July 13, 2008 – As part of an interview series to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 90th year, Tara Turkington spoke to veteran activist and campaigner for the poor, Fatima Meer. She shared her opinions on a range of issues facing South Africa and the world today, including poverty, the limitations of the South African Constitution and her thoughts on present-day leadership.
These are not necessarily the views of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Tara Turkington: You worked with Nelson Mandela in times that were very difficult. What it was like to work with him?
Fatima Meer: I didn’t work with him; let’s put it this way, I socialised with him more than worked with him.
TT: But you were working to a common goal. When you say socialised with him, can you elaborate on that?
FM: Well, he stayed with us. I knew him through my husband [Ismail Meer]. He stayed with us in this house [in Durban] while he was the “Black Pimpernel” [in the 1960s].
TT: So what is he like as a person, in your experience?
FM: As a person he is very warm and he is very gentle, he is very loyal, totally charming. A person you could love forever. A person to whom you could commit yourself, you could give your time, you could commit your life, and a person for whom I personally would do anything. I loved him dearly and still do.
When I met him I was just engaged to my husband-to-be and he brought him to meet me. I think my husband was very proud of me, so he brought him to my house in Pinetown and we sat in the garden and there was this bronze giant and all he was doing was teasing me. I was about 20 or 21 years old and I think I must have been pretty; my pictures of those days tell that story. So he was teasing me, he had taken to me but he wasn’t treating me as an equal. My husband always saw me as a little girl and he followed suit.
So there were these two men teasing me together. There was a third one with them and that was Dr Diliza Mji, also very handsome. So you can see how flattered I must have been as a 21-year-old with this collective attention that I was getting. Anyway, Nelson had lunch with us that day. He had come down and they were planning some campaign or other and they were very busy doing their job on this campaign.
The next time I saw Nelson was during the Treason Trial. My husband and Nelson were both arrested for treason. And you know the trialists sat at the preparatory examinations in alphabetical order, so the “Ms” were sitting together. Any case, I went up to Johannesburg to spend some time with Ismail because when he was arrested, he was taken away to Johannesburg and he had to live in Johannesburg. He came home during weekends, so we had arranged for me to visit him and spend time with him, and Nelson invited us to his house for dinner.
It was in the evening and his mother was the hostess. He was not married at that time and he was living with his mother. She had prepared a simple supper which she served us. She did not sit with us; very typically she served us, brought in the food and kept bringing in items of food for us to eat but we sat, that’s the three of us, at the table, and had the meal, and after that we retired.
He had a part of the house set up as a living room. You know, they lived in those worker’s cottages that the government built in the townships. We’re talking about Orlando now, so that’s where we were. So the rooms are small and you’ve got to make do using it the way you want to.
So then we sat in the other part of the room, which was the sitting part. The room was dominated by a huge painting – must have been a copy of a painting – of Lenin addressing a huge crowd. What we talked about I cannot recall but I would have been more the listener, with Ismail and Nelson talking to each other.
The relationship between Ismail and Nelson was very close, so close that when he met Winnie [Madikizela] and decided to marry her (this is what Winnie tells me), he sent her to us for us to vet her and give our opinion. Anyway, he phoned Ismail and asked Ismail to pick up Miss Madikizela at the station. So I went along with him and we picked up this very beautiful woman who emerged from the compartment in Durban.
TT: And what did you think? You obviously approved?
FM: Well, we had no idea whatsoever that we had to do some work. It was while Winnie and I were in prison, I asked Winnie, “Why did you come to us? What was that in aid of?” and she explained this to me then, in prison. You see, Winnie was a very old and very astute prisoner. I was a total novice. Winnie knew how to conduct things in prison and she was then a student, a correspondence student with the University of South Africa, doing sociology. So she managed to say to the superintendent that she needed to consult me to write her essay and she was given permission to come to my cell. We were imprisoned in different yards, so she came over to my cell and I said to Winnie, “Let’s spend the time writing your biography.” So that’s how this started and that was how my biography of Mandela, Higher than Hope, was written. We are really co-authors, Winnie and I, so that’s how the biography came along.
I had intended it to be Winnie’s biography, but you know both Winnie and I were banned and banned people were not allowed to communicate with each other. So when we were released, we never met again. I did visit Winnie once, in Brandfort, but we couldn’t go on with the work we had started. So anyway, that’s that story.
When Ismail was at the Treason Trial, one day Nelson asked him to come with him to the phone booth and he was phoning Winnie and then he gave the phone to Ismail and said, “Talk to her.” So Ismail talked to Winnie and they had a brief conversation with each other and then later on, Nelson said that was his girlfriend, he was in love with her. So that’s how close their relationship was.
TT: Your whole life you’ve been very outspoken about poverty and injustice. I wanted to ask you to talk about the future and what you think the major challenges are for South Africa and our leadership in fighting poverty. We still have a long way to go.
FM: We haven’t got a leadership who will fight poverty, we have a very corrupt leadership – that is our tragedy. And the leadership doesn’t have the courage to recognise its own weaknesses; it always pushes things away from itself and puts blame elsewhere.
Take this fiasco about xenophobia. We don’t suffer from xenophobia. This was something at which they failed miserably: they had no policy about the border and about any insurgents who would come across it. No policy, no effective management, and when all this happened, which was inevitable, they abandoned the so-called refugees. I haven’t worked out what we call them.
When they came, they were left to the people in the townships to deal with and townships remain under-resourced. And here were the people who didn’t have resources to spare – didn’t have resources to survive, let alone spare – and they were expected to deal with the refugees. Obviously the anger could have been expected. The government at the local level is the worst of all. The government starts at the top but it faces the public at the bottom, at the local level, and at the local level it’s a tyrannical government and what is exposed is the tyranny of the ANC government.
So now when this violence occurred, what does the government do? It did not admit its failure, it blamed it on the people, on the people who tried to cope with the insurgents. It said that they were xenophobic. I mean, it is absolutely unspeakable that you go and blame the people, you take your blame and put it on the people. And it went worse, it became disgraceful, on Youth Day when Thabo Mbeki then said that it was the youth who had led criminals to kill the insurgents. So on the day when the rest of the country was glorifying the youth, on Youth Day, he actually had the temerity, if you recall, to blame this origin of xenophobia on the youth.
TT: You don’t think things have improved at all in this country since democracy?
FM: Many things have improved. For one thing those racial laws have disappeared, but beyond that, what? If you take the Freedom Charter, the promises we made to ourselves in that charter… The Freedom Charter is the only historic document that we have where the people have registered their voice and their aspirations. Those aspirations have not been realised.
TT: Do you see the future leadership coming from the poor?
FM: No, I can’t say that I see the future leadership coming from there. My assessment is that our Constitution, which we boast so much about, is flawed to the extent that it gives power to the parties, not to the people. The people haven’t achieved democracy in this country. Democracy has been achieved by the party. People nominate nobody, they cannot nominate their officials, they cannot nominate their leaders, the people remain powerless.
I work in Chatsworth, which is an Indian township, and I’ve tried very hard to get the leadership to emerge from the people; we even put up candidates at the last election. It’s impossible to put up candidates outside the party. Now if you don’t like the party, you’re upset with the party, you can’t be in the party.
Today it’s civil society which is bringing reform in this country and it was the same during the liberation struggle. We did a survey and I wrote a book called Power of the Powerless – and where was the power of the powerless? I found that it was in a whole lot of civic organisations. You know you had the UDF [United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid civic grouping], but the UDF was really made up of civil organisations. That was the strength of the UDF. It wasn’t a political organisation or party in itself. Now today you find that when it comes to rent or poverty or whatever the issues are, it’s civil society that brings them up and therefore you have lots of strong civil movements still. The trade unions continue to be strong.
TT: You were a founding member of Fedsaw [the Federation of South African Women]. Could you share with us your experiences as a woman, fighting in that time for justice?
FM: At that time we had a whole organisation here in Durban. We travelled to Johannesburg for the founding meeting of Fedsaw and I was on the executive but very removed from the big shots. I founded an organisation called the Durban and District Women’s League. It was basically an organisation of the Indian and African Congresses. The chairperson was the Natal chairperson of the ANC Women’s League, Bertha Mkhize, and I was the secretary.
We had just got over the 1949 so-called race riots, in which Indians suffered terrible attacks from Africans. The Africans were put up by the white city council to do that – the reason being that the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress were the first political organisations to mount an offensive against the racist government by organising passive resistance in 1946. India achieved her independence at about the same time and so India took a seat at United Nations and the Indian Congresses sent representatives to advise the Indian delegation there and, as a result, India for the first time tabled the issue of racism in South Africa at the UN.
TT: I didn’t realise that there had actually been intervention from South African Indians to tell them.
FM: Leading the Indian delegation was a young woman, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, and the representative from South Africa was General Jan Smuts. Here, the papers talked about how this “coolie maid” had confronted General Smuts because he was the representative of racism in that forum. So they were livid against the Indian people here, and they felt the Indians had to be punished and so they organised this violation, using the African people.
I studied that whole situation and there were blatant statements by the police. The police conducted and gave cover to battalions of Africans from the dock area. You had the hostel there for the dock workers, so it was easy to organise. Even these attacks in the Transvaal, the hostels had been key players. It’s easy, you see, that’s where you’ve already got people grouped. So from the docks you found that there were “impis” marching into the Indian areas and the police actually giving them cover. And then there were reports in the daily papers of Africans stoning and breaking the shop windows of Indian stores and the police saying, “Don’t worry, it’s only the coolies’ stores.” So there was blatant organisation by the local authorities. The United Party had a slogan, “Boats – not votes – for Indians,” because the Indians were now asking for the franchise.
TT: Boats as in “send them back home”?
FM: Yes, they had a policy of repatriation for Indians. They gave an Indian £20 and a free fare to India. And the Group Areas Act was designed to deprive the Indians of all their properties and whatever wealth they had accumulated and make life so miserable that they would volunteer to say, “Give us these free passages and we’ll go home.” But their home was here, so they were never going to leave.
TT: There are parallels with the so-called xenophobic attacks, aren’t they? I wanted to ask you about religious intolerance on a global scale. You’ve often been lauded as being an exemplary Muslim, in the way that you have modelled peace and justice. Do you see a world that is becoming more intolerant religiously? What is your take on where we are at the moment?
FM: Well, the problem we have is really with the United States of America. It has assumed leadership of the world and our great tragedy was when Russia lost her power in the world situation, because up to that time we had a balance, two superpowers. Now of course we have just the one superpower and the United States is, above all, interested in acquiring the oil resources which are in the hands of Muslims. So the Middle East is in the mess it’s in because, until the United States gets full control of that oil resource, it is not going to help to solve the Middle Eastern problem. And in the wake of that, we have the intolerance of Muslims. The USA’s enemies were the communists before; today the enemies are the Muslims.
TT: How much of it do you put down to their current leader? Do you think that when George Bush goes, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, or do you think that leadership is bigger than one person?
FM: No, unfortunately the policies are controlled by the capitalists in the United States of America and the parties have their policies and the party policy goes; it’s never one man. People have said that Barack [Obama] is going to change things, but he will not have that power to change things. He will be manipulated the way that the moneyed class wants things to be in America and in the rest of the world.
That is our tragedy today, that is our major problem, and unfortunately our government is as incompetent as it is because it saw our economic solution not in the people within the country but in foreign investments. So that GEAR [Growth, Employment and Redistribution] policy was terrible and we are suffering as a result of GEAR. Whatever wealth we saw was short-lived. We now have a state of economic bankruptcy, because our policy did not empower our people. You had a short spell of the RDP [Reconstruction and Development] policy, but the RDP didn’t survive.
Now here I come in with my criticism of Mandela. Mandela has not left us with a firm foundation. He was the first president of democratic South Africa [but] his influence did not go far enough. I think that what the Nationalists did in imprisoning him is that a fine man and a wonderful leader that we as a country were blessed with was wasted in prison. When he was released he was already too old and too tired to really lead us in the way that he ought to have led us, that is according to the Freedom Charter. He left things to his deputy, Mbeki, and when his term was completed, he felt obligated to support Mbeki and as a result the best man was not elected as the second president of South Africa.
TT: Lastly, what should South Africa do about Zimbabwe?
FM: I think what the international community is saying now, that we should close our borders to Zimbabwe, we should cease this … what policy does Mbeki say that he is following?
TT: Quiet diplomacy.
FM: Quiet diplomacy, it didn’t succeed, that was what the USA pursued in South Africa. The USA didn’t support us, in fact it opposed the liberation 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 whether I would be seeing Mandela when he came or before he started his trip in the States. I said I didn’t 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?
They never supported us, their quiet diplomacy didn’t work with us and Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy is not working with Mugabe either. Mugabe may have assisted us during our liberation but that is no good reason to continue supporting him.
TT: So what should we do? You said we should close our borders?
FM: Yes, protect our people.
TT: Are you saying we should impose economic sanctions?
FM: Well, I don’t believe in economic sanctions. It will not hurt Mugabe, it will hurt the Zimbabweans.
TT: Where do you see South Africa going forward?
FM: The Constitution will have to change, for one, and I don’t know how that can happen. We have to give more power to the people so that they can be involved in electing their own leaders. You can’t enter an election without some financial resources. Now as things stand, the parties are financed but the people aren’t. If there is a civic organisation that wants to put up a candidate, that civic organisation will not get any financial support to do so.