TRIBUTE TO JOHN VICTOR ASPINALL

BY
MANGOSUTHU BUTHELEZI, MP

MINISTER OF HOME AFFAIRS OF THE REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA
INKOSI OF THE BUTHELEZI CLAN UNDUNANKULU KAZULU
(Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Kingdom)
CHAIRMAN OF THE HOUSE OF TRADITIONAL LEADERS
OF KWAZULU NATAL, AND
PRESIDENT, INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY

London : November 14, 2000

The echoing thought that my friend John Aspinall is dead resounds devastatingly within my consciousness. And yet this thought seems so ephemeral, for he lives.

John Aspinall was one of my best friends, if not really my best friend. He was one of my few friends. I cannot think about him without reflecting on my own life. We built a friendship over many decades, not only across two hemispheres, but also across the divides of the respective backgrounds, religions, cultures and the social contexts in which we found ourselves operating. It is because of these enormous differences of context that I recognise that our friendship was an exceptional one, based on an intense shared spirituality, and an elective affinity.

We were very different, differently placed and called upon to fulfil different destinies. And yet I always felt that he and I were identical, tied as we were by an inextricable mystical union. Perhaps we were both individuals who could not be fully reflected, understood or appreciated by and within our respective contexts, and found within one another a suitable reflection. That is why both of us were often tarred by pundits in the media as being what they call "controversial". That is the price one often pays for going against what is regarded as conventional wisdom. We both never feared doing so and sticking to our beliefs.

His premature departure has been a devastating loss to me. But at times I feel that Aspers has never left us. We maintained our friendship across the distances of time and space. I knew that he was with me, sharing my thoughts and supporting my actions, even when I was not communicating with him. Often I still have this feeling and I know that the spirit of John Aspinall is still with me and with the people he loved. He lives, for what he experienced and projected with his example and presence in the world, will forever be stamped in our collective consciousness. He is alive because none of us will ever forget him, and I know that our own remembrance reinforces the continuing survival of his spirit.

The spirit of John Aspinall was cast in such an extraordinary and larger-than-life mould that it cannot die. It continues to occupy the space it conquered with his presence in the world. His spirit is here amongst us on this occasion. Aspers’ spirit was of such greatness of quality and magnitude that it became fitting for him to befriend an entire nation. Few men have had the privilege of being loved by an entire nation, especially when such nation is one other than the one they headed or served as public figures. Aspers loved the Zulu nation and he was loved by the Zulu people. Today, Prince Gideon Layukona ka Mnyayiza, the KwaZulu Natal Minister of Welfare and Population Development and I, other members of the Zulu Royal House present, and other Zulu people present, bring the sorrow and condolences of the Zulu Nation to his widow, family and his next of kin, on his early departure from this world.

Aspers understood and internalised the ethos and pathos of our nation and became one of those few privileged individuals who are called upon to build bridges across cultures and peoples. Zulus are perhaps not very versatile in portraying themselves and projecting the true image of our national soul and cultural identity. We are forever indebted to Aspers and other people of spiritual sensibility and intellectual acumen who, like him, have reached out to imbue themselves in the Zulu soul and express and convey it to others. Aspers presented these dimensions of the Zulu soul to the world.

John Aspinall enriched himself through this experience and stood firm in the belief that personal growth, knowledge and truth are only to be found beyond the parameters which circumscribe the paradigm within which we are used to thinking. We both were avid and dedicated environmentalists at a time when a concern for animals and plants was considered frivolous and unsuitable for people with real businesses to run and public affairs to attend to. This was long before being an environmentalist became fashionable.

We sought in our own hearts the truth that the link between man and nature cannot be severed and that our future depends on the continuing prosperous survival of the natural environment. From this truth we derived implications to which we both responded ahead of our time and ahead of social approval; he by pursuing the idea of private breeding programmes to save gorillas, I by establishing nature conservation as one of my government’s priorities, in spite of pressing conflicting social and economic demands. The Tembe Elephant Park, amongst others, remain as evidence of my efforts.

I have met few people like John Aspinall who have had the courage and determination to act upon the strength of an intuition. He firmly believed that intuition is the highest form of knowledge available to an educated but sensitive man. In this respect, I believe that Aspers was a true romantic who, with his life, offered one of the most exemplary testimonies to the values of romanticism in an age which has long forgotten them.

The life of John Aspinall also gives credence to the proposition that our personal growth follows in the path of diversity. Many of us have varying facets within ourselves, as Aspers did. Aspers accepted the value that the inner diversity of our soul rests in our capacity to experience ourselves in separate aspects and roles, without seeking to reconcile or merge them in a unifying framework. The only unified framework is that we, ourselves, are the experience which varies, not in poses, but in its absolute nature at any given instant of our being.

John Aspinall was an exceptional English gentleman who expressed the best and fullest of the values, style and demeanour of his culture and nation. However, he was also capable of transforming himself into a spirited Zulu, walking in the path of our past warriors and recognising with us the guiding spirit of our ancestors. He knew the genealogy of most of the great families of the Zulu Kingdom. I salute this great capacity he had to give full meaning and appreciation to life in all its forms and possibilities.

The Zulu nation, and indeed the whole of South Africa, will never forget the extraordinary day on which John Aspinall addressed a Zulu rally in Johannesburg. That was one of the most crucial and potentially explosive junctures of the delicate process of transformation from apartheid to democracy. The world had chosen to ignore the complex and multi-faceted reality of South African conflicts, simplifying them in the naive image of a unified and righteous black majority fighting against an oppressive racist white minority. The world refused to understand and dwell on the complexity and horrors of the black-on-black conflict which claimed the lives of about 20,000 people. The black-on-black conflict and the armed struggle were the tools used to secure political hegemony after liberation rather than the demise of apartheid. That battle for the survival of the Zulu soul has not yet been won. It is a battle I will continue to fight, now without the backing he gave to the Zulu Nation for years. I am already missing his unwavering support and encouragement.

John Aspinall was one of the few genuine intellectuals who was able to recognise the truth of the matter outside established academic paradigms. He saw first-hand the suffering of our people at the hands of our own black brothers. He witnessed the serial killings of our leaders and the devastation of our people’s houses, land and farms through arson and bombing in a well organised campaign of death and destruction which lasted for over ten years in a war of attrition.

Against this background in June 1992 he was with us when we marched in Johannesburg to protest against a law which all Western observers believed to be completely immaterial to the issues being debated in South Africa and internationally, relating to the democratisation of our country. John Aspinall recognised that such law could be likened to lighting a match in a chamber filled with explosive gas. The law was aimed at prohibiting Zulu people from carrying our traditional cultural equipment which is often a spear, a shield and a knobkerrie. It was like expecting a Scotsman to be fully dressed without his skein dhu, or a soldier or an officer to be fully dressed without his sword.

In a country torn apart by strife generated by commonly and readily available assault rifles, hand-grenades and rocket launches, the concern about spears and knobkerries seemed preposterous. And yet John Aspinall realised the provocation that any Zulu person would feel if the most sacrosanct symbols of our national identity were to be made illegal, which could be likened to criminalising the wearing of a kilt in Scotland. John Aspinall was asked to address that great gathering of the Zulu Nation in the presence of our King. He delivered a fiery speech which reinforced the will of the Zulu nation to never surrender its identity and the emblems symbolising it. We won that battle and the government of the day and its political allies, recognised that no force in South Africa could have enforced such a provocative law.

There have been hundreds of other occasions on which John Aspinall showed his love for the Zulu nation. Many of them were less public than the one I have mentioned but had a similar impact on our people. He shared our cultural ceremonies and some of the most intimate aspects in the life of our nation. He was with us during mass gatherings and at private functions alike. He will remain a friend whom the Zulu nation will never forget. South Africa as a whole will never forget John Aspinall, for he has been a genuine friend of South Africa. We were privileged to be at his grave in Howletts yesterday, and we communicated with him in the way we do with our dear departed.

He cared sufficiently about South Africa to accept becoming controversial and meeting with social disapproval when he stood on the side of the true interests of South Africa in spite of overwhelming pressures to the contrary. He was with me in opposing international sanctions and the call for disinvestment in South Africa, which both had but a minimal bearing on the demise of apartheid, but damaged our economy and afflicted our people significantly, inflicting wounds which are far from yet being healed.

John Aspinall always believed in South Africa and continued to maintain his investments there. He was also one of the first to develop new projects in South Africa after liberation. I sincerely hope that his example will be followed by more investors. Aspers’ confidence in South Africa and his love of our land is another part of the rich legacy he bestowed on the world. He was a genuine ambassador of goodwill for South Africa, and the whole of South Africa deeply mourns his untimely death.

On this occasion I bring the love of my people and the love of my country, not only to the memory of John Aspinall but also to Lady Sarah, Amanda, Damian, Bassa Aspinall and his brother James Osborne, reassuring them that we love them as much as we loved John. I know that my love and the love of my people will never be able to make up for the great loss of their husband, father and brother. However, we regard them as part of our family, just as we wish to remain part of theirs.

John Aspinall was an exemplary family man who believed in the eternal value of family life. He taught all of us that strength comes from strong human relations and the bonds that people build within their families and amongst their friends. These bonds are precious. They are the very essence of life. Today I have come here to bear testimony to my bond and the bond of my people to Aspers and his family.

May God Almighty protect the Aspinall family and receive in His grace and peace the spirit of John Aspinall.

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