Fatima Meer's tale of love in a time of treason

26 February 2017 - 02:00
By Fatima Meer
Fatima Meer and Nelson Mandela at her home in 1995.
Image: RICHARD SHOREY Fatima Meer and Nelson Mandela at her home in 1995.

When she died in 2010, struggle activist Fatima Meer was working on her memoirs. After her death, her daughter Shamim set about editing the manuscript. Now ‘Fatima Meer: Memories of Love and Struggle’ is being released. In this extract, Meer remembers the Treason Trial and the toll it took on her and her family

Ismail's arrest for high treason in December 1956 forced our separation - he in Johannesburg standing trial and I at home in Umgeni Road. We had no idea how long the trial would continue, nor what would be the outcome.

The preparatory examination to test if the state had sufficient evidence began at the Drill Hall in Johannesburg on 19 December 1956. A few days later on 23 December the trialists were released on bail.

Ismail went to live with close friends and fellow activists Goolam and Amina Pahad while he attended the preparatory examination daily. He visited us in Durban on average once a fortnight, spending weekends with us.


As it happened, this was to be our lives for the next twelve months, with Ismail returning to resume his normal life with us in January 1958 when the charges against him were dropped. He was one of the more fortunate ones. Charges against 92 of the original 156 trialists were only dropped three years later in 1961, after great cost to the state, our organisations and the trialists' personal lives.

The Treason Trial took its toll on us. Ours was a very small family, with deep emotional bonds, and we relied on these for our day-to-day wellbeing and sense of security. The Treason Trial threatened all of this.

For Ismail, there was the trauma of being wrenched away from his newly found family in which he was finding so much happiness. For the rest of us, it was a period during which we learnt how very much we depended on and loved each other.

That period of our lives is well recorded in the letters that survive. Ismail and I wrote to each other at least once a day and sometimes twice. We had been married just over five years and the letters depict the very strong bonds we had developed and that we were more in love than ever before.

They also reveal that our married life was not without its stresses and strains but that we recognised these and committed ourselves to overcoming them. My life, at age 28, was suddenly full of newfound responsibilities which included caring for the children, running the home, looking after Ismail's office (or at least keeping an eye on it), working out ways to curb household expense, looking for some employment and over and above this, supervising the building of our new home.

I had the support of my family - my mothers, my sisters and the cousins who lived with them. Leila and Sharda Maharaj looked after the children and Phoowa kept the house and cooked. Our cousin, Minnie, came to live with us. She was a student at ML Sultan Technical College and she helped with the children in the evening and over weekends.

I was determined that Ismail should return to an office that was intact and running. I went to Verulam as often as I could. We had to convince potential clients that even in his absence we could give them the service they required, by engaging other lawyers.

We had very good support from a number of eminent lawyers and advocates, two of whom, Hassan Mall and John Didcot, went on to become judges. I relied on Ismail's staff, Cassim Amra, Aubrey Naraidoo, Puran Maharaj and Mr Sithole, who were all committed to him.


Building our house in Burnwood Road was an adventure in itself. In Ismail's absence, I took charge of the building process - finding, signing up and overseeing the subcontractors. We were very excited during the building process. On the weekends Ismail was in Durban, we inspected our house-in-the-making. We climbed up the stairs to the upper floor and looked out all around us.

The children were particularly excited and we had to watch them closely to avert any accidents. All members of our family were also invited to some of these inspections and we even took our close friend, Communist Party and anti-apartheid activist Yusuf Dadoo, to see it. He liked the location of the home and admired the view from the top floor. Ismail was happy with the progress.

The trial pushed me into looking at our financial position and taking some responsibility for it - something I had up to now ignored, leaving everything to Ismail. I tried to work out some measures of economy in our domestic expenditure.

On 25 March 1957 I wrote to Ismail and made several suggestions. Our household expenditure was about £40 a month, including running our car. I calculated that if we moved in with my parents, we could save £18 a month on rent, electricity, home help and telephone.


Our rent was £7, electricity £2, housekeeper £6, and telephone £3. The other proposal was to keep the house and still move in with my parents. Then we would save £11 a month. Our highest expenditure was food at £20 a month. I thought of selling our car. Second-hand Volkswagens were advertised in the showrooms at £400-£450. The first garage I went to offered me £200! I felt insulted.

My father asked whether I was managing and if I needed help. His own resources were dwindling but his offer was genuine. We had not, though, reached the bottom of the barrel, so I thanked him and said we were fine. I began to make plans on how I could contribute economically to ensure that we would not end up in a situation where I would become dependent on the International Defence and Aid Fund - a fund set up by Canon L John Collins of St Paul's Cathedral in 1956 to work towards a peaceful solution to the problem of apartheid through raising and distributing funding to victims of apartheid laws.

Work was difficult to find. I heard that there was a vacancy at a madressa. I applied for a post but was turned down. Maybe they thought I was not Muslim enough, or not sufficiently versed in Urdu and Arabic. The salary was a pittance, as were the salaries of all madressa teachers, but I was rejected for even that job.


Leo Kuper came to my rescue, offering me a job at the university. Leo had previously encouraged me to rewrite my honours examination and to enrol for my master's degree. The Kupers, Leo and Hilda, had joined the university in the sociology and anthropology departments, respectively. They identified wholly with anti-apartheid politics and Leo's study of the Defiance Campaign was published in 1957 and subsequently banned.

Leo was a liberal and non-racist in the true sense of the word and unlike other academics, he did not stop at talking. He was not prepared to pamper the European patrons of the university. Leo was trying to deracialise his department. He appointed a black academic, Mlacheni Njisane, to teach sociology at the medical school and took on a number of senior black students to conduct tutorials.

Now that we faced real financial problems, he took me on as a tutor and promoted me to the position of temporary junior lecturer, thereby launching my career in sociology. I enjoyed tutoring and lecturing, but perhaps more important at the time was the fact that I earned some money.


'Fatima Meer: Memories of Love and Struggle' will be published by Kwela Books next month