Early lifeBorn in 1934, Asmal grew up in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal. He was the son of an Indian South Africans, Indian shopkeeper and one of seven children. When he was a schoolboy, he met Chief Albert Luthuli, who inspired him towards human rights. Asmal's political development first began in 1952 with the Defiance Campaign, when he was asked to become the secretary of the local rate payers association. That exposed him to the local Indian community's efforts at dealing with apartheid when the government tried to enforce the Group Areas Act in Stanger. Later in 1952, Asmal left Stanger to attend the Springfield Teacher Training College in Durban. After graduating as a teacher in 1954, he was assigned to an all-Indian school in Darnall, KwaZulu-Natal. While at Darnall, he registered for a bachelor's degree by correspondence in English, politics, and history at UNISA. In 1959, Asmal qualified as a teacher and moved to London, where he enrolled at the London School of Economics, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Political careerAsmal was the founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. He claimed that while he was in Ireland in the late 1970s, he assisted the ANC to find Irish Republican Army, IRA volunteers, who did reconnaissance on South Africa's Sasolburg refinery, which was then bombed by the ANC's military wing in 1980. While in London, he started the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and when he joined Trinity College Dublin as a teacher of human rights, labour and international law, he started the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Asmal qualified as a barrister in both the London and Dublin Bars and received degrees from both the London School of Economics (LL.M. (Lond.)) and Trinity College, Dublin (M.A. (Dubl.)). He was a lecturer in law at Trinity College Dublin for 27 years, specializing in human rights, labour and international law. Asmal served on the (ANC's constitutional committee from 1986. While in Ireland he also helped to establish the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. He was a board member of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.
Minister of Water AffairsIn 1990, Asmal returned to South Africa and shortly afterward, he was elected to the ANC's National Executive Committee. In 1993, he served as a member of the negotiating team of the ANC at the Negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa#Multiparty Negotiating Forum, Multiparty Negotiating Forum. In May 1994, he was elected to the National Assembly, and he joined the Ministers of the South African Government, Cabinet, as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry. In 1996, World Wide Fund for Nature-South Africa awarded Asmal their gold medal for his conservation work. During his tenure, he supported the Global Water Partnership of which he was a patron. As Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry he spearheaded the recognition of the concept of "the environment as a prime water user". While serving as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, he also served as the chairman of the World Commission on Dams (1997–2001). His work as Minister of Water Affairs is widely regarded as successful, which was attributed largely by his ability to work with the still-largely Afrikaner civil service.
Minister of EducationAlthough Asmal was not as close to President Thabo Mbeki as he was to President Nelson Mandela, he was promoted to Minister of Education (South Africa), Minister of Education in 1999 after that year's 1999 South African general election, general elections. Among his initiatives as Minister of Education was the launching in 2001 of the South African History Project "to promote and enhance the conditions and status of the learning and teaching of history in the South African schooling system, with the goal of restoring its material position and intellectual purchase in the classroom". Given the vast inequalities in the education system that were inherited from the apartheid regime, the post was seen by many as a Chalice#Poisoned chalice, poisoned chalice. After rolling back some of the ANC's more ambitious education policies to make his brief more realistic, he managed to introduce some of the most significant and far-reaching changes to the country's education system in its history. One of his most controversial moves as Minister of Education was to threaten South African universities with quotas if they failed to apply affirmative action policies to their students and staff. Asmal decide to close down all Teacher Training Colleges as well as certain Technical Colleges. Outcome-based education was introduced during his tenure, and scrapped a few years later.
BackbencherIn 2004, Asmal left government but would remain in Parliament until 2008. On 5 October 2007, he severely criticised Robert Mugabe for the situation in Zimbabwe, lamenting that he had not spoken previously, at the launch of a book ''Through the Darkness – A Life in Zimbabwe'', by Judith Todd, daughter of Southern Rhodesia Prime Minister Garfield Todd, an opponent of white minority rule under Ian Smith. Asmal resigned from parliament in 2008 in protest against the ANC's disbanding of the elite Scorpions (South Africa), Scorpions anti-crime unit. He felt it was a poor decision and that it was improper that politicians who had been investigated and found by the Scorpions to be engaged in corruption then took part in the vote to disband the organisation.
Later lifeAsmal called for the controversial Information Bill (also known as the "Secrecy Bill") to be scrapped. He published an autobiography, ''Politics in my Blood''. He died in 2011 after suffering a heart attack.