Tribute to Fatima Meer

 

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(1928 to 2010)

Background

Fatima was born in Grey Street (Kwa-Zulu Natal) on 12 August 1928, the daughter of a Muslim father Moosa Meer; and Jewish / Portuguese mother Rachel Farrel, who embraced Islam and took the name Amina. She was the second of nine children. Moosa was born in Surat, Gujarat and came from the small Sunni Bhora community. Although not a Theologian in religion, he was well versed and greatly respected for his vast knowledge of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. His children inherited his passion for language, education, religious tolerance and tireless opposition to discrimination.

Moosa was the editor of Indian Views [1914-1965], a weekly publication for the Gujarati-speaking Muslim community of Southern Africa. The paper’s main theme was the struggle against white minority rule but it held strong anti-colonial views, particularly highlighting the Indian struggle against British imperialism, from a pan-Islamic perspective.

Fatima came from large extended family comprising a strong Gujerati, Indian and Muslim cultural background. Moosa, the family patriarch raised the extended family in a liberal Islamic atmosphere but politically aware of the situation in the country at the time. Most of the men in Fatima’s extended family played leading roles in the Natal and South African Indian Congress.

Fatima began her career at a very young age doing odd jobs in the family-owned newspaper, the Indian View. She learnt the power of the written and spoken wordatan early age, and over the years she developed a strong command of the English language that helped her career as an academic, writer and Human Rights and political activist.

Fatima was educated at Durban Indian Girls’ High School and completed her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Sociology at the University of Natal – a milestone achievement for a Muslim girl, as few black women attended formal schooling at the time let alone graduating from university.

Early years activism

Fatima’s political activism startedatan early age. In 1944, when she was 16 year old, she helped raise £1000 for famine relief in Bengal. Though petite in stature, Meer became a powerful public figure. She was gracefully poised, intelligent, quick-witted, intense, strong willed and energetic. She was a very determined young woman true to her cause and beliefs. Her political activism was re-ignited in 1946 while she was still in Durban Indian Girls high school, when the Passive Resistance campaign was inaugurated. She, like thousands of Indians, was swept up by the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance Campaign, which was the most dramatic show of militant anti-government action in South African history. Fatima established the Student Passive Resistance Committee to support the campaign which raised her profile in the community. She was invited to speak at some of the mass rallies and shared the platform with the prominent anti-apartheid leaders, Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker.

In 1949, Durban experienced an outbreak of Indo-African race riots. Shortly after the Riots, Fatima worked tirelessly in the community to improve race relations between Indians and Africans in Durban. She encouraged Indian and African women to join the Durban District Women’s League. She became Secretary of the League and Bertha Mkhize (president of the ANC Women’s League) became the Chairperson. This was the first women’s organisation with joint Indian and African membership. The League arranged a crèche and distributed milk in the large shanty town, Cato Manor.

A woman’s voice against apartheid

Fatima married her first cousin, Ismail Meer, in 1950. This is a common practice amongst Sunni Bhora society. The establishment of the Congress Alliance in 1950, and the Defiance Campaign in 1952, led to greater political involvement. She was amongst those banned for three years, from attending all public gatherings, and having her works published, under the new Suppression of Communism Act. Fatima and her husband actively cemented the relationship between the Indian and African National Congress and with greats such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli. The Meer’s enjoyed a warm friendship with Nelson Mandela and his family. Fatima worked closely with Winnie Mandela because of their involvement in the Black Women’s Federation. They also served six months in detention together. Mandela’s trust and confidence in Meer’s writing ability was affirmed when he agreed to her doing his first authorized biography titled, ‘Higher than hope’.

In 1955, Meer became a founding member of the Federation of South African Women famous for arranging the Anti-Pass March at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956. That same year, Meer, the first black lecturer at a white university, started to lecture in Sociology at the University of Natal. She held this position until 1988.

After the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 Fatima’s husband was amongst the many arrested the South African government declared a State of Emergency and detained large numbers of people without trial. Fatima’s husband was one of the Natal leaders arrested and held at the Durban Central Police Station. Fatima arranged weekly vigils outside the Durban prison. She encouraged the families of the detainees to provide food and support for the prisoners. Sadly, the group was arrested for public demonstration outside the prison and for marching to the mayor’s office. They were however released shortly after their arrest. She also arranged a week-long vigil at the Gandhi Settlement in Phoenix led by Sushila Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, which united Africans and Indians in prayer and fasting.

During the 1970s, Fatima was one of the leading anti-apartheid voices in the country. She faced strong opposition from her family and Indian Congress colleagues as she began to embrace the Black Consciousness ideology of the South African Student Organisation (SASO), led by Steve Biko.

In 1972 Fatima founded the Institute of Black Research (IBR) which became the leading Black-run research institution, publishing house and educational and welfare NGO in the country. For 3 decades the IBR was Fatima’s principal channel for the dissemination of a wide range of her activities as academic, writer and community activist.

In 1975, Fatima was served with a five years banning order for her public outcry against apartheid. During a 1976 student revolt involving her son Rashid, she along with 11 other women (including Winnie Mandela) was detained with other members of the Black Women’s Federation at Johannesburg’s notorious Fort Prison. Shortly after her release in December 1976 she survived an assassination attempt when her house was petrol-bombed and a guest was shot and wounded by apartheid agents. This did not affect her goals as she continued to write and publish under pen names often of family members and co-workers. This led to a difficult period for Fatima as her teenage son Rashid was forced into exile. She did not see him for over a decade.

Champion of the people

In 1979 Fatima contravened her banning order and established the Tembalishe Tutorial College at Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement to train African students in secretarial skills. A Crafts Centre was also established at the Settlement where unemployed people were taught screen printing, sewing, embroidery and knitting. The College and Crafts Centres were closed in 1982 when Fatima was arrested for contravening her banning order. Her ‘crime’ was that she was supervising work that was outside Durban’s boundary.

With the help of the now late Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Fatima arranged for a number of African students to get scholarships in India to study medicine and the political sciences and under her leadership, from 1986-88, the IBR addressed the low pass rate among African matriculates by arranging tutorial programmes in science and mathematics.

In 1986 she started Phambili High School for Africans comprising 3000 students. In 1993 the Khanyisa School Project was founded as a bridging programme for African children from informal settlements, which assisted underprivileged learners who required preparation for formal schooling. Fatima also founded the Khanya Women’s Skills Training Centre in 1996, which trained 150 African women annually in pattern-cutting and sewing, adult literacy and business management. In 1992 Fatima founded the Clare Estate Environment Group in response to the needs of shack dwellers and rural migrants whom the government deemed to have no rights in urban areas. She highlighted the plight of no clean running water, sanitation or proper housing. Her years of fighting against the apartheid regime entered fruition when South Africa welcomed their first democratic election in 1994.

Activities since the democratic elections of 1994

In 1994 Fatima declined a parliamentary seat due to her preference to work in the non-governmental sector. She did however serve the ANC government in several capacities as adviser to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology; she was on the National Symbols Commission and the National Anthem Commission; she was a member of the Advisory Panel to the President; she was on the Film and Publication Board, and on the Board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

In May 1999 Fatima helped found the Concerned Citizens Group [CCG] to persuade Indians not to vote for white parties as many had done in 1994. She was appalled at the poverty level of the Indian working class townships of Chatsworth and Phoenix. She became actively involved n these communities to change the plight o the situation. She also actively participated in marches to the American Consulate during 2001 and 2002 to protest against the oppression and murder of Palestinians and against the war in Afghanistan. She was a patron and founding member of Jubilee 2000, formed to lobby for the cancellation of Third World debt.

The past few years were difficult for Meer. She lost her son, Rashid, with whom she was reunited after almost two decades, in a tragic car accident. She lost her husband, Ismail, companion and comrade for five decades. She suffered several heart attacks and strokes finally succumbing to a stroke on Friday, 12 March 2010, aged 81.