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Fatima Meer PDF Print E-mail

ImageFatima Meer (1928 - 2010) was born in Grey Street, Durban. Her father, Moosa Meer was the editor of Indian Views, a weekly newspaper aimed at Gujarati-speaking Muslim communities. Fatima was brought up in an atmosphere that was highly conscious of racial discrimination and that shaped her into a tireless defender of the oppressed. She attended the Durban Indian Girls' High School and subsequently went to the University of Natal where she completed a Masters degree in Sociology.

From 1946 to 1948, Indians in South Africa engaged in the Passive Resistance campaign against apartheid. Meer, who joined the campaign, established the Student Passive Resistance Committee, where she embarked on a career as an anti-apartheid campaigner. She helped establish the Durban districts Women's League to build alliances between Africans and Indians, after the race riots that occurred between the two groups in 1949. The organisation built a creche, distributed milk and fought the arrests of African women with passes.

When the National Party came to power in 1948, imposing the policy of apartheid, Meer's involvement increased and she spoke publicly against apartheid. Her activities led to her banning in 1952, which excluded her from all public gatherings and from being published. She became a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) that spearheaded the historical women's march to the Union Buildings that occurred on the 9th of August 1956.

During the 1960s, when the majority of activists were being detained without trial, she organised night vigils and in the 1970s when the Black Consciousness Movement was starting to dominate, she was again banned and was subsequently detained for trying to organise a rally with Steve Biko. Shortly after her release in 1976, Meer survived an assassination attempt, when her house was petrol bombed. Her son Rashid was forced into exile in the same year, making this a difficult time for her, as she was not to see him for a decade.

From the 1980s to the 1990s, Meer worked with NGOs, fighting for the rights of shack-dwellers and rural migrants. She headed the Natal Education Trust, which built schools in Umlazi, Port Shepstone and Inanda; established the Tembalihle Tutorial College in Phoenix and a Crafts Center. These projects were shut down in 1982 when Fatima was detained for contravening a banning order. Fatima established a string of educational institutions that were aimed at improving the quality of education for Africans.

She has published more than forty books on a wide variety of subjects. Her major publications include: Portrait of Indian South Africans; Apprenticeship of a Mahatma; Race and Suicide in South Africa; Documents of Indentured Labour; Higher than Hope; The South African Gandhi; Resistance in the Townships; Apartheid our Picture; and Passive Resistance amongst others.  She had also branched out into scriptwriting, penning the screenplay for the 1996 Indian film production The Making of the Mahatma, a script version of Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. Fatima Meer had also won numerous awards for her activities, to name a few: Union of South African Journalists in 1975; Imam Abdullah Haroon Award for the Struggle against Oppression and Racial Discrimination in 1990; Vishwa Gurjari Award for Contribution to Human Rights in 1994 and 'Top 100 Women Who Shook South Africa' in 1999.   In 2004, Fatima Meer was ranked as #45 in the SABC's 'Top 100 Great South Africans' television special, based on a list compiled through surveys and votes from around the country.

Fatima Meer continued to work with non-governmental bodies, as well as serving several advisory positions for the government from 1994 onwards. She was also a member of Jubilee 2000, that was formed to get the Third World Debt cancelled. The past few years had been difficult for Fatima, who has lost both her son, Rashid, from a car crash in 1995, and her husband, Ismail, in 2000. Having suffered several heart attacks over the past few years, Fatima passed away at St. Augustines at the age of 81, following a stroke she suffered two weeks before her death, on the 13th of May 2010. She is survived by two daughters, Shehnaaz, a Land Claims Court judge and Shamin, a social science consultant, as well as five grandchildren.


Selected Work

From Apprenticeship of a Mahatma - A Biography of M.K. Gandhi 1869-1914 (1970)

When Mohan reached Durban in 1893, he was 24 years old. Seth Dada Abdulla, his host, client and employer, met him at the docks. The elegance of the young gentleman put him off considerably and he secretly wondered what he would do with him.

Mohan had expected to find the same reception in Durban as in England since Natal was a British colony. He was thus shocked when he observed the supercilious air of the petty officials towards the Seth, whom he knew to be one of the wealthiest men in the colony. Customs formalities completed, they entered the city. Mohan had the feeling of being pursued by a silent hostility. The silence broke when he entered the local court. The presiding magistrate ordered Mohan to take off his turban. Mohan was shocked. A turban was not a hat; it covered the head as a mark of personal prestige and public respect. Humiliated and angry, the two men hurried out of the room, and it was then that Mohan learnt of White prejudices.

He wondered whether he should abandon wearing the turban, rather than having it subjected to further insults, but the Seth liked his young charge in a turban. Besides, he argued, never before had so educated an Indian entered the colony, and he reasoned that on that ground alone Mohan should not succumb to the unjustified and humiliating demands of the insensitive Whites. Mohan liked the Seth's attitude, and so he not only retained his turban, but in addition wrote a letter to the daily paper, protesting against his treatment in court. He thereby, quite unwittingly, stepped into the politics of racial discrimination and released a voice of protest which, - in the years to come, would become increasingly more sophisticated. His brush with the colour bar certainly did not end there.

Almost as if by design, Mohan was exposed to a further series of racial assaults within the succeeding few days when he set out for Pretoria to work with Dada Abdulla's lawyers on the Seth's R80,000 claim against his cousin, a Pretoria businessman.
He began the journey in a first class compartment. His companion, preoccupied with his newspaper, remained apparently unaware of his presence until they approached Pietermaritzburg. Then he suddenly baulked at the prospect of having to spend the night with a black man, and summoned the officials. They appeared and the chief among them ordered Mohan to the goods van. Mohan refused to obey, whereupon a constable was summoned at Pietermaritzburg and he was pushed out of his compartment and left stranded on the platform while the train moved on.

He sat in the cold on the bench, overcome by his humiliation and barely able to contain his anger. He did not know where his luggage was, and he did not have the courage to enquire lest further humiliation would follow. His first reaction was to flee the country and he debated the matter deep into the night, working out the grounds on which he would ask Dada Abdulla to release him from his contract; but with dawn came a new resolution. To run away would be cowardly. He should stay and fight this thing that made petty officials act in such a high-handed manner towards respected citizens. He realized that what had happened to him was no chance event, but the studied application of an attitude which had taken possession of the local White mind. He considered that attitude evil and contrary to every British tradition he had learned to respect, and hence, in fact, alien to the English who practised it. He decided to stay and fight.



1969. Portrait Of Indian South Africans.  Durban:  Avon House.
1970. Apprenticeship Of A Mahatma.  Durban:  Phoenix Settlement Trust.
1975. Black Women Durban 1975 : Case Studies On 85 Women At Home And Work.  Durban:  University of Natal Press.
1975. The Ghetto People : A Study Of The Effects Of Uprooting The Indian People Of South Africa.  London:  Africa Publications Trust.
1976. Race And Suicide In South Africa.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul.
1984. Factory And Family : The Divided Lives Of South Africa's Women Workers.  Durban:  Institute for Black Research.
1985. Unrest In Natal.  Durban:  Institute for Black Research
1987. The Trial Of Andrew Zondo : A Sociological Insight.  Johannesburg:  Skotaville Publishers.
1988. Higher Than Hope : "Rolihlahla We Love You" : Nelson Mandela's Biography On His 70th Birthday.  Johannesburg:  Skotaville Publishers.
1989. Resistance In The Townships (edited By Fatima Meer).  Durban:  Madiba Publishers. 
1989. Treason Trial, 1985.  Durban:  Madiba Publishers.
1990. Mandela : Higher Than Hope : The Biography Of Nelson Mandela.  Durban:  Institute for Black Research. 
1991. Black - Woman - Worker (With Sayo Skweyiya et al).  Durban:  Madiba Publishers.
1991. Monty Speaks : Speeches Of Dr. G.M. (Monty) Naicker, 1945-1963.  Durban:  Madiba Publishers.
1991. Power Of The Powerless : A Study Of South Africa's Disenfranchised : Their Organisational Affiliations And Access To Power Based On A Sample Study Of 3316 Disenfranchised South Africans.  Durban:  Madiba Publishers.
1993. The CODESA File : An Institute For Black Research Project.  Durban:  Madiba Publishers.
2001. Prison Diary : One Hundred And Thirteen Days, 1976.  Cape Town:  Kwela Books.

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