Education lecturer, Professor Rajendra Chetty, has just published a visual biography on apartheid activist Fatima Meer, who formed part of a cadre of South African women incarcerated during apartheid. This was during the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the 1976 Soweto uprisings.
Prof Chetty was motivated to write Fatima Meer, Choosing to be Defiant, because of her many roles in society.
“Meer was a passionate academic, artist, sociologist, writer, prisoner, Nelson Mandela’s biographer, political activist and human rights campaigner. She was only 17 when her voice was heard on public platforms in 1946 against racial legislation.
Her voice became a compelling and distinctive one of rare power over the next six decades,” said Prof Chetty.
“Another reason for this book is the continuing relevance of Meer’s ideas and the challenge they pose, especially about the tension between the poor and the state.
She was one of the few courageous liberation figures to openly defy the post-1994 ANC government when it did the same injustice to black people that the Afrikaner regime had done.”
A section of the book is dedicated to Meer’s paintings produced in 1976 when she was imprisoned for 113 days at the Johannesburg Women’s Jail.
Meer counts among key women who fought against apartheid and that were jailed during the interregnum, including, among others, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Ellen Kuzwayo, Phyllis Naidoo, Ruth First, Jean Middleton, Emma Mashinini, Caesarina Kona Makhoere and Helen Joseph. It is important to remember the experiences of female activists in a patriarchal society governed by a racist regime and the entanglement of their femininity with their roles as freedom fighters, mothers, community workers and academics.
The book puts pictures of her life in the context and the events that shaped her defiance. It was a mammoth task to select images from various sources, including photographs from personal albums of Meer’s family and colleagues, national archives and portfolios of international photographers.
Prof Chetty conducted his research towards his masters in 1990 at Natal University and said it was rewarding working with Meer while accompanying her to disadvantaged communities in the region.
“She has made significant contributions to the sociological analysis of human rights in South Africa both through her life and in her writings.”
He believes academics are often criticised for being too naïve about the realities of life beyond the ivory tower.
“The #RhodesMustFall student protest alerted us to the role of universities as bastions of privilege and hypocrisy – a far cry from the lives of the Fatima Meers, Rick Turners and pre-1994 academics who had less interest in the research game, rankings and recognition, but rolled up their sleeves to get involved in the mission of finding practical solutions to some of the pressing challenges in society,” said Prof Chetty.
Fatima Meer, Choosing to be Defiant launches nationally in September.