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Fatima Meer, 1928-2010: `Regardless of how many years we have spent in this life, we must get up and shout'

In January 2000 Fatima Meer enraged ANC leaders by opposing the eviction of destitute families from council flats in Chatsworth, Durban. The ANC’s objective was to sell off the council housing. Meer helped to establish the Concerned Citizens’ Group to organise protests against the ANC’s anti-poor policies like privatisation and cost-recovery, which had led to violent evictions and water cutoffs. The ANC deputy mayor of Durban Trevor Bonhomme called Meer a counter-revolutionary. Watch the video above to hear her response.

On March 12, 2010, Fatima Meer passed away at the age of 82, the result of a stroke she suffered two weeks before. Meer was a long-time fighter against apartheid, racism and social injustice, both before and after the fall of the white minority regime in South Africa in 1994. Despite being a veteran of the ANC movement, and the author of the definitive biography of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela (Higher than Hope, Penguin 1988), when the ANC in governemnt embraced neoliberalism Meer threw in her lot with poor and oppressed who, despite the change of government, continued to bear the brunt of inequality and exploitation. Below, Patrick Bond and Orlean Naidoo pay tribute.

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By Patrick Bond and Orlean Naidoo, Durban

March 16, 2010 -- "Impoverished people, people who haven't got food on their plates. Now you are going to take away the roof from their heads. And where do you expect these people to go? You are just compounding their indigency. Then you move in with these security guards and dogs and guns. Now if this is not fascist brutality, what is fascist brutality?"

The scene could have been an apartheid-era forced removal, with a brave black activist haranguing the white regime. But this question was asked of the new [post-apartheid African National Congress] government of South Africa by Fatima Meer exactly a decade ago, at the peak of the Chatsworth housing battle, on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) show Special Assignment.

The unity of poor black African and Indian people fighting the city government impressed Meer. She had come to Chatsworth, near Durban, a year earlier as part of the Concerned Citizens Group (CCG) of mainly Indian struggle veterans, campaigning for a vote for the ANC at a time when minority parties were gaining ground.

Always nimble, Meer did a quick U-turn. On a Sunday shortly before the 1999 national election, the Jankipersadh family faced the threat of eviction from a Chatsworth shack. Shocked by the living conditions she encountered, Meer stayed to fight, cajoling and threatening city officials to halt the Jankipersadh removal. KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize recalled this incident at Fatima Meer's state funeral on March 14, 2010, at the Durban International Convention Centre.

Within a year, Meer would be sucking in the smell of post-apartheid tear gas that became so familiar in Chatsworth, her eyes streaming tears of anger, her throat coughing up disgust at the local ANC rulers whom she had helped put into power with unmatched courage during the bad years when she was beaten and banned.

A decade ago, the ruling party was not quite so corruption-ridden as now. But the tendency of Durban officials to crush poor people's aspirations was just as pronounced.

New oppressors

On the week of Meer's death, it may be Durban Mayor Michael Sutcliffe denying local civics the right to march; back then, it was the ANC's deputy mayor Trevor Bonhomme, bringing in the cops while accusing Meer and other organisers of harbouring shebeens, drug lords and brothels.

Within two years, Meer had not only helped organise the community to successfully resist. She managed to bring together all the fractious campaigning groups within Durban's poor communities against the World Conference Against Racism. At the end of August 2001, the Concerned Citizens Forum of grassroots civics allied with Muslim pro-Palestinians, her beloved Jubilee 2000 anti-debt movement, and other human rights groups from across South Africa and the world.

Rightly, they were infuriated that US Secretary of State Colin Powell, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former president Thabo Mbeki had agreed to remove from the conference agenda two critical issues: racist Israeli Zionism, and reparations for slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

Meer and the late poet and activist Dennis Brutus led more than 10,000 people in a march against the UN conference that day, and suddenly the idea of the South African civil society taking on malgovernance was a reality.

That force, to be able to think and act locally, nationally and globally, was perhaps unique in the country's history. Writing her obituary in City Press, Meer's co-conspirator Ashwin Desai now laments that the new urban social movements which emerged in Chatsworth are a "spent force", but many others in Meer's circuit will disagree.

For example, Desmond D'Sa of Wentworth last month helped launch a new local-global campaign -- now more than 200 organisations strong -- to halt World Bank financing of Eskom with a R29 billion loan.

Aside from the police squad carrying her casket (we imagined her voice inside cajoling them for ongoing "fascist brutality"), one reason Meer's funeral seemed uncomfortable was because civil society was given no opportunity to celebrate the non-ANC causes she lent her prestige to.

She opposed a loan that Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan -- who oversees Eskom -- insists we need to fund a new coal-fired plant (the world's fourth largest) and partial energy generation privatisation, to be paid for by huge increases in tariffs for poor and working people.

Environmentalists, labour and community opponents of the World Bank and Eskom join Meer's longstanding concern that the Worl Bank must first pay black South Africans reparations, for supporting apartheid-era white power when, from 1951-67, Washington financiers lent US$100 million to Eskom but zero African people received electricity.

Meer would have publicly ridiculed the statement by Hogan at a press conference on March 12, just as the great activist passed away: "If we do not have that power in our system, then we can say goodbye to our economy and to our country."

"Rubbish!" Meer would have shouted, impatiently explaining that by switching supply away to the common person, away from the over-consumers who get the world's cheapest electricity -- e.g. BHP Billiton -- we would meet many economic and social objectives, while avoiding construction of new climate-destroying coal plants.

Most myopic of all, perhaps, was her old friend Pravin Gordhan, now the ANC government's finance minister who in London recently made the startling claim that this would be South Africa's "first World Bank loan" -- when in fact there were several others since 1994 (Industrial Competitiveness and Job Creation, Municipal Financial Management Technical Assistance Project and the destructive Lesotho dams) as well as World Bank investments in a failed Domino's Pizza franchise and similarly well-conceived poverty-reduction strategies.

Neoliberalism

Meer's dismay at ANC graft, bling and its youth league leader's right-wing populism was noted by her brother Farouk at the funeral, but what went missing -- especially with Gordhan in attendance -- was how revolting she found the Treasury's ongoing neoliberalism and the dalliance with the World Bank, emblematised by the ANC's failed Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) program which World Bank staff co-authored.

Delivering the Harold Wolpe lecture at the Centre for Civil Society in February 2007, Meer observed that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) had "usurped power in South Africa and the world" because they "are structured to exploit us".

Gordhan knows this, for he was the Transitional Executive Council economics representative who in December 1993 co-signed the $850 million IMF loan that pledged her friend Nelson Mandela's government to painful, neoliberal policies.

So we have now lost Durban's -- and South Africa's -- two most senior civil society scholar-activists in fewer than 80 days: Dennis Brutus on December 26 and Meer on March 12, and that probably pleases many in Washington and Pretoria.

As for the rest of us, the interview Meer did for SABC's Special Assignment in 2000 (above) provides as clear a mandate as we will ever hear, in light of how there is: "No commitment at all to the poor people. It's a very sorry state of affairs. Those of us who can stand up and shout, regardless of how many years we have spent in this life, we must get up and shout."

With this beautiful voice silenced, surely our responsibility now is to stand up and shout louder still.

[Patrick Bond and Orlean Naidoo work at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society, and Naidoo helps organise Chatsworth against injustice. Fatima Meer's interviews on civil society activism are posted at http://www.vukani.net. This article first appeared in the March 16, 2010, edition of the Durban Mercury.]

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