Durban-born human rights activist and liberation icon, Fatima Meer (August 12 1928 – March 13 2020), has been named “one of the most prominent women political leaders in South Africa.” Her life’s work sought to fight against repressive colonial and apartheid policies, and she took this task on with a ferocity that is hard to rival. So much so, that she was the first woman to be banned by the apartheid state in 1952. Meer’s formidable nature was seen in many aspects of her work including her mobilisation of civil society, her ability to lead numerous defiance campaigns, her academic accolades which included the publication of 40 books, and her commitment to the promotion of “interracial understanding” throughout her life. Her capabilities were so revered that she was offered a seat in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet at the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994. However, she declined this prestigious invite, choosing to rather focus her energies on civil society organisations and non-governmental work. Meer remained a pivotal voice for transformation throughout her life and was committed to advancing education and contributing to transitional justice. For many, she is a true “icon of South African democracy” and her contributions and legacy are worth remembering and celebrating.

Fatima Meer with Nelson Mandela, 1995, at her home.

An activist from an early age

Meer’s political activism began at an early age. She came from a “liberal Islamic family” and grew up in a household that fostered her ability to question the discriminatory status quo. Her father, Moosa Meer, was the editor of the Indian Views newspaper, an anti-colonial publication that critiqued white minority rule. Meer thus grew up with a clear understanding of the racial inequality and discrimination that characterised the times, and the need to actively challenge this repression. At the age of 16, while Meer was a student at Durban Indian Girls High, she raised funds to support famine relief in India, and she later mobilised students to join the Passive Resistance Campaign, mainly led by MK Gandhi. This political consciousness and commitment would continue throughout her life.

Fatima Meer, Durban, 1970.

Anti-apartheid activism and the empowerment of women

Meer can be considered as a true feminist icon. This becomes clear when we explore her contribution to the promotion of gender equality in numerous spaces. She was one of the first women to “be elected as an executive of the Natal Indian Congress” and also co-founded the Durban and District Women’s League in 1952 in order to ease racial tensions between Africans and Indians. She went on to become a founding member of both the Federation for South African Women (FEDSAW) and the Black Women’s Federation – alongside Winnie Mandela, where Meer served as the first president of the organisation. FEDSAW are perhaps most famous for their 1956 march against apartheid-era passbooks that black South Africans were forced to carry. This march is still considered “the largest gathering of South African women in history to date”, with 20 000 women protesting at the Union Building in Pretoria. Meer attended the march that day and continued to fight for racial and gender equality through her life. Of the march and of the present-day plight of women in South Africa, Meer shared:

“They fought because they did not want to carry a pass. I carry my pass every day in my heart. Because as a woman, I can’t walk freely on the streets. We can’t claim our freedom as women in this country and so we must continue the fight.

1956 Women’s March, Pretoria.

Meer was also an organiser of a number of defiance campaigns and a staunch supporter of Steve Biko the Black Consciousness Movement. This intensified her fight against the apartheid regime, and by the mid-1970s she was once again banned by the state – this time for five years – after speaking at an event called “Twenty-Five Years of Apartheid Rule.” After the 1976 Soweto Uprising, her and ten other activists from the Black Women’s Federation were “arrested and detained under section 6 of the terrorism act” and placed in solitary confinement. Following her release from prison, she survived an attempted assassination when someone tried to shoot her at her Durban home. By the 1980s she was lobbying against injustices caused in townships by Durban’s municipality and in the late 1990s – after declining a position in parliament – encouraged Indian voters to avoid voting for white political parties in future elections.

Added to her activism and political work, which spanned over six decades, was her academic brilliance. Meer was the first lecturer of colour to teach at The University of Natal where she taught sociology from 1956 to 1988. She was also a prolific writer and was awarded a number of honorary degrees and awards throughout her lifetime. Fatima Meer was undeniably a traverser of repressive barriers and limitations, and spent the majority of her life fighting injustice. For these reasons, she is one of Durban’s most revered activists. In her own words:

“Regardless of how many years we have spent in this life, we must get up and shout.”

Images courtesy of Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, South African History Archive, and The South African.

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