Fatima Meer, who died aged 81 after a stroke, was the most formidable female leader of Indian origin in the liberation movement of South Africa.
She was an intellectual, academic, writer and activist, but above all a tireless fighter for social justice and human rights. Meer was the first non-white woman to be appointed in a “white” university when she joined the University of Natal as a lecturer in sociology in 1956, and later set up the influential Institute for Black Research there in 1972.
Describing her characteristic intervention during an incident of student unrest, one of her students said:
“It was an unbelievable sight to see this petite little woman, wrapped in a sari, march in front of a Hippo [an armoured police vehicle] and order it to stop.”
This typified the moral courage she demonstrated in all her activities, whether it was welfare work or political campaigning. During the race riots of the Cato Manor area of her home town of Durban in 1949, in which black people attacked Indian homes and businesses, she was one of the first to get to the heart of the troubled area with a van full of supplies and baby milk.
Much later, during the Inanda riots of 1985 in which the Gandhi settlement in Phoenix, near Durban, was set on fire, she again found herself a van to save some of Gandhiji’s belongings from the burning house. She returned soon after to plan projects to improve conditions for one of the most deprived communities in the area.
Whether it was literacy classes in her father’s garage, fundraising for flood victims in Bengal, leafletting in the streets of Johannesburg or leading a march against the pass laws that restricted the movements of non—white people, her underlying agenda, always, was to fight for equal rights and bring down the apartheid government.
As Winnie Mandela, Meer’s close friend, put it: “At a time when most Indian girls were helping their mothers in the kitchen making samosas, this young woman was leading protest marches and challenging the most oppressive system in the world.”
Meer’s Gujrati grandfather, Ismail, had arrived in South Africa as a trader from Surat on the east coast of India in the 1880s. Her father, Moosa Meer, was the editor of Indian Views, a weekly in Urdu and English. Her mother, Ameena, was a white woman originally called Rachel. The Meer household was a mixture of Muslim Gujarati traditions and liberal political activism; Fatima combined the two.
At Dartnell Crescent school, Meer began her political involvement by organising the Students’ Passive Resistance Committee to support the struggle against the apartheid regime and made her first public speech at a Natal Indian Congress rally at the age of 17. She was inspired by her paternal uncle, Ahmad Meer, a prominent political figure, and her second cousin Ismail Meer, a law student and NIC leader.
Fatima fell in love with Ismail while both were at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, where they were contemporaries and friends of Nelson Mandela. She completed her university education in Durban and they were married in 1952. The 50s were a period of intense political activity for Fatima Meer as she fought government decisions such as the pass laws and the Group Areas Act, which segregated communities on racial lines and resulted in large numbers of Indians, including Meer’s family, being forcibly evicted from their homes and businesses in areas declared “whites only.”
Considered a threat to public order, Meer was banned three times under the Suppression of Communism Act. She was proud to be among the first banned when the powers of the act were widened to cover groups other than communists. Among other restrictions, the banning order stipulated that she could not attend gatherings, make public statements or make contact with other banned persons. She was first banned in 1955 for two years, in 1976 for five years — along with Winnie Mandela — and again in 1981 for another five years.
Unlike her husband Ismail, who was also banned at the same time, Fatima flouted the orders as much as she could. In 1977 she survived an apparent assassination attempt by apartheid hitmen.
In 1976, her son Rashid was forced into exile in London, where he remained for almost 14 years before returning to a post—apartheid South Africa, where he died in a car accident in 1995.
Passionate about education, Meer also was involved in a number of schemes and projects to help impoverished Africans gain key skills. A woman of strong convictions, she lived her life with a strong sense of duty. She did things instinctively, spontaneously and passionately; sometimes in the most haphazard manner. A maverick, she refused to join a political party, although both the ANC and NIC claimed her as their own.
She wrote Nelson Mandela’s first biography, Higher Than Hope, published in 1988, along with more than 40 books, essays and lectures. Her book on Gandhiji’s life, Apprenticeship of a Mahatma, was made into the 1996 film The Making of the Mahatma, for which she wrote the screenplay. Ismail died in 2000. Two daughters, Shamim and Shehnaz, and five grandchildren survive her.
( Fatima Meer: born: August 12, 1928; died: March 12, 2010.)
Watch Fatima Meer’s Prison Diaries exhibit