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

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-Privatization 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 privatizations. 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 Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). He can be reached at: Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.

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  1. Rehmat said on March 16th, 2010 at 9:57am #

    One of the unsung hero at Robben Island in the company of Nelson Mandela – was 17-year-old Achmad Cassiem who joined the armed struggle against the apartheid-regime at the age of 15. He was sometime referred as “Muslim Mandela”. Now the teenager is known as Imam Achmad Cassiem (a religious leader of South African Muslim community). In an interview he said that his action to join the Resistance against the colonial rule was based on Islamic teachings of waging military struggle (Jihad) against the oppressor when all non-violent protest are exhausted. When asked who influenced him the most? He counted beside Holy Qur’an – his father, his mother, Sayyid Qutb, Imam Hassan al-Banna and Imam Khomeini……

  2. Rehmat said on March 16th, 2010 at 12:08pm #

    One of South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, Professor Fatima Meer (August 12, 1928 – March 12, 2010), an African National Congress (ANC) leader and biographer of Nelson Mandela, Higher Than Hope, and a former professor at the University of Natal – died on Friday at a hospital in Durban. South African president Jacob Zuma paid rich tribute to her in his official condolence message: “Fatima Meer dedicated all her life to the struggle for freedom and equality among South Africans and worked tirelessly to improve relations between Indians and Africans in Durban.

    In addition to be a freedom-fighter, a political prisoner along with her lawyer husband Ismail – Fatima Meer authored more than 40 books and was involved in country’s broadcasting and film industry. She played a major role in making of the film on Mahatma Gandhi, The Making of a Mahatma (watch a trailer at the end of this post).

    Fatima Meer was born into a liberal Muslim family of 9 in Durban, where all religions were respected. She boycotted Salman Rushdie’s abortive tour to South africa in 1998 claiming he was blasphemer. She paid a visit to Islamic Republic of Iran in 1984 and praised the Islamic Revolution as the greatest Islamic event of the century.

    She gave an interview to Nelson Mandela Foundation on July 13, 2008, in which she stated: “We have not got a leadership who will not fight poverty, we have a very corrupt leadership – that’s our tragedy. And the leadership doesn’t have the courage to recognize its own weaknesses; it always pushes things away from itself and puts blame elsewhere.”

    “The problem we have is with United States. It is interested in acquiring the oil resources which are in the hands of Muslims. So Middle East is in the mess it’s because, until the US gets control of that oil resources, it’s not going to solve the Middle East problem (by forcing the Zionist entity to act like civilized people). and in the wake of that, we have the intolerance of Muslims. The USA’s enemies were communists before; today the enemies are Muslims.”

    “People have said Barack Obama is going to change things, but he will not have the power to change things. He will be manipulated the way the moneyed class wants things to be in America and the rest of the world.”

    “Quite diplomacy (non-violence), didn’t succeed, that was what the US pursued in South Africa. The USA did not support us, in fact it opposed the liberation (resistance) movement. I recall, I was in the States when Nelson was about to go there and one morning I was invited to address the Senators. At the end of my official address to them, one Senator requested that I stay behind and talk to him, which I did, and what did he want to talk to me about? He wanted to know if I would be seeing Mandela when he came or before he started his trip to the States. I said I did not know which was the truth. He said if you do see him, warn him that he is not to mention the words “Arafat” or “Gaddafi”. If he does, he will be finished; he will have no sympathy in this country. Imagine it, hey?”