ON FA­TIMA MEER

Iconic writer, aca­demic and anti-apartheid ac­tivist Fa­tima Meer al­ways kept a mem­oir. She was busy turn­ing it into an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy when she died in 2010. Now her daugh­ter has edited that work into a book, with a for­ward by

CityPress - - Voices -

Fa­tima Meer: Mem­o­ries of Love and Strug­gle (edited by Shamim Meer) Kwela Books 292 pages R280

Ev­ery time I land at Dur­ban Air­port, I am haunted by the mem­ory of Fa­tima Meer – my dear­est friend, sis­ter and ad­viser whom I wor­shipped and trea­sured like my own pos­ses­sion. I have ag­o­nised for months about writ­ing this fore­word, won­der­ing how any­one could do jus­tice to this phe­nom­e­nal woman’s life. No words seem elo­quent enough to de­scribe her or cap­ture the essence of that in­tel­lec­tual gi­ant who epit­o­mised the spirit of a to­tally lib­er­ated and eman­ci­pated soul.

Our re­la­tion­ship goes back many years to when I was a ju­nior so­cial work stu­dent and had just met and fallen in love with Nel­son Man­dela. From our first date on March 10 1956, Madiba spoke to me about his class­mates from Wits Univer­sity, Fa­tima and Is­mail Meer. As we drove to a farm, known to­day as Orange Farm, he wanted to know if I would like to visit the Meers in Dur­ban as they were newly mar­ried. I was puz­zled and thought to my­self, what a strange man. I hardly knew him and he al­ready took me for granted. I sheep­ishly said it would be a good idea, be­liev­ing that I would never go visit­ing strangers.

Madiba could be an­noy­ingly per­sis­tent and he, of course, did send me to meet the Meers as our re­la­tion­ship de­vel­oped. When I en­quired later from him why I had to visit Fa­tima, he boldly told me that he wanted her to con­firm whether he had “made the right choice of a woman”. When I ob­jected, he just had a good laugh.

On meet­ing them it soon be­came clear to me that the Meers were in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound to­gether ide­o­log­i­cally. Both Fa­tima and Is­mail were part of the core of the ANC that de­fied the seg­re­ga­tion­ist ide­ol­ogy of the op­pres­sive regime of the time that forced our or­gan­i­sa­tion to be splin­tered into the In­dian Congress, the Congress of Democrats, the Coloured Peo­ple’s Congress and the African Na­tive Congress. They were very ac­tive in form­ing an in­clu­sive or­gan­i­sa­tion that fi­nally gave birth to our present democ­racy, the African Na­tional Congress.

Fa­tima and I sim­ply grav­i­tated to­wards each other from when we first met. She be­came my friend, my sis­ter and my con­fi­dante. She, like me, strug­gled within her com­mu­nity to be val­ued as an in­tel­lec­tual and ac­tivist – and more than just a house­keeper. Fa­tima was born be­fore her time. She was pas­sion­ate about hu­man rights, she was a so­ci­ol­o­gist and a born so­cial worker. At times our friend­ship was at a great cost to her. Dur­ing the 1976 up­ris­ing by school­child­ren in Soweto, the govern­ment looked to blame me. The regime knew the stu­dents could not have planned the up­ris­ing on their own as they had no money.

I had as­sisted their lead­ers such as Tsi­etsi Mashinini and Dan Montsitsi and con­sulted with them al­most daily. I was even­tu­ally de­tained in Au­gust 1976. While in de­ten­tion at Num­ber 4 in the Fort, which is to­day known as Con­sti­tu­tional Hill, I was hor­ri­fied to learn I was joined by my dear­est Fa­tima.

Fa­tima and I had formed the Black Women’s Fed­er­a­tion in 1975, which was short-lived be­cause of the bru­tal­ity of the apartheid regime. Her de­ten­tion with me in 1976 was partly con­nected to this.

Fa­tima was not only a loyal friend, but suf­fered to­gether with me the hu­mil­i­at­ing scorn of the Se­cu­rity Branch ow­ing to our fight against in­jus­tice and be­cause of her loy­alty to me. She made me a board mem­ber of the re­search in­sti­tute she founded, the In­sti­tute of Black Re­search, when it was not fash­ion­able to in­clude me in any demo­cratic for­ma­tion, as this at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the vi­cious se­cu­rity branch.

When, af­ter my re­lease from de­ten­tion in 1977, I was ban­ished to Brand­fort, my first vis­i­tor was my friend Fa­tima. She bought me a load of gro­ceries and every­thing one would need at camp. Fa­tima com­forted me in that wilder­ness.

When Man­dela was moved to Vic­tor Ver­ster Prison in Paarl af­ter 1988, I re­ceived a mes­sage that he wanted to see me ur­gently. On that oc­ca­sion he said he wanted to see Fa­tima to ask her to write his bi­og­ra­phy – Higher Than Hope. Fa­tima agreed, but this would have con­se­quences for both her and me. We had to send ev­ery chap­ter to the ANC pres­i­dent in ex­ile, Oliver Tambo (known as OR), for his ap­proval. Fa­tima had fol­lowed Madiba’s in­struc­tions to be bru­tally hon­est and had re­searched Madiba’s pri­vate life and his nu­mer­ous in­dis­cre­tions.

OR was fu­ri­ous and de­manded that all the chap­ters deal­ing with this be ex­punged. Fa­tima and I did just that, but she later told me she kept those pages some­where in a vault in the bank.

Fa­tima and I had a mys­te­ri­ous bond, ev­ery time some­thing hap­pened to her, I would phone. My daugh­ters would also visit for hol­i­days.

When her hus­band died, I phoned that very mo­ment, know­ing how she would feel. Fa­tima had ac­tu­ally never re­cov­ered from the death of her only son, Rashid. She had known too much pain in her pri­vate life.

Fa­tima’s ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment to the ANC were al­most an ob­ses­sion. I per­son­ally felt she de­served more recog­ni­tion than she was given. But, of course, ours is still a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety, in which men are more recog­nised than women.

I hope that we will cor­rect that sit­u­a­tion with all our might as women.

If Fa­tima were alive she would be con­tribut­ing ro­bustly to the cur­rent na­tional de­bate about the grave prob­lems we are faced with to­day, such as the ru­moured state cap­ture, cor­rup­tion and graft.

I ad­mired her open mind and the fact that she was a free spirit.

CLOSE FRIEND Anti-apartheid ac­tivist Win­nie Man­dela de­liv­ers a eu­logy at the fu­neral of anti-apartheid stal­wart Fa­tima Meer at the Dur­ban Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre in 2010

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