emerge in the wake of this award. 

Circa 1986: The 10th annual congress of the Azanian People’s Organisation. (Photograph by Die Burger/ Gallo)

Born in Fietas in Johannesburg to an immigrant father, Asvat made his way to Lahore, Pakistan, where he took a degree in science. Then, in Karachi, with his brother Ebrahim, he studied medicine. As a student in Pakistan, he founded the Azania Youth Movement, an organisation that was affiliated to the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC). He hosted its PAC members while they were on the way to visit China, where they had a close relationship with the state.

On his return to South Africa, Asvat worked in Coronation Hospital in Johannesburg – now known as the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, after the trade unionist and activist of the Transvaal Indian Congress and the ANC. He worked under Yousuf “Joe” Veriava who went on to become an eminent professor. However, Asvat was soon fired, with less than a day’s notice, after confronting racism at the hospital. His brother supported him as he opened his own practice in Rockville, Soweto, across from the Regina Mundi Church. There he treated large numbers of patients, up to 100 a day, at no cost. It was said that if you were broke, or broken, and needed medical care you should make your way to Asvat’s surgery.

Breaking barriers

Many came from a nearby shack settlement called Chicken Farm. For the rest of his life, Asvat would be one of the few middle-class activists who decisively crossed the firebreak of class and sustained warm relationships with the residents of this and other settlements. He moved freely between Lenasia, where he lived in a modest home, and Soweto, Eldorado Park and the  shack settlements in the area. His son Aqiel, who is now an ophthalmologist who often runs free community clinics, stresses that his father “saw himself as the brother of every human being, rather than being identified as a Indian or Muslim”. 

Asvat became known as “the people’s doctor” and was noted for living modestly and dispensing with the usual formalities and pomposities associated with many doctors. He would ask his patients to call him “Abu” rather than “Doctor”. His humility is a key theme in the recollections of people who worked closely with him.

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As with so many others, the 1976 uprising drew Asvat into new forms of militancy. He treated many of the school children that had been shot by the police. And, famously, his surgery was protected from the police by residents of a nearby informal settlement to whom he had provided free medical care.

Inspired by the Black Community Programmes of the Black Consciousness Movement, he went on to work with residents to open a crèche, a community kitchen, advice centre and more. Salim Vally, a lifelong activist who is now a professor of education, recalls that Asvat used the methods of the radical Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire in all his activism and that for Asvat “health was never separate from struggle”, and struggle was always a matter of grassroots work.

Other fronts of struggle

Asvat, an enthusiastic and gifted cricketer, became a leading figure in non-racial community-based cricket, where he acquired the nickname “Hurley”. That name stuck off the field too. In 1977, he was elected as the vice president of the Transvaal Cricket Board and would play a leading role in building a non-racial cricket league. He would remain involved in cricket for the rest of his life.

It was also in 1977 that Asvat met Winnie Mandela. He met her in the bleak and remote Free State town of Brandfort, to which she had been banished. The two worked together to build a community clinic there and Asvat became her personal doctor, a position he would retain until his death.

In 1978, Asvat was severely beaten by the security police. In the same year he became a founding member of Azapo and was later elected as the organisation’s health secretary. He became well known to the general public for his vigorous opposition to the “rebel” cricket tours organised by Ali Bacher in defiance of the international sports boycott against apartheid South Africa. In 1983, writing against a tour by West Indian players, he published a long article in the Rand Daily Mail under the evocative headline “Money is temporary, honour is permanent”.

1 December 1997: Albertina Sisulu testifies at a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Johannesburg. Witnesses accused Winnie Mandela of having been involved in the murder of Abu Baker Asvat in 1989. (Photograph by Peter Andrews)

Anver Randera, who worked closely with Asvat in Azapo, and was a founding member of the Asvat Institute set up in 2004, recalls: “We had also started a domestic-worker project in a context where domestic workers were treated poorly in communities like Lenasia. I recall how difficult it was to talk to domestic workers. We used to talk to them when they watched soccer at the local ground over weekends.”

When the insurrection of the 1980s exploded, beginning in 1984, Asvat treated victims of police violence across what is now Gauteng, and travelled to rural areas with a medical caravan where, working with people like Jenny Tissong, Ruwaida Hallim and Thandi Myeza, he treated thousands of patients. During these visits the famous Azapo health manual, written by Asvat and Veriava, and translated into various African languages, would be distributed, at a low or no cost. 

An aspect of insurrection that is often not discussed today is the violence – sometimes described as a war – between Azapo and the United Democratic Front (UDF). Asvat was a leading personality in Azapo but took a principled position against sectarianism and had the political credibility to walk this tightrope. Albertina Sisulu, the co-president of the UDF and a trained nurse, worked in his surgery. Together they worked closely with shack-settlement residents and treated victims of police violence and people on both sides of the conflict between Azapo and the UDF. And, of course, he was Mandela’s doctor.

Asvat was also in an ANC-aligned education committee that worked to get African children whose schooling had been disrupted into schools reserved for Indian children under apartheid. 

An enemy of the state

By the time of the state of emergency in 1986 Asvat was being hounded by the police and attacked by mysterious assailants. His home was fire-bombed, although not burnt down, and the power to his surgery was cut. During the six-day war in Alexandra, he set up a mobile clinic and treated patients without regard to political affiliation. At the same time, he was working closely with shack dwellers and radical lawyers to oppose evictions. 

By this point, Asvat often faced grave danger. Aqiel recalls, along with fond recollections of fishing trips, “being absent from school on many occasions as the security police would be looking for my father and we would have to spend time in Zimbabwe or the Kruger Park until things settled down”.

Asvat had confronted and seen off several murder attempts from 1986 but the hammer fell in 1989, on 27 January. Two men entered Asvat’s surgery and shot him dead. Albertina Sisulu sat with him as he died. At his memorial service she told his family: “My son died in my hands.” Rumours that Mandela had ordered the murder began to spread almost immediately. 

Asvat’s funeral was a huge and militant affair drawing in residents of shack settlements and activists across class and racial lines. People came from all over the country. The crowd of mourners who made their way from Impala Crescent in Lenasia to the Avalon cemetery in Soweto, an hour’s walk, stretched for more than a kilometre along the road.

1 December 1997: From left, an unidentified friend comforts Ebrahim Asvat after he began crying while giving testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Johannesburg. (Photograph by Peter Andrews)

A speaker at the funeral, not named in the archive, said: “For the first time, squatters could speak of a doctor, could speak of a person who would actually heal them, care for them, give them shelter.” After his death, The Lenasia Indicator published an issue solely dedicated to Asvat. The paper declared: “Asvat was more a revolutionary than a mere humanitarian.” 

In 1997, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) heard testimony that Mandela had wanted Asvat to confirm her claim, shown to be unfounded, that Methodist minister Paul Verryn had molested Stompie Sepei, the teenage UDF activist who was murdered by Jerry Richardson, one of Mandela’s bodyguards. Testimony was given that Asvat and Mandela had had a huge argument about this, following which she had arranged for Asvat’s murder.

Mandela denied involvement and the TRC found that it could not confirm the allegations against her. A short biography of Asvat on SA History Online concludes: “Whether or not she played a role in the death of her former doctor and friend remains a contentious issue to this day.”

Wherever the truth lies, it is hugely unfortunate that this enduring controversy has overshadowed the life of a remarkable man, a man whose honour is permanent. It is time that we remember Asvat beyond the shadow of this controversy, a controversy that was not of his making. 

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