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The late Fatima Meer was 'was to me like that elusive relative is to you', writes Azad Essa, a person who lived an incredible life whom you never got to know and who lacks the genuine recognition they deserve.

A number of activists, writers, politicians, morons and other opportunists will be writing long-drawn tributes to Fatima Meer in the coming weeks. Some of the personalised tributes will be less bearable than others: 'I met Fatima at the mall' to the more ridiculous: 'She introduced me to my abusive ex-husband' or 'I tried to kill her once.' Describing her remarkable journey as one of the most incredible stalwarts of the anti-apartheid and anti-poor people struggle inadvertently will become as important as unashamedly recognising the opportunity to raise your own market value as the well-connected, blessed storyteller, an often nauseating and wilfully pathetic attempt at pontification to immortality by association.

And now that I discuss Fatima Meer here, I become one of the losers I have just described. Except, I am not going to tell you how she taught me hopscotch, how she inspired me to care about others or how her memory gives me goose bumps.

I did not know Fatima Meer.

I have not read any of her 25 books. I was not even born when she lectured. And I probably was playing cricket when she patrolled Chatsworth as she attempted to help the poor natives.

Fatima Meer was to me like that elusive relative is to you, the one your father, cousin or drunk neighbour told you about one night when you sat smoking pot on your roof, who apparently lived an incredibly rich life, whom you never got to know and worse, never ever were able to visit.

We all have one of those.

'You know, this man went against his family’s wishes… He moved to the Transkei in the '60s, building the first school for kids with special needs. He was a medical doctor but education was his thing. You know, he loved people so much that when he was detained for a week in a special holding cell for being a "K-lover", he met Madiba in passing and he was so inspired, he joined the arms struggle, functioning more as a doctor…', says your narrator, as he exhales the good stuff.

'You should go talk to him one day, he lives just down the road … fascinating man… What he will tell you, you won’t find in any history book.' But, of course, you never did grab the opportunity.

Just like I never did.

Every day I would drive past Burnwood Road in Durban, the very road that swung alongside the Kennedy Road dump, where she lived in a modest house.

And almost every week as I would drive by in a characteristic scurry, I would look at the bend that led to her home and Makro, and I would remind myself: 'I have to go see her soon!'

But I never did. Sometimes I actually went on to Makro.

And now she is gone, her house marked as a possible national heritage site.

All the while I sit here, sheepishly writing a half-baked story of gutted regret, when I could have been 'out there' lapping up lessons she so willingly passed on to those who cared. But I am quite sure I am not the only one headed for a reality check.

Today, if you walked into the sociology department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (formerly known as the University of Natal), you will struggle for clues that would point to a time when an emphatic, important and moving character shook the corridors and pummelled her way to becoming the first black female professor at the white university.

To those who knew her, Fatima Meer was tough as she was compassionate and insistent as she was giving. Crucially, she was able to circumvent rhetoric uniquely in pulverising her discipline beyond the lecture halls.

But there is no honour board, no photo frame, no library, no chair of sociology that even links the university to this great servant.

As a pioneering public sociologist, who literally linked the theoretical mumbo jumbo with the travails of the outside world with compassion, determination and fervour to make a difference, it is morally repugnant that returning sociology students will not even know that their seat once was warmed by the insistent foot soldier who lived what they probably were not being taught, something that most of our curriculums are lacking.

It does not take long for the maggots to set in, but it took five days before the university’s corporate relations mustered up a press release of her demise.

You can bet there will be a move to name a 'Fatima Meer' something or other, now that she is gone.

Perhaps a library, a book counter or even a toaster.

The question now is, is it too late to commemorate her legacy substantially, or will she simply be deified for lesser ends?


* Azad Essa is a freelance journalist and lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In his sparetime, he scolds politicians.
* This article was originally published by Leadership.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.