Fatima Whirlwind in a sari

Professor Fatima Meer, SABC board member and sociologist, in THE MARK GEVISSER PROFILE

FATIMA MEER takes something of a perverse delight in her reputation as a nuisance. She remembers an account, in the Inkatha mouthpiece Ilanga, of an event she organised for her great friend Winnie Mandela upon her unbannning. “The general gist of it was: ‘What’s that meddling coolie doing here?’” It’s a feeling she gets, too, on the South African Broadcasting Corporation board, on which she has served diligently and cantankerously for over a year: “Often I find that the African members of the board are not being assertive enough.
But I’ll always speak up! I can almost hear the old guard muttering under their breath: ‘These blacks are alright, but her!’”

Sure enough, one senior SABC manager tells me: “We can handle Dr Ivy [Matsepe-Casaburri, the chair] fine. But when we catch sight of that little, stooped figure in the sari clumping down the corridor, we grown men quiver in our suits!” She is the hardliner on the board, fearless and tenacious, but the suits respect her - not only because of the moral line she takes (she drives her colleagues to distraction by asking, always: “But is it the right thing to do?”), but because she does her homework.

Like all true eccentrics, Meer holds to a wide range of beliefs with passionate conviction. Among them: Winnie Mandela is the innocent victim of both apartheid and dirty politics within the African National Congress; the Ayatollah’s revolution in Iran was a “great success”; Salman Rushdie is a blasphemer; and Jihad in America should not have been shown on the SABC. Like most true eccentrics, too, she is far more enjoyable company than the hackishly correct.

Her career has been, well, restless. Despite crippling banning orders, she has built up a reputation as a prolific, if quirky, academic. Her books have included the compelling Trial of Andrew Zondo, which should be on every school curriculum, and Higher Than Hope, a propaganda exercise masquerading as the biography of Nelson Mandela. She was principal of one of the braver - and more ill-fated - social experiments of the 1980s, the Phambili School, where she found herself at the centre of a row over mismanagement.

At Natal University, she founded her Institute for Black Research - among other things it raised the blood pressure of her old friend Mangosuthu Buthelezi (they studied Native Administration together) by publishing the first research to conclude that Inkatha was destabilising Natal, and set up a publishing house, Madiba Press, which has moved from social research into Gandhibilia and children’s literature. Most recently, she has branched into script-writing: her account of Gandhi in South Africa, funded by the Indian government and bought by the SABC, has thrown her into new controversy: is it ethical for a board member to sell her wares to the corporation?

She made no money off it, she says, and besides, the deal was sealed before she was appointed to the board. She motivates her positions with vigour and charm. Even after the worst few months of her life (she had serious heart surgery and lost her son, Rashid - a highly regarded radio journalist - in a car crash), she is immensely engaging.

The home she has made, like her mind, is not suburban, even if nestles in the heart of Durban’s Indian bourgeoisie. It was built in the 1950s by activist-architect Alan Lipman - to its implacably mod nautical lines she has agglomerated, over the years, the whimsy of bamboo latticework and antique carpets; of wooden, stained-glass Victoriana that she has spirited off demolition sites. Like its occupants, the house is at ease with its locality (Meer, sharp-witted and well-travelled, nonetheless peppers her discourse with Durbanisms like “flim” -as in “Jihad in America is a propagandistic flim that is antagonistic and hostlie to Muslims”).

Her husband Ismail is a famed lawyer/activist who, despite his age (76) is one of the most energetic members of the KwaZulu- Natal provincial legislature. In South Africa they are Gujerati aristocracy; colleagues and contemporaries of the grand old gentlemen of struggle - Mandela, Sisulu, Marks, Dadoo. Although she will not say it, perhaps her loyalty to Winnie comes from the space the two women had to find as ambitious and articulate wives of more famous men. Like her friend, Meer does not hold her peace.

She maintains, correctly, that Jihad in America is prejudiced against Muslims. But there are two problems with the support she gave to the Muslim groups who wished to get it spiked: firstly, that she beleives that censorship is in some instances justified and, secondly, that she supported, at least at first, the board’s intervention in a management issue. Jihad’s screening is, for her, a critical moment in the balance that needs to be maintained between the rights of minorities and the rights to free speech. The supreme court ruled in favour of the latter earlier this week, and the programme was aired.

“If the SABC had a track record for showing films about Islam, and some of these were positive,” Meer says, “I might have said: ‘Oh well, this is propaganda, but it’s a different perspective, so show it!’. But I asked the SABC to furnish me with a list of films they have shown in the past two years, and it is pathetic.”

Fair enough. But here the analysis begins to teeter. Those opposed to the screening of Jihad become characterised as the downtrodden masses, while those in favour of it are the oppressing elites. How can she, an intellectual, challenge the faith of ordinary people when “that’s all they have! Do we now go roughshod over their lives and say: ‘Stand aside! you are a bunch of fanatics! You are ritualistic and superstitious and there’s no room for this stuff in my world and, because I have no respect for it, you’re not going to have it either!’”

She used exactly the same argument to justify her decision to boycott Salman Rushdie’s abortive tour to South Africa in 1988. It is spurious, for it does not take into account the power that imams and rabbis and priests have in shaping the consciousness of ordinary folk: Iranian villagers didn’t know that such a thing as The Satanic Verses existed before their ayatollahs distributed its saucy bits and put a death fatwa on its author’s head.

She rationalises the fundamentalist revolutions of the Middle East as a movement “of people trying to reclaim themselves and their lives in terms of their own ideologies and their own indigenous cultures”. Jihad in America must be seen within the political context of “those who won’t give their oil to the West versus those who will”. Any excesses that have occurred - in Iran, in Sudan, in Algeria - are teething problems that have come about because “they are in the infant stage of articulating

There is, Meer writes in her riveting account of a 1984 trip to Iran, entitled Towards Understanding Iran Today, “a Shi’ite heart beating inside each Sunni Muslim”. On this trip, she found that heart. She arrived in Iran sceptical, and left, if not a convert, then at least a passionate apologist for a revolution that, she concludes, is “real [and] a continuing process. It benefits most Iranians, it hurt some - but democracy is about the greatest good of the greatest majority and the present government passes that

Say what? What about the executions of opponents, the senseless 10-year war with Iraq, the brutal repression of dissent, the subjugation of women? Meer says she would gladly take up a chair at Tehran University, despite the fact that the women are veiled in public. “All the evidence I saw was of a free flow between men and women, and as much gender equality as I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.”

She does write that even though her newspaperman father had taught her to view religious leaders with caution, “Iran’s ayatollahs were different: they gave the impression of Plato’s super elite. Still, I wouldn’t leave my destiny in their hands. I would insist on a share in it. How could they be trusted, for instance, to protect my rights as a woman, to interpret the Qur’an to serve my interests and not usurp these to pursue the claims of men over women?”

And therein lies the essential contradiction in Fatima Meer. She is devout, but she prefers finding her own God to collective faith. Even though fellow Muslims stop her in airports and exhort her not to wear the sari, she chooses its secular sexiness over the more austere hijab. She revels in the unconventionality of her own upbringing - although her father had two wives, one of them, her mother, was white; she did not even send her children to madressah (“we were very modern!” she laughs). She is one of this country’s wildest women and one of its most powerful advocates for gender equity. Yet she feels compelled to defend a movement which has at its core the reshackling of women. Her Islamism, perhaps, is motivated by militant anti-West politics rather than religion.

And yet she clashed with the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa in the 1970s, because “the liberal inside me found it difficult to go along with their hard line on race”. Her world - while rooted in patrician Gujerati society - is intensely non- racial. Her own cows are not sacred: “Yes!” she says, “the criticism that Higher Than Hope was hagiographic is well earned! You must remember, the man was in prison! I hadn’t seen him since 1970. I was totally in love with the man. He was a hero, incarcerated, and no way would I say anything nasty about him.”

In many eyes, she has lost most credibility through her public support for Winnie Mandela. As in the furious letters she wrote to the media during the trial, she believes that all Mrs Mandela’s enemies “cannot cope with a Winnie who talks. Winnie can be very demure. She comes across almost like Princess Di. And all the world saw this aspect of her. But once she decided to use her voice, they couldn’t cope with it. They wanted her to be the reconciler before it was time for reconciliation.”

There is a characteristically self-deprecating story that Meer tells of her friendship with Winnie from the time they were detained together in 1976: “I used to be in my cell in my sari, not the best of garments in a confined space. So a friend brought me some dresses. One day Winnie and I met on the way to a meeting, me in my long dress. Winnie said: ‘You make that look like something you bought from OK Bazaars for two shillings! Give it to me and I’ll show you how it should be worn.’ I obliged, and she made it look like a designer outfit.” What purports to be a story about her friend is, in fact, about herself: her sensibility, like her style, is pret-a-porter.