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Date Released: Sat, 13 March 2010 16:42 +0200

Intellectual, scholar, freedom fighter, and Rhodes Alumnus


By Professor Paul Maylam

Rhodes University mourns the passing of its alumnus Dr. Fatima Meer on Friday, 12 March 2010, following a stroke she suffered two weeks ago. She was aged 82.

In 2007 Rhodes awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature to Fatima Meer: a courageous, selfless, independent-minded scholar-activist, never afraid to speak out and always ready to act on her words.

She has been described as “a redoubtable fighter and doughty champion of the underclass”; as “dynamite in a small package”; as “the most popular and recognizable Indian South African Muslim woman over the past five decades”; and as “a true Gandhian”.

Indeed she has emulated Gandhi’s politics of self-sacrifice; and she has combined oppositional activism with a politics of bridge-building and human development in the true style of Gandhi.

2006 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the 1946 Indian passive resistance campaign directed against segregationist legislation restricting Indian property-holding in Natal. The campaign had been launched in March 1946 at a 6000-strong gathering.

Among the speakers were political heavyweights like Monty Naicker – but also a 17-year-old Durban high school student who would not only deliver an address but walk alongside Indian leaders at the head of the protest march. This young student was Fatima Meer.

She would also establish a Student Passive Resistance Committee - and in so doing embark on a remarkable life of activism which would continue over the next sixty years. In 2006, to mark the sixtieth anniversary of this campaign a special commemorative event was held in Durban, attended by the Prime Minister of India. Fatima Meer was the special guest at the commemoration.

Her activism and public engagement over these six decades has taken different forms – often oppositional, sometimes aimed at bridge-building, at other times developmental. It has always been committed, considered and courageous.

In the 1950s, still at a young age, she became an executive member of the Natal Indian Congress, and would share political platforms with such renowned figures as Yusuf Dadoo. She founded, early in that decade, the Durban and District Women’s League in an effort to restore relations between Indians and Africans – relations which had broken down during the Cato Manor violence of 1949.

Not surprisingly, over the three decades from the 1950s when apartheid was at its height, much of Fatima Meer’s activism was oppositional. She was a founder member of the Federation of South African Women, which in 1956, soon after its establishment, organized the famous women’s march to Pretoria in protest against the imposition of pass laws on women. She actively campaigned in the 1950s and 1960s against group areas removals, and against detention without trial.

While maintaining a wholehearted commitment to the anti-apartheid cause, Fatima at the same time threw herself into community-oriented, developmental work – going back to 1944 when as a 16-year-old she raised 1000 pounds for famine relief in Bengal, and when still a teenager established literacy classes for adult Africans in her father’s garage in Durban.

A long list of such activity follows: in the 1970s founding and heading the Natal Education Trust which raised enough funds to build five schools in African townships; leading rescue operations for 10,000 Indian flood victims after the Umgeni River burst its banks; in the 1980s organizing scholarships for African students to attend higher education institutions in South Africa, India and the US; founding in 1986 the Phambili High School in three centres with an initial enrolment of over 3000 students.

In 1996 she conducted sewing and literacy classes for women in informal settlements. Later she established the Concerned Citizens’ Group to help council tenants threatened with eviction. The list goes on.

Fatima Meer is one of those rare persons who have been able to combine an extraordinary life of social and political activism with an outstanding academic career. For over thirty years she taught in the Sociology Department of what was then the University of Natal in Durban.

She has written over twenty books, and edited almost twenty others. Among these are books about two of the most revered, iconic figures of the twentieth century – Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Her biography of Mandela has been published in thirteen languages.

More recently she has seen through to publication the autobiography of her beloved husband, Ishmael Meer, who died in 2000 before the work could be completed. Among her sociological works is an important book on race and suicide. Add to this a script for a film on Gandhi, and another script about the Taj Mahal. Such versatility is remarkable.

One might imagine that somebody who has led such an active, productive life as this would have been able to go about their business without hindrance or constraint. Not so at all with Fatima Meer.

In 1954 she was one of the first South Africans, and the first woman, to be placed under a banning order – a two-year banning which confined her to Durban and prevented her from attending gatherings. She would spend twelve years of her life under such orders, being banned again from 1976 to 1985.

At one time she and her son, Rashid, and her son-in-law, Bobby, were all banned. As the order prevented banned persons from communicating together they had to get special government permission to talk to each other.

In 1976 Fatima was detained without trial for six months after trying to organize a rally with Steve Biko. Soon after her release from prison she survived an assassination attempt. There would also be two arson attacks on her Durban home.

Fatima Meer is a South African of international renown. She has been accorded due recognition around the world: a 1990 award from the American Muslim Council for her struggle against oppression and racial discrimination; awards in India in 1994 and 2003 – one for her contribution to human rights, another for promoting the prestige of India and for fostering the interests of Indians overseas. At the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004 she served as one of six distinguished international jurors for the World Court of Women on US War Crimes.

In 2007 the late Denis Brutus, the writer and long-time anti-apartheid activist, wrote a poem for her, simply entitled ‘For F.M.’. It reads:

It is in the face of endurance
In the face of disappointment
In the face of betrayal
That her quality shines clear.
It is in endurance
That her quality shines
In that steadiness
Unfailing brightness
That her starry quality
Shows clear,
Shows clear.