Energetic, fearless activist

Shamim and Shehnaz, her daughters, will have to speak about Fatima the woman, the mother, the young girl who was stirred by stories of the Bengal famine in the 1940s.

I intend writing about my colleague and senior friend. I remember when I first met Fatima Meer in 1982 how struck I was by the madness in her office at the University of Natal. She was the acting head of sociology and I was to be the welcomed new recruit.

I could not distinguish researchers from devotees, helpers from colleagues — there was mad energy there. And it was a mixed bag of functions, from questionnaires to hampers for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Brandfort. But there was attention, too: Fatima has been a consistent presence in my life since — both in our ups and in our downs.

She was a one-woman vanguard on every issue and a trusting person who would hand over her keys in town to a young man to park her Toyota because she was late, never to see them (the keys, the man, the Toyota) again. She had her big issues to deal with — Andrew Zondo, the young “Amanzimtoti Bomber” who was finally executed, and the book on black women workers that she was putting together through the Institute for Black Research she had just founded.

Her desk was piled with cuttings about anyone from Gandhi to Mao, anything on township violence, cards from her grandchildren and forms that were meant to have been completed 10 years back. Thanks to Alan van Zuydam-Reynolds and later Ramesh Harcharan, her commanders-in-chief, I was sad to see order restored and an endearing image of a railway workshop turn into one of respectability and poise.

I had caught her in a cycle of energy when, at 54 years of age, she had embarked, through the Institute for Black Research, on a wave of action-research activities that would have been the envy of a hyper- active teenager. As a black woman marked by connections in the resistance movement, she was barely tolerated and hardly appreciated in the 1960s at the then University of Natal.

What kept her going were her interactions and engagements with the broader community. The rise of the Black Consciousness Movement and the first impulses of a worker challenge to apartheid and capitalism got her active once more.

Meer had to endure another assault: a banning order because of her responses to the emerging challenges. Instead of diminishing her, it increased her stature, but teaching, researching and interacting became acutely difficult. Yet it was also a period of intensive networking because, once again, change was in the air.

By the early 1980s, however dangerous or repressive the times may have been, there was enough of a critical mass of people — black intellectuals and activists, funding partners and community organisations — to facilitate the creation of her institute through which most of her energy was to be focused.

This did not immediately signify an end to Meer’s marginalisation from the university and from many of her colleagues, but it facilitated the space for a critical and public sociology to emerge, to publish and communicate on burning issues. By the time the post-apartheid South Africa emerged, she was about to retire.

She continued with her work in the Institute for Black Research to the end as an associate and a colleague — challenging, criticising and coaxing. Many of the issues that hurt her then continued to hurt her to the end: the appalling education of black children, the increasing disparities between the wealthy and the poor, the rising xenophobia, the Indian community’s distance from African concerns and of Africans from so-called Indian concerns, the Afro-Zulu tension in KwaZulu-Natal and the double standards of many of our new people in power.

She was fearless: she published the Mandela biography when it was illegal to do so; she continued talking to Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Rowley Arenstein when she was not supposed to; she defended every act of revolutionary violence in court as a witness while compiling The South African Gandhi; with Ashwin Desai she challenged the ANC while defending it internationally; she slated the triple oppression of women while defending the situation of women in Iran — there was nothing inconsistent about all that if you listened to her analysis.

I am left with an enduring image: the late Ishmael Meer in the garden pruning roses; Fatima on a settee, waiting with the set of watercolours she did in prison; her grandchildren, Zen and Maya, running up and down the courtyard of the lovely house Alan Lipman had designed for them, and outside on the grassy pavement, a security policeman in his car, reading and waiting. They will go away one day, she insisted — we will outlast them all.

Fatima Meer: Born August 12 1928; died March 12 2010

Ari Sitas is professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town

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