Constitutional heavyweight MP

Constitutional heavyweight MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini dies

The underdog politician, who helped to build and shape many aspects of the new South Africa and its constitution, dies aged 53

Constitutional heavyweight MP

Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, Member of Parliament for the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and one of the politicians instrumental in drafting elements of the South African constitution has given in to his prolonged battle with cancer and has died aged 53 over the weekend. The cause of his death was announced as suicide.

Dr Ambrosini, often viewed as a controversial and colourful figure in SA politics, was throughout his career dedicated to pushing the South African constitution forward, and can even be attributed with being one of its more enduring and silent authors. From championing for gay marriage to debating the legality of cannabis in SA law, Ambrosini fought relentlessly to make South Africa the most progressive state in Africa. The latter may even momentarily have prolonged his own life, as his ongoing battle with cancer was only moderated by an experimental therapy involving cannabis oils, which he championed in parliamentary debate as much as he did in public discourse. However, despite his dying wishes, Ambrosini did non manage to change the constitution to allow cannabis for medicinal treatments.

The career of the IFP MP was as illustrious as his views were: born in 1960, his early days saw him moving from his native Italy, where at the age of 11 he had to be adopted by his grand-uncle, the then-President of the Constitutional Court, to the US, where he studied law in some of the country’s finest institutions, including Harvard University and Georgetown University Law Centre. The seeds for Ambrosini’s career in lawmaking were firmly sown, but it would be a while before he would discover his spiritual home in South Africa.

With a Fullbright scholarship in hand, Ambrosini specialised in constitutional matters worldwide, eventually attracting the attention of the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1990. Starting as legal advisor for the IFP during the CODESA negotiations, Ambrosini became closely aligned with the party, always pushing for libertarian values within the IFP and within South Africa’s democracy at large. With the IFP holding the largest faction in KwaZulu Natal Province, Dr Ambrosini was instrumental in drafting the KZN constitution and helping South Africa’s transition into democracy at large.

Ambrosini managed not only to strike up a good working relationship but also a deep personal friendship with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the IFP and Home Affairs minister under Nelson Mandela’s first national unity government. Dr Ambrosini served as cabinet adviser under Buthelezi at the time, integrating further into South African society and eventually accepting SA citizenship alongside his Italian and American passports.

Chief Buthelezi said about his confidante and colleague:

“He was a fighter. Not only in this battle, but in the many he engaged over the course of some three and a half decades in politics. He believed in challenging conventional thought, dogma and imposed limitations. It was what he dedicated his life to doing”

During the 2000s, Ambrosini got involved in various other legal battles in the country such as South Africa’s gay rights movement while also running his own international consultancy, Ambrosini & Associates, before accepting public office in 2009 and becoming a member of the National Assembly. There, he served on many committees reviewing government performance, including Economic Development and the Justice and Constitutional Development Portfolios.

An adamant opponent of the “Secrecy Bill”, Ambrosini drew a lot of support from other political factions, chiefly from the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA and the ruling ANC have officially expressed their condolences following his death.

“He was a fighter for human rights and democracy, a person of integrity who understood and advanced our cause, and a powerful friend. Mario will be remembered for his unparalleled contribution to Parliament and the defence of our freedom and the Constitution,” DA chairman Wilmot James said.

ANC chief whip Stone Sizani described Dr Ambrosini as a constitutional expert, who had helped to shape SA’s democracy:

“Although we did not always agree with his political views, we held him in high regard for his constitutional expertise, remarkable experience on governance matters and for the contribution he made to our democratic transition process as an advisor to IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.”