Fatima Meer, the African National Congress stalwart, died in a Durban hospital on Friday afternoon at 81. She had been admitted to hospital a few weeks ago.
The former South African Broadcasting Corporation board member and sociologist, despite crippling banning orders, built up a reputation as a prolific academic and a powerful advocate of gender equality.
Meer survived an apparent assassination attempt by apartheid hitmen in 1977, and attacks in later years, which she blamed on the Black Consciousness Movement and the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Meer was born in Durban on August 12 1928.
She attended Natal University, gaining a Masters degree in Social Sciences.
She was also the recipient of three honorary doctorates: in Philosophy from Swarthmore College in the United States in 1984; in Humane Letters from Bennet College, also in the US, in 1994; and in Social Sciences, from her alma mater in 1998.
Her books included the Trial of Andrew Zondo, an account of an executed ANC guerrilla, and Higher Than Hope, a biography of Nelson Mandela.
She was principal of what has been described as a brave but ill-fated social experiment in the 1980s, the Phambili School, where she found herself at the centre of a row over mismanagement.
She founded the Institute for Black Research at the Natal University, which raised the ire of her one-time fellow student Mangosuthu Buthelezi by publishing the first research to conclude that the IFP was destabilising Natal.
She also branched into script-writing: her account of Mahatma Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa was funded by the Indian government and bought by the SABC.
A close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — with whom she was detained in 1976 and whom she believed was the innocent victim of both apartheid and dirty politics within the African National Congress — she also held some other unconventional views.
She boycotted Salman Rushdie’s abortive tour to South Africa in 1998, claiming he was a blasphemer, and returned from a 1984 trip to Iran a passionate apologist for that country’s Islamic revolution.
More recently, she became a patron of the Jubilee 2000 movement, that has campaigned for writing-off of Third-World debt.
Last year she was among 104 South Africans — including Govan Mbeki, Harry Oppenheimer and Miriam Makeba — honoured with the Order for Meritorious Service by former president Nelson Mandela.
In mid-1995 she underwent heart surgery and lost her son, Rashid — a highly regarded BBC radio journalist — in a car crash.
She underwent a triple heart bypass in 1998, and Mandela was one of the first to welcome her home.
Her husband, Ismail, was a famed lawyer/activist who was one of the most energetic ANC members of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature. He died in 2000.
He was arrested and charged with treason together with Mandela and others in the early 1960s.
She has two daughters — Shehnaaz, a Land Claims Court judge, and Shamin, a social science consultant.
Film producer Anant Singh said on Friday that Meer was a shining light and defender of women’s rights.
“Fatima Meer was one of the most exceptional women that I have ever met. We have been blessed to have had her in our lives and I am thankful for having her be a part of my life for the past 30 years,” Singh said in a statement.
“A champion of the less advantaged people of our country, she was a woman of extreme integrity and dignity. As we mourn her passing, we celebrate an amazing journey of an extraordinary daughter of South Africa.”
He expressed his sympathies and love for her family. – Sapa