South African History Online 

Tribute to Prof Meer on her 80th birthday
by Ari Sitas

23 August 2008

Fatima Meer's career at Natal University spanned four critical generational cycles: a cycle of hope when she was a young  sociologist a cycle of isolation and discrimination as the Apartheid state tightened its grip on everything; a cycle of  anticipation, as her personal banning and restriction limited her contribution to rising tides of resistance a cycle of energy  when, at 54 years of age, she embarked through the Institute for Black Research on a wave of action-research activities which would  have been the envy of a hyperactive teenager. Then she was retired but continued in her own way from the small bungalow below Jubilee Gardens to produce and act.

Fatima Meer and Ben Magubane were nurtured as sociologists by Leo Kuper, a principled liberal and a defining figure in the sociology of race, class and power. This was the period of hope on the cusp of rising resistance against Apartheid from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. It was a time of hope because in the corridors of MTB, a critical sociology was in emergence. But it was a potential  that was never realized: the 1959 Universities Act enforced the teaching of black students away from Howard College in town and the principled stand of all of them was to teach Sociology  downtown and not at Howard College. Kuper and Magubane went into exile only to emerge as contestants later in the Pluralism vs Marxism debate around race, class and ethnicity in Africa. Fatima Meer, through untold political hardship remained, steering a middle-course. Fascinated by Emile Durkheim's sociology of deviance and anomie, she penned her study of suicide and suffering in the Indian community trying to balance between the importance of race and the importance of class in South Africa.

The period of isolation and discrimination followed. As a black woman, marked by connections in the resistance movement, she was barely tolerated and hardly appreciated in the 1960s. We have her harrowing account of what it meant to be her during those years at the University of Natal: it will be the opening chapter to her Festschrift that SASA is planning. At least she did not lose her job and when not restricted, she taught what she had to and only felt collegiality when at the Medical School among black students and a sprinkling of black colleagues. What kept her going were her interactions and engagements with the broader community.

The cycle of anticipation involved the rise of the black consciousness movement and the first impulses of a worker challenge to Apartheid and capitalism. Fatima Meer had to endure another assault: a banning order because of her responses to the emerging challenge. Instead of diminishing her it increased her stature, but teaching, researching and interacting became acutely difficult. But it was also a period of intensive networking because once again, change was in the air.

Finally, by the early 1980s, however dangerous or repressive the times were, there was enough of a critical mass of people- black  intellectuals and activists, funding partners and community organizations that facilitated the creation of the Institute for Black Research through which most of her energy was to be focused.

This did not immediately signify an end to Fatima Meer's marginalization from the University and from many of her colleagues, but it facilitated the space for a critical and public sociology to emerge, to publish and communicate on burning issues.
By the time the post-Apartheid South Africa emerged, she was about to be retired. She continued with her work in IBR to this day as an associate, and a colleague-challenging, criticizing and coaxing.

Many of the issues that Fatima Meer stood for have been main-framed in South African society and our institutions. For example: one of the key reasons of the existence of the IBR was to create opportunities for black researchers and to groom a critical mass of them, capable of taking over scholarship. Now the entire R&D framework of the country is supposed to be doing that. How successful it has been is another question. But many of the issues that hurt her then continue to hurt her now: the appalling education of black children, the increasing disparities between the wealthy and the poor, the rising xenophobia, the Indian community's distance from African concerns and of Africans to so-called Indian concerns, the Afro-Zulu tensions in the province and the double-standards of many of our new people in power.

In short, Fatima Meer has been an important public sociologist: we would like our future students to worry about whom we perceive to be deviant. They would have to read her Andrew Zondo study and try to understand how a young man could have been perceived as a selfless hero for some and a heartless killer by others. But they would have to also deal with her broader work on anomie and its relation to self-destructive acts (like suicide), criminality or sedition.

We would also like them to understand the social sources of defiance and what animates a pulse for freedom among oppressed communities. They might find her studies of defiance, of black protest and insurrection wrong, but they have to venture and risk better hypotheses and explanations. They should have to deal with her fine work on African Nationalism in South Africa, its flexibility and open-ness and sweat to compare it with others.

We would like them to consider the women's question and the role of gender, whether as addressed in her coordinated study of Black Woman Worker or her more challenging and controversial on the women's question in Iran and the relationship between religion and women's rights.

Poverty, its causes, its race and ethnic profiles, so close to much of her work will be a vital pre-occupation too. A pre-occupation that has grown stronger with her realization of the failure of global and local poverty-alleviation programmes.

We would finally like our students to ponder on her enormous work (her own, orchestrated by her, or developed with others) on heritage and its construction. The Ghandhian Legacy (the Gandhi Omnibus she edited), the legacy and institutions of South African Indians, the Documents of Indentured Labour, the editions on Luthuli's, Gokool's, Daddoo's and so many others' including her Nelson Mandela biography. They have to sift through them and dig further.

We would like to see colleagues in the future who share a sense of challenge. It would be difficult to replicate the sense among students of the future of this one-woman vanguard, so difficult to pigeon-hole who can been at once a boundary-maker and a boundary breaker and someone who might be on occasion an Islamic and socialist/democratic bourgeois when you dared play Caliban and a fierce Caliban if you dared bourgeois pretensions in class. It would be difficult to find a replica. But we can try and keep through her presence a Public Sociology alive.