Fatima Meer was actively involved in politics and was a close friend of with Nelson Mandela. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Fatima Meer was actively involved in politics and was a close friend of with Nelson Mandela. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Fatima Meer’s autobiography is the tale of a sociologist: one of her central aims is to reveal how an "Indian" girl born in Durban became a practitioner of a discipline barely heard of in SA in the 1940s and 1950s.

But it is also the work of a novelist. In the opening chapters Meer reveals in fine detail an unconventional upbringing. Her father had two wives, one Indian and the other white, during the height of segregation in SA. She turned 20 just as apartheid became law in 1948.

Meer, who died in 2010, became much more than a distinguished practitioner of her craft, engaging in politics in a manner far more innovative than many in her milieu.

She lived through and participated in the seminal events of 20th-century SA: the passive resistance campaign, the defiance campaign, the treason and Rivonia trials, Sharpeville and June 1976 … all the way to 1994 and after.

Her book is devoid of any sense that her life was exceptional, the narrative projecting the extraordinary as quite ordinary. It is only after finishing the book and reflecting on it that the exceptional nature of her experience becomes apparent.

From having two mothers and the fact that she was one of the first women to be banned by apartheid authorities, to her encounters with the Mandela family, everything comes across as almost quotidian and other texts and sources will have to be consulted to get a true measure of an exceptional life.

The early sections present a picture of a very extended family, with many and varied significant others living in the family home or revolving around it – uncles, aunts and cousins from SA’s cities, towns and dorps as well as from Surat in India. The book borders on the anthropological, albeit presenting a deviation from examples closer to the norm.

Meer’s father was the owner and editor of Indian Views newspaper and the little girl grew up mixing with writers and journalists.

Much of the book is about her relationship with her kind-of-uncle who became her husband and the father of her three children. Ismail Meer was one of the more radical activists in the Natal Indian Congress, the organisation launched by Mohandas K Gandhi and radicalised by GM Naicker.

Ismail looms large in the life of his future wife, deciding with her father what Meer would study at university and thus determining her profession. Later, he dominated life in their marriage even though, arguably, it is her work and not his that will constitute a more material legacy. She began her autobiography in 2000 while working on the biography of her husband. Soon after A Fortunate Man was published in 2002, she suffered a stroke, her second, which left her in a wheelchair.

When she resumed work on her life story, she could only dictate and not write it. It fell to daughter Shamim to take up the project, which she completed six years after her mother died.

This explains to some extent the rich early life in the book and the lack of content about what made Meer the political firebrand she was in later life. And it explains the first part of the book’s title, Memories of Love – it reads like a romance. Since the lovers were activists, it is a love story set within the struggle against apartheid.

Meer’s entire family was steeped in Natal Indian Congress politics and she was encouraged to tread the same path.

She became involved in political activity quite early in her life, before Ismail exerted so much influence over her. She was so involved in politics, she neglected her last year of schooling and had to repeat it.

An aspect of Meer that gains in significance … is her ability to float above factional politics

While studying at Wits University, she discovered the kind of life she wanted to lead. But she never broke with her roots, preferring to bring outsiders into her circle rather than moving out of her family. She moved in ever-widening circles.

Her first published work, Portrait of Indian South Africans, was an attempt to bring to her Indian compatriots an understanding of their relations with other South Africans. Several publishers let her down after promising to publish it. Today, it is recognised as a classic of South African sociology.

Her portrait of the Mandela family was the first authorised account of the lives of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, under-taken at Nelson Mandela’s request and completed in 1988.

An aspect of Meer that gains in significance in the current political climate is her independence and ability to float above factional politics.

While steeped in ANC and Natal Indian Congress politics, she was always receptive to tendencies outside the Congress tradition, especially Black Consciousness — naming her research unit the Institute for Black Research. This was probably why she was so close to Winnie, who was also inside and outside the ANC.

Meer was an early critic of the governing party’s failures of governance and she hooked up with left-of-ANC activists to defend the victims of ANC callousness, especially in Natal.

She worked with the unemployed, unskilled and with shack dwellers, among others, before and after 1994.

The book’s coverage of events after 1970 is sketchy but suggestive of great storms. Her life changed after June 1976 when she and her son, Rashid, were banned and detained for long periods.

She survived an assassination attempt a few weeks before fellow sociologist Rick Turner was shot dead. Later, she suffered a heart attack, lost Rashid when he died in a car crash and lost her beloved husband.

The book is more and less than an autobiography — a record of lives lived at great intensity and at the same time, a casualty of this fervour.

It is a testimony to ideas and passions very much at odds with current trends.

Above all, the nonracial and truly radical character of Meer’s aspirations and activities stand in stark contrast to political developments two decades after the demise of apartheid.

Author: Fatima Meer
Publisher: Kwela Books

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