- Memories of Love and Struggle by Fatima Meer
Fatima Meer’s book is well illustrated and, besides the narrative, has an extensive apparatus: an Introduction by Shamim Meer, a Foreword by Winnie Mandela, a glossary of Gujarati words, lists of the Meer clan members, a chronology of Fatima’s life, a list of her publications, and endnotes. While Shamim Meer begins her Introduction with ‘My mother started work on her autobiography in the year 2000’ (15), the title provides a more accurate descriptor in its reference to ‘memories’, for this book is not a fully-fledged autobiography in which the first-person narrator-writer undertakes to tell the truth of how she became the person and achieved the understanding of herself that is put forward in the writing. What Fatima Meer does undertake in her life-writing is to provide, as her title suggests, various memories of certain aspects of her life, but without profound inquiry into how or why she became the remarkable person that she was. She is rightly remembered today as a fearless leader in a struggle for human rights against overwhelming, racialised odds, and as one who continued, perhaps even more remarkably, that fight after the liberating side that she had once supported (the African National Congress) had ostensibly won the battle (when it became the first democratically elected government of South Africa in 1994) but since then has seemed to neglect its obligations to the poor and dispossessed.
It is not that Meer evades the question of how she developed her vision and courage; rather her narration suggests that for her such matters were simply a non-question. While she details her growing involvement in the opposition to racism and to the Nationalist government’s post-1948 hardening of attitudes as it developed its policies into apartheid proper, she takes her ideals and her obligations for granted. She was simply [End Page 102] following the example of her family: ‘My family bubbled with the energy of the Passive Resistance Campaign’ (105). She recounts, for example, that in 1946 her uncle arranged for her to give her first public speech at a mass meeting (she was then an 18 year-old schoolgirl) in Red Square; she was happy to comply and proud of her success. Her assumptions imply that, as she saw it, all thoughtful people oppressed by racism had no alternative but to dedicate their lives to the Struggle, but of course Fatima Meer’s choices and her abilities were not those of the vast majority.
Sadly Fatima Meer did not live to complete her life-story. She had a heart attack and a series of strokes which made writing and, later, dictation increasingly difficult, and although her daughter Shamim, with Ramesh Harcharan who had worked with her at the Institute for Black Research, and other members of her family assisted her, it proved impossible for her to complete the work beyond her account of the 1960s. The last few chapters have been provided by Shamim working alone and are, as she says, taken largely from Fatima Meer’s Prison Diary: one hundred and thirteen days 1976 (2001). These chapters are also written in the first-person with Shamim ventriloquising her mother’s voice (much as Fatima did for her husband in his ‘autobiography’ A Fortunate Man in 2002).
The opening chapters about Fatima’s childhood offer a series of often charming vignettes rather than sustained accounts of development and are organised around the various places in which the family – or, more properly, part of the kutum (clan) – was living. Thus a chapter on Jeewa’s Building in Grey Street is followed by one on Wentworth, then one on Convent Lane (in the city centre again), then suburban Ritson Road and finally Pinetown. It is a focus which demonstrates, without explicit articulation by Meer, the loss that such a family suffered once the choice of where (and how) to live was taken away from them by the Group Areas Act. In these early chapters, the first fascinating story that Meer tells is of the two marriages of her...