Fatima Meer: Memories of Love and Struggle
Impressions by Albie Sachs
This is a fascinating book about a fascinating person, written in a fascinating way. The first portion is a dispassionate narrative by Fatima Meer about her family antecedents. It gives an extensive history of Indian families migrating to Southeast Asia and to South Africa. The last third was meticulously and lovingly reconstructed from Fatima’s notes by her daughter, Shamim. It narrates in clean, readable prose Fatima’s story as an activist and social scientist in the period when apartheid was finally being brought down and our new democratic society – with all its attendant problems – was being constructed. But it is the middle portion, written with considerable emotion by Fatima, that makes for totally compulsive reading. The story comes alive from the moment she describes what it was like growing up with two mothers, one from an Indian family and the other from a white one. Add to this her meeting with her cousin Ismail Meer, many years older than herself, whom she had first regarded as an uncle and then fallen in love with. Ismail was an activist par excellence, handsome, debonair and a frontline fighter in the Indian Passive Resistance Movement after World War II. She writes graciously about an intense and meaningful relationship he had had with Ruth First some time before she had met and married Joe Slovo. Though by nature a feminist who writes with great candour about the tensions from time to time in her relationship with Ismail, she is clearly strongly devoted to the family. The personal and the political are woven inextricably into each other by her life and in her prose. I found these middle chapters quite marvellous. This is definitely a book to read and have.
Foreword in the book by Winnie Mandela
Every time I land at Durban Airport, I am haunted by the memory of Fatima Meer – my dearest friend, sister and advisor whom I worshipped and treasured like my own possession. I have agonised for months about writing this foreword, wondering how anyone could do justice to this phenomenal woman’s life. No words seem eloquent enough to describe her or capture the essence of that intellectual giant who epitomised the spirit of a totally liberated and emancipated soul.
Our relationship goes back many years to when I was a junior social work student and had just met and fallen in love with Nelson Mandela. From our first date on the 10 March 1956, Madiba spoke to me about his classmates from Wits University, Fatima and Ismail Meer. As we drove to a farm, known today as Orange Farm, he wanted to know if I would like to visit the Meers in Durban as they were newly married. I was puzzled and thought to myself what a strange man. I hardly knew him and he already took me so for granted. I sheepishly said it would be a good idea, believing that I would never go visiting strangers. Madiba could be annoyingly persistent and he of course did send me to meet the Meers as our relationship developed. When I enquired later from him why I had to visit Fatima, he boldly told me that he wanted her to confirm whether he had “made the right choice of a woman”. When I objected he just had a very good laugh. On meeting them it soon became clear to me that the Meers were inextricably bound together ideologically. Both Fatima and Ismail were part of the core of the ANC that defied the segregationist ideology of the oppressive regime of the time that forced our organisation to be splintered into the Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats, the Coloured People’s Congress and the African Native Congress. They were very active in forming an inclusive organisation which finally gave birth to our present democracy, the African National Congress.
Fatima and I simply gravitated towards each other from when we first met. She became my friend, my sister and my confidant. She, like me, struggled within her community to be valued as an intellectual and activist – and more than just a housekeeper. Fatima was born before her time. She was passionate about human rights, she was a sociologist and a born social worker. At times our friendship was at a great cost to her. During the 1976 uprising by school children in Soweto, the government looked to blame me. The regime knew the students could not have planned the uprising on their own as they had no money. I had assisted their leaders such as Tsietsi Mashinini and Dan Montsitsi and consulted with them almost daily. I was eventually detained in August 1976. While in detention at No 4 the Fort, which is today known as Constitutional Hill, I was horrified to learn I was joined by my dearest Fatima. Fatima and I had formed the Black Women’s Federation in 1975 which was short-lived because of the brutality of the apartheid regime. Her detention with me in 1976 was partly connected to this. Fatima was not only a loyal friend but suffered together with me the humiliating scorn of the Security Branch due to our fight against injustice and because of her loyalty to me. She made me a board member of the research institute she founded, the Institute of Black Research, when it was not fashionable to include me in any democratic formation as this attracted the attention of the vicious Security Branch. When, after my release from detention in 1977, I was banished to Brandfort, my first visitor was my friend Fatima. She bought me a load of groceries and everything one would need at camp. Fatima comforted me in that wilderness.
When Comrade Nelson Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl after 1988, I received a message that he wanted to see me urgently. On that occasion he said he wanted to see Fatima to ask her to write his biography - Higher Than Hope. Fatima agreed, but this would have consequences for both her and me. We had to send every chapter to the ANC president in exile, Oliver Tambo (known as OR) for his approval. Fatima had followed Madiba’s instructions to be brutally honest and had researched Madiba’s private life and his numerous indiscretions. OR was furious and demanded that all the chapters dealing with this be expunged. Fatima and I did just that, but she later told me she kept those pages somewhere in a vault in the bank. Fatima and I had a mysterious bond, every time something happened to her, I would phone. My daughters would also visit for holidays. When her husband died, I phoned that very moment, knowing how she would feel. Fatima had actually never recovered from the death of her only son Rashid. She had known too much pain in her private life.
Fatima’s dedication and commitment to the ANC was almost an obsession. I personally felt she deserved more recognition than she was given. But of course, ours is still a patriarchal society, in which men are more recognised than women. I hope that we will correct that situation with all our might as women. If Fatima was alive she would be contributing robustly to the current national debate about the grave problems we are faced with today such as the rumoured state capture, corruption and graft. I admired her open mind and the fact that she was a free spirit. Her biography makes fascinating reading!
Nomzamo Winnie Mandela