Fatima Meer – Political activist at 16

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Fatima Meer was born in Durban on 12 August 1928, the daughter of Moosa Meer, editor and publisher of Indian Views [1914-1965], and Rachel Farrel.

Fatima was the second of nine children and their upbringing was not ordinary, and certainly unlike that of most contemporary Muslims. Her mother, Rachel, was an orphan of Jewish and Portuguese descent, but she converted to Islam and took the name Amina.

Her father, Moosa, was born in Surat, Gujarat and came from the small Sunni Bhora community. Although not formally trained in Islamic theology, he was widely-read and highly respected for his immense knowledge of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. He passed on his love for language, scholarship, religious tolerance and tireless opposition to discrimination to Fatima and her eights brothers and sisters.

Moosa was also the editor and publisher of Indian Views, a weekly publication aimed at the Gujarati-speaking Muslim community of Southern Africa. The paper’s primary focus was on the struggle against white minority rule but it had a strong anti-colonial stance as well, particularly drawing attention to the Indian struggle against British imperialism, framed within a pan-Islamic perspective.

Fatima also came from a large extended family. It was a household that reflected a strong Gujarati-Indian and Muslim cultural ethos against a background of a first generation immigrant family struggling to survive in a racist society. Fatima’s father Moosa presided over his large extended family in a liberal Islamic atmosphere, one highly conscious of racial discrimination and the international struggle against colonialism. Many of the men in Fatima’s extended family played leading roles in the Natal and South African Indian Congress.

From a very young age Fatima started doing odd jobs for the production of the family-owned newspaper, the Indian View. She learnt the power of the written and spoken word at an 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.

Moosa valued education and ensured that all his children received formal education. Fatima was educated at Durban Indian Girls’ High School and subsequently completed her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in Sociology at the University of Natal – a remarkable achievement for her time, because very few black, let alone Muslim, girls attended high schools and only a handful of Indian women went on to graduate from University.

Becoming an activist

Fatima’s political activism started early. In 1944, when she was 16 years old, she helped raise £1000 for famine relief in Bengal. Though short and petite, Meer became a powerful public figure. She was poised, intelligent, quick-witted, intense, strong willed and energetic. These characteristics meant that Meer did not suffer fools and almost always got her way and no matter what the circumstances she expected no favours on the basis of gender.

Fatima’s political activism was ignited again in 1946 when the Passive Resistance campaign was inaugurated, this was while she was still at Durban Indian Girls High School. Fatima, 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 and this propelled her into the public eye. 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.

At least four of Meer’s close family members also joined the campaign and served various prison terms as a result. Two such family members were; Miss Zohra Meer and Ismail Meer – Fatima’s future husband – who was one of the leaders of the Campaign.

In 1949 Durban and the country were shaken by the outbreak of Indo-African race riots. Shortly after the Riots, Fatima threw herself into community work to improve race relations between Indians and Africans in Durban. She helped organise Indian and African women under the banner of the Durban and 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 organised a crèche and distributed milk in the large shanty town of Cato Manor. The race riots was one of the turning points in Fatima’s life, and she spent the better part of her life working tirelessly to improve race relations, promoting justice, reconciliation and non-violent action.

A leading anti-apartheid voice

Meer married in 1950. She married her first cousin, Ismail Meer, a practice not uncommon amongst the Sunni Bhora community.

Fatima’s political involvement increased with the establishment of the Congress Alliance in 1950 and with the mounting of the Defiance Campaign in 1952. In 1952 she was amongst those banned under the new Suppression of Communism Act for a period of three years and confined to the district of Durban. The banning order prohibited her from attending all public gatherings and from having her work published.

The role that Fatima and her husband played in cementing the relationship between the Indian and African National Congress and with people such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli, is one of the enduring stories of the liberation movement that was eloquently told in IC Meer’s autobiography. The Meer’s friendship with Nelson Mandela and his family is one that has endured over the years. Fatima had a close working relationship 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, the Women’s organisation that organised the famous Anti-Pass March on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956.

In 1956 Meer started to lecture in Sociology at the University of Natal. She was the first Black woman to be appointed as a lecturer at a white South African University. She was on the staff of Natal University until 1988 and was the only banned person who was ever granted permission to teach at any educational institution.

SAHO collage

After the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, the South African government declared a State of Emergency and detained large numbers of people without trial. Meer’s husband was one of the Natal leaders arrested and held at the Durban Central Police Station. Meer organised weekly vigils outside the Durban prison, and played a central role in organising some of the families of the detainees to provide food and support for the prisoners and their families. The group was arrested for demonstrating outside the prison and for organising a march to the mayor’s office; they were released shortly after their arrest. Meer was also involved in organising a week-long vigil at the Gandhi Settlement in Phoenix, which brought together Africans and Indians in prayer and fasting; the vigil was led by Sushila Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s daughter-in-law.

During the 1970s, Fatima was one of the leading anti-apartheid voices in the country. At this time – even though she faced strong opposition from her family and Indian Congress colleagues – 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. The IBR became, for the next three decades, Fatima’s principal channel for the dissemination of a wide range of her activities as academic, writer and community activist.

In 1975, for her outspoken public criticism of apartheid, Meer was served with another five years’ banning order. On 19 August 1976 Meer’s son, Rashid, was detained in the wake of the 1976 student revolt. Nine days later, Meer was also detained along with 11 other women. Sections of her six month detainment without trial were done in solitary confinement. Meer was detained with Winnie Mandela and other members of the Black Women’s Federation at Johannesburg’s notorious Fort Prison.

Shortly after her release in December 1976, Meer survived an assassination attempt when her house was petrol-bombed and a guest was shot and wounded by apartheid agents. This did not dampen her spirit and she continued to write and publish under pen names often of family members and co-workers. Meer was charged twice for breaking her orders. This was a difficult period for Meer as her teenage son Rashid was forced into exile. She did not see him for over a decade.

Champion of the underclasses

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

With the help of the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Meer 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 organising tutorial programmes in science and mathematics.

In 1986 Meer started Phambili High School for Africans; 3000 students enrolled. In 1993 Meer founded the Khanyisa School Project as a bridging programme for African children from informal settlements, which assisted underprivileged learners who required preparation for formal schooling. Meer 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 Meer founded the Clare Estate Environment Group in response to the needs of shack dwellers and rural migrants, deemed by the government to have no rights in urban areas; she drew attention to the fact that they were without clean water, sanitation and proper housing.

Years of fighting against Apartheid and repression bore fruit when South African’s voted in their first democratic election in 1994.

Activities since 1994

In 1994, Meer declined a seat in parliament because of her interest in non-governmental work. However, she served the ANC government in a number of capacities; she was the 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, Meer helped found the Concerned Citizens’ Group [CCG] to persuade Indians not to vote for white parties as many had done in 1994. During her visits to the predominantly Indian working class townships of Chatsworth and Phoenix, she was appalled by the levels of poverty, and responded to the plight of those facing eviction for failing to pay rates, water and electricity accounts due to unemployment. She organised successful interdicts against unlawful eviction, and won reprieves with costs. Meer continues to be actively involved with these communities. She was also an active participant in marches on the American Consulate during 2001 and 2002 to protest against the oppression and murder of Palestinians and against the war in Afghanistan. Meer is also patron and founder member of Jubilee 2000, formed to lobby for the cancellation of Third World debt.

The past few years have been 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 has suffered several heart attacks and strokes, but through all this, the remarkable 80 year-old Meer remains a fighter and unflinching champion of the under classes.

In immersing herself in liberation politics, education, social work, poverty alleviation and health care, Fatima has been an exemplary human being, propelled by her unequivocal faith in Islam, to improve the lot of her fellow people. Her immense contribution to the under classes; Blacks, women and the poor, has played an important role in portraying Islam and Muslims positively in South Africa.

Meer, a woman of great personal courage, drive, determination and enthusiasm is highly respected by most South Africans. She seems as comfortable in the presence of dignitaries like Nelson Mandela as she is with traditional Ulama (Muslim Priests) or the homeless. Meer’s personality and work has dominated our political history for over six decades and nowhere is this more evident than in the place of her birth, Durban.

Meer’s career as an academic, author and publisher

Meers’s academic achievements are impressive. She was on the staff of the University of Natal from 1956 to 1988 and during this time she acquired an international reputation.

Meer has produced over forty books, some as author, some as editor and some as publisher. This achievement has not been matched by any other academic or activist in the country.

As an academic and political activist, Meer had been invited to numerous academic and other conferences, where she fearlessly spoke against the country’s apartheid policies.

Her lectures and conference papers made a major impact on international audiences and enhanced her international reputation as one of the country’s most articulate black spokespersons. She has, over the years, been the recipient of numerous honours and awards, conferred on her by governments, and institutions at home and abroad.

She married Ismail in 1951 and they had three children, Shamin, Rashid and Shehnaz. She died in a Durban hospital on 13 March 2010 at 81. She was buried at the Brooke Street Cemetery in Durban.

– By sahistory.org.za