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Friday, September 17, 2010

Fatima Meer: A Gandhian Gujarati Dadima from South Africa

Tushar Bhatt For South Africa,where Gandhiji perfected his weapon of Satyagraha in the early years of this century,a marathon revolution against the apartheid is over with the advent of the Nelson Rolihalahla Mandela government in power.For Gujarat,Gandhiji was not the only connection it has had with that country which suffered untold miseries for nearly half a century under the racist regime.Gujaratis had settled in Africa long long ago;there were immigrant labourers and traders from the State in South Africa,as also in other countries in the African continent. Gujaratis are still prominent at many places in South Africa,although along with the black people they too were treated as children of a lesser God by the white rulers.The dramatic victory of the African National Congress (ANC) against the unjust racialist regime itself has taken long. "When the African National Congress set out its vision for a non-racial society on January 8,1912", says the ANC's election manifesto, " we did not know how long it would take to achieve." Nelson Mandela,now 75,was not even born when the struggle against the white ruler began. Gujaratis too participated in this struggle.Memroies of one such fighter flood back in the mind as South Africa embarks on a more difficult task of national reconciliation and reconstruction. It was in December, 1991,when clad in a deep green saree,Mrs.Fatima Meer who looked like a typical matronly Gujarati housewife-- which she is -- walked into the offices of The Times of India in Ahmedabad.The appearance was deceptive in her case: the grand-motherly deportment,the toothy smile,the soft-spoken greetings in Gujarati --Kem Chho ? --pronounced with the sweet lilt as is done by the people of South Gujarat,all hid a veteran leader of Indian origin in South AFrica's embattled African National Con-gress,with a record of life-long fight against aprtheid. The struggle began when she was in school,and barely 17.Today,at nearly 65,she has not called it a day. "I have been in-volved in protesting against the racial policies eversince my school days.They tried to kill me once, bombed our house twice,and for my activities,I was sent to prison for five months without any trial.To cap iot all, the government banned me from public activities for 12 years,forcing me to live within a neighbourhood of about two square kilometres. She went on talking in a quiet,matter-of-fact tone.There was no trace of bitterness or resentment,as if,like the other great Indian,the Mahatma,she had anticipated the racist regime to behave no dif-frently. Unlike Gandhiji,however,Mrs Fatima Meer never thought to re-turnning to India her ancestral country. " My grandfather migrated to South Africa from Surat when he was 16. My father was born in Surat,and I have been to Surat to visit Rajawadi,our old home." For all her years away from home,she spoke fairly fluently in Gujarati. But that was about all as far as her active Indian connection is concerned. In fact, she described herself as a South African,born on August 12,1928, at Durban, the daughter of a journalist.Her father, Mr.Moosa Ismail Meer, was the editor of a journal,The Indian Views,for six decades from 1910 onwards. Mrs Meer was the founder and the first president of the Federa-tion of Black Women in South Africa, an organisation which too was banned in 1976. A socilogist by training,she was director of the Institute of Black Research at the University of Natal, as also an honorary research fellow.Of late, she has been the editor of Madiba publishers,a subsidiary of the Institute for Black Research. A prolific writer,her books include an official biography of the ANC supremo, Mandela, a book that has been published in nine languages,and another on Black Women Workers.Her works,of course, also include a volume on Gandhiji -- Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. To an Indian ear,Gandhiji's name,his ideology and how we should draw inspiration from his life and work -- all sound like too familiar a rhetoric,for the Mahatma has been converted into a propaganda material by self-seekers and other image builders in the post-Independence years. But what Mrs Fatima Meer had to say about the Mahatma, even in the closing weeks of 1991, did not sound like a blast of bombastic cliches. "Gandhi is relevant today also. The most important thing to learn from him is to how to get in otuch with one's own soul." Mrs Meer could foresee even when nobody knew in 1991 how long will it take to end apartheid :"In my country too, we have a stupendous task in rebuilding our society on the lines of equality between human beings,disregarding the colour of the skin." It was this quest to define the relationship of new man and woman in re-building South Africa in the post-apartheid era that had brought her to Ahmedabad three years ago on a flying visit. She had gone round looking at the work being done by the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) among the women of the poor." I am not surprised,butt am impressed as also inspired by by the Gandhian methods used for the uplift of the opressed women in this city.I would love to start something similar in my country",she had said. Although she is not associated with AFESEWU,Mrs Meer's fond hopes seem to find an echo in what has been started in Durban by Ms.Horn and her colleagues. In some ways,the task of helping the women of the poor in South Africa is even more daunting than in India.As a country,South Af-rica is not exactly poor;its per capita income roughly matches that of Argentina.But its tragedy is the stark poverty of the black peo-ple.Behind the national average,black people have incomes one-tenth those of whites and nearly half have no formal jobs. This re-porter had asked Mrs Fatima Meer as to what were the conditions of the women in such a miliue ? She replied: "When we consider women's freedom, we are not just considering it in the context of an aprtheidal society,but in the context of a male dominated society, a domnation that occurs across race and class.White women were favoured to the extent that they were part of the white people and so their status was higher than that of black men." She was blunt: "As in practially all human societies,in South Af-rica too,women constitute a majority of the population,but have an insgnificanct influence on the legislature of the country or on any kind of corporate decision-making ,whether on the level of man-agement or labour.South Africa's nearly 16 million women suffer from oppression as a result of male domination."Again, African women constitute more than 70 per cent of the women in her coun-try,and their status is most depressed of all.Untrained in any sphere ,under-educated and largely confined to rural areas, a vast majority of them remain excluded from tje job market.Those employed find the lowest paid jobs; 57 per cent of African women in gainful employment are employed as domestic servants or farm labourers,and as such remain outside unionisation.There are prob-lems in agricultural sector where a majority of the women live. "Our task in helping the women of the poor will be tougher than that faced by organisations like SEWA." Is SEWA model applicable to South Africa ? "It is not that our domen do not have any skills.They,for instance, skilled in bead-making.There is a beautiful tribe called Ndebele,whose women do lovely mural paint-ing.But,these have to be revived ,enriched.And this is not to be viewed in isolation.Nearly half of the black youths need work,and so we have to evolve a system in which machines and handicrafts exist together.We have to develop a strategy for this." The mid-80s saw a decline in the economic well-being of South Africa as a whole because of the economic sanctions and boycott by many countries.Now that it has set on a new road to equality,the recovery will be there.But it still is an uphill assignment,even more so for organisations like AFESEWU.

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