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.


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.]



It is with sadness and tears in my eyes to hear of the passing away of Professor Fatima Meer. Not only was she a comrade ,but  a mother and a light  for  the oppressed.

Like Comrade Dennis Brutus she was consistent and stood stead fast for the upliftment of the poor.

In 2001 the strike by over 3000  casual workers at the ENGEN Refinery the workers were arrested , locked up , interdicted and falsely accused by the management and the SAPS at Wentworth. Activists were interdicted and arrested as well as they sort to assist the workers who were dismissed and black listed. It was to people like comrade Fatima that we turned to for assistance, whether this moral support , bail money etc.

Comrade Fatima Meer was there always and in the forefront. There was never ever a second telephone call or an invite for her to come to the communities and lend her voice and strength.  

I recall her addressing  3000 casual workers at the Austerville Civic Centre on a winter’s night in June 2001  and stated’ The labour Broking system is worse than the days of slavery ‘ It least the slaves knew their master. The workers did not know who was their employer with all the different middle men giving instructions and in some cases even firing them and yet they did not employ them. The very same night workers went to the Wentworth Station to demand their entry permits confiscated by the police and Engen. Comrade Fatima Meer was present and as the Police started to shoot with live ammunition, she witnessed first hand how we in the Wentworth Community and casual workers were treated worse than animals by the Wentworth Police and the management of ENGEN.   

Comrade Fatima was consistent when it was not feasible to speak out against an oppressive system and called for the demolishment of the Labour Broking System and workers to be employed directly by the ENGEN Refinery.   

Over the years comrade Fatima  never hesitated to be in the forefront of any in just action either by the state or corporate

It is barely a few months we have lost comrade Dennis and to lose another giant like comrade Fatima is a huge lost for all who struggle to uplift our fellow human being.


Desmond D'Sa

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) Coordinator

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The Palestine Support Committee (PSC) & Social Movements Indaba-KZN offer their deepest condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Professor Fatima Meer. The giant trees amongst us have passed on and the forest has yet grow new ones like them.

Professor Meer had worked with the PSC in fighting the injustices perpetrated by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people just as courageously as she struggled and sacrificed for the people of this land. Professor Meer will always be remembered by us as we struggle for justice for others.

To the giants amongst us who have passed on Professor Meer and Professor Dennis Brutus; Salute Hamba Khale .. you will always be alive in our thoughts and struggles.

Rassool Snyman


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The Durban Mercury

We'll miss her strength in our corner

March 15, 2010 Edition 1

Ashwin Desai

The Exhibition Centre is a cavernous theatre situated in the heart of Durban. It was the setting for the funeral of Fatima Meer on Saturday.

They came from everywhere. Cabinet ministers, lower-level politicians, liberation veterans and the new struggle heroes in the city - those who have fought off evictions and electricity and water disconnections, the activists striving to save the Durban market and the last remnants of the noble art of subsistence fishing.

They sat uneasily together. Almost like boxers eyeing each other from different corners. Up ahead, the religious figures took centre stage, each straining to display their openness to different religions but trying hard to put their god first.

Then it was the turn of the secular gods. The politicians. When the ANC speaks these days, Julius Malema hangs like the spectres that haunted Macbeth. Their smooth handshakes seem not to matter anymore because one gets a sense that this is the hand that quivers at the feet of Malema.

Winnie Mandela was the first up on the platform. She spoke beautifully of friendship. Her sincerity and grief were deep and raw.

Farouk Meer, the brother who never really found a place in institutional politics, took the stage. His lament on corruption was met with huge applause. When he challenged Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan on the ethics of cabinet colleagues who hid behind ministerial handbooks to live the life of Riley, this drew even bigger applause.

While everybody there knew their own Fatima Meer, it was outside that one got a sense of the people who really grasped the essence of the late activist. Excluded from the official platform, they eyed contemptuously the once struggle luminaries who implemented policies that made their already hard lives even more precarious. People like working-class women from Chatsworth. They appreciated that unlike many of the struggle "heroes" hanging around outside, Meer was a post-apartheid fighter.

From the very large marches in the centre of Durban to the small, everyday battles in its ghettoes, she was there. One of her last battles was to try to save the market. She told us at a small meeting, let them build a shopping mall at the Royal Durban Golf Club or even at Currie's Fountain. But save the market.

I remember Meer striding into Chatsworth in 1999 to campaign for the ANC. She quickly realised that disenchantment with the former liberation movement did not stem from racism or apathy, but that people in these poor areas were under direct attack by the government, her government. Their lights and water were being cut, they were being evicted. She hurt at the callousness. Meer switched tack. She stopped campaigning for votes and started rebuilding resistance. Out of that refusal to simply toe the party line, social movements in Durban were born.

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Opinion 'A great friend and a mother to our children'

March 15, 2010 Edition 1

Winnie Madikezela-Mandela

Extract from Winnie Mandela's eulogy titled,

Fatima Meer: The Friend I Chose as Family:

She was one of a very few people who could be counted on to visit while we languished in prisons. She visited me in detention and in Brandfort, despite the laws of the day. She also visited Madiba on Robben Island.

It was no surprise that she was asked by Madiba to write his biography in consultation with OR Tambo.

I arranged her communication with Lusaka and Higher than Hope was the end product.

When we needed somewhere to stay or hide, Fatima was always first to mind. Both Madiba and I visited and used the Meer home as a hideout, both in Johannesburg and in Durban.

And it was to her credit that even when there was a fallout between Madiba and I, she did not take the side of the most powerful man in the country.

She remained loyal to both of us and this is an example of true friendship that is rare to find.

As is usually the case, such bravery was accompanied by a tremendous brain.

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March 13, 2010


The Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA) is deeply saddened to hear about the death of Comrade Fatima Meer, an activist and spokesperson for the poor, marginalized and destitute communities of Azania, with few peers.  We extend our heartfelt condolences to her family and wish them strength and courage in this their moment of deep pain and loss.  Her death comes at a time when there is a very critical need for outspoken, critical, sincere and committed grassroots oriented activists and organic independent thinkers in our country.

Her passing on coincides with nation wide acts of discontent and uprising by the poorest of the poor against a deplorable lack of service delivery and the further looming  burden that will be imposed on the poor by the implementation of NERSA’S 25% increase in the price of electricity.

Fatima was right in her observation that the some of the people with whom she fought for freedom have replaced the struggle for the empowerment of the poor with their own projects for self enrichment.

She would have been one of the first to condemn the fact that Chancellor House, the investment arm of the ruling party stands to benefit from the increases as it will be responsible for the installation of boilers in the two power stations that are to be constructed and also has shares in the companies producing dirty coal that will be supplied to these power stations.

The Socialist Party of Azania will miss her feisty spirit, and the robust debates she raised and her undying spirit of activism.   

Long live the spirit of Fatima Meer!

For and on behalf of the Socialist Party of Azania




Reclaiming a Legacy: The Death of Fatima Meer and the World Cup

By Dave Zirin

I journeyed to South Africa to celebrate the life of the late poet, anti-apartheid fighter, and sports activist Dennis Brutus. During my stay, another giant of the South African freedom struggle passed away: Fatima Meer. Fatima left us at the age of 81 and embodied a tireless grassroots resistance that stretched back to the 1940s. She was best known in the West as the author of Nelson Mandela's first official biography, Higher than Hope (translated into 13 languages.) Others knew her as a renowned academic who had published more than 40 books. In South Africa, she was nothing less than iconic political royalty.

Over the course of decades, Fatima Meer confronted apartheid with storied bravery: holding vigils outside brutal political prisons, organizing marches of Indian and African women in defiance of protest bans; surviving assassination efforts after attempting to rally alongside Steven Biko. The fact that she did this as an Indian Moslem woman was, in South Africa, both unprecedented and highly influential. But unlike so many others, her legacy of resistance didn't screech to a halt following apartheid's fall. Despite remaining a member of Mandela's African National Congress, she continued to fight for racial and economic justice in the new South Africa even when it meant harshly critiquing her dear friend Nelson. She stood steadfastly with the social movements saying, "If democracy has been clearly and resoundingly implemented then the people should be able to stand up for their rights and not allow themselves to be trampled by officials or politicians."

Given her stature, it's not surprising that the African National Congress rushed to claim her legacy, giving Fatima Meer a public, state funeral, which I attended. Winnie Mandela herself was present and spoke about their decades of friendship. (Dennis Brutus, suffice it to say, did not receive a state funeral. As his friend Patrick Bond said to me, "If Dennis had a state funeral he would have gotten up and left.") The ANC's embrace of Fatima in death raised more than a few eyebrows at the service. Many remarked how bizarre it was seeing the very politicians she lambasted, singing her praises and the very police she confronted, carrying her casket. Fatima's ally, Ashwin Desai, said archly, "I love Monty Python movies and therefore I had no problem with the service. Because that's what it was: Monty Python." Another friend whispered to me, "The last time Fatima was near so many police, there was tear gas."

No one from the social movements that Fatima nurtured was given time to speak. Trevor Ngwane from the Anti-Privatisation Forum said to me afterward, "We appreciate the state funeral but she was against the state. She was against state policies. She was against state privatisations. Fatima fought in the streets, in the boardrooms, in the newspapers. So it's a bit rich of the ANC to claim her. Yes she was with them for many years but she was with us as well."

There will be more grassroots remembrances of Fatima Meer in the weeks to come. And yet the most powerful potential tribute may be less than 90 days away. Fatima told friends that she was frustrated and furious with the financing of the 2010 World Cup to be held across South Africa. One political colleague of Fatima, Dr. Lubna Nadvi said to me after the funeral, "There is no question: the best tribute to Fatima would be the largest possible march on the World Cup." Given the state attacks on street traders, township dwellers, and students in advance of the tournament, there could be nothing more fitting. Given the fact that the ANC has championed the World Cup, having the memory of Fatima Meer on the other side of the barricades would be a just reclamation of her political identity. That's where her dear friend Dennis Brutus would be. That's where she would be. And that would be the ultimate commemoration of their towering legacies.

[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]


Fatima Meer

In a chapter entitled ‘A Life of Remembrance,’ in the book ‘In The Early Hours,’ the late author Khurram Murad states, in defining the word ‘dhikr’:

“Dhikr must not only be felt by the heart and uttered with the tongue, but must also effect amal salih or good deeds. Significantly, Ibn al-Qayyim suggests that dhikr encompasses ‘any and every particular moment when you are thinking, saying or doing things which Allah likes.’”

When the late activist Fatima Meer recently passed away, some of my friends bemoaned the scant presence of Muslims at her funeral.

I – however – was not surprised. I had first met Aunty Fatima when we worked together as part of the Anti-War Coalition, in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York when the USA announced its plans to attack Afghanistan. I remember excitedly telling one of my family members about our meeting, afterwards. And although this family member spoke about the high esteem many people held her in, she also told me about a segment of the community which judged her, based on – amongst other things - the fact that a sari constituted her signature apparel.

Based on my many years of interaction with a rather patriarchal Muslim community, as both, a journalist, and the female director of an NGO, I have no doubt that such a segment does indeed exist within our ranks – made up of people who - for reasons best fathomable to themselves – assume the right to designate others to Heaven or Hell, and to attach the titles ‘Good Muslim’ and ‘Bad Muslim’ to them.

And it would not surprise me if these people chose to ‘boycott’ Aunty Fatima’s funeral, condescendingly deeming themselves to be ‘better’ than her in implementing the tenets of the Islamic faith, because she did not wear the hijaab, or has been photographed embracing Nelson Mandela.

In fact one SMS doing the rounds after her funeral termed her a ‘bad role model for Muslim women.’

Such people would do themselves as well as others a favour, if they took a moment to reflect on wisdom of the passage quoted at the beginning of this article, and then embarked on a comprehensive study of the Qur’aan and Sunnah.

Fatima Meer’s life was abound with good deeds.

Perhaps the essence of the life she led is best captured by the hadeeth in which the Prophet SAWS was reported to have said: "Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one." When asked, "O Allah's Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?" the Prophet SAWS replied, "By preventing him from oppressing others."

Fatima Meer’s fight against oppression began at the tender age of 17, when, as a school-girl, she joined prominent anti-apartheid activists like Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker to mobilize support for the Passive Resistance Campaign.

From then on her life was characterized by tireless efforts aimed at fighting apartheid and promoting peaceful interracial relations, whilst simultaneously being a mother to both, her own children, as well as thousands of other oppressed men, women and youth, in spite of being banned, imprisoned and surviving an assassination attempt.

Assisting the poor and needy was another Qur’aanic principle which she brought to life, devoting much of her time to the cause of the impoverished, from setting up organisations aimed at assisting the victims of the 1972 Tin Town floods to establishing crafts centres and colleges aimed at empowering the unemployed with secretarial and other skills in the late 1970’s, to arranging for a number of African students to study medicine and political science at universities in India.

But perhaps most significantly, when apartheid was abolished as an official policy and Fatima Meer’s dream of a non-racially divided South Africa came into fruition, she was one of a few people who were brave enough to speak out and act against the very people whose coming into power she fought for, when she visited Chatsworth and Phoenix and found service delivery lacking.

She would stand at the forefront of many a protest action, a tiny figure in her 70s, braving rubber bullets and tear gas, serving as obstacle in the path of evictions and electricity cuts.

“She was a woman of very strong moral convictions and believed totally in justice and human rights for all,” remembers Paddy Meskin, President of the South African chapter of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. “She was not afraid to take on anyone. She was one of the best voices of the voiceless in our country. I think she saw that as one of her key roles whilst she was put on this earth - that there needed to be people to speak out for those who had no voice or capacity or access.”

Fatima Meer may not have worn the hijaab.

But rich and poor, powerful and downtrodden, oppressor and oppressed, Muslim and non-Muslim – in the days following her death everyone has borne testament to how she touched the lives of others on some level or the other. Which of the Muslims who have categorized her as being a ‘Bad Muslim,’ can claim this honour for themselves?

Who says she shouldn’t be a role model for Muslim women?

Dr Faisal Suliman