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
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
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
That her starry quality