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 the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]