The College of Humanities and the School of Social Sciences recently hosted the inaugural Professor Fatima Meer Memorial Lecture on the topic of The Role of the Scholar Activist In Contemporary South Africa.
The lecture was held virtually.
Professor Shireen Hassim (Carleton University, Canada) was the keynote speaker, with Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie (University of the Western Cape) as a respondent. The inaugural lecture was facilitated by renowned South African storyteller, Dr Gcina Mhlophe.
Dean and Head of the School of Social Sciences, Professor Vivian Ojong said, ‘The Fatima Meer Memorial Lecture remains a flagship project that reminds us of the role played by women in the liberation of our country. As the School of Social Sciences, we are proud to associate with the legacy of Prof Fatima Meer as she plied her intellectual trade in the hallways of our School. Prof Fatima Meer was affectionately embraced both in the world of politics and academia. She was a reminder that there is great intersection between liberation theory and being practically involved in pursuit of people’s struggles in society.’
UKZN’s Dr Lubna Nadvi and Chairperson of the Prof Fatima Meer Memorial Lecture committee, added, ‘The inaugural Professor Fatima Meer Memorial lecture showcased the work and legacy of this stalwart of the anti-apartheid movement, academic, sociologist, activist, mentor, artist and the many other roles that she played within the broader community. The University is proud to honour Prof Meer through the establishment of this memorial lecture since she was a part of the history of the University.’
Fatima Meer’s daughter Shamim said, ‘We are, as a family, very pleased that UKZN has set up the memorial lecture, both as a tribute to our mother and as a tribute to the ideas and the activism that shaped her life. Our mother is well known for her fearlessness during the struggles against apartheid. She engaged in these struggles, even though this meant confronting and challenging the ANC, an organisation she had supported and been a part of for most of her life. We are now a country in crisis in so many ways. As my mother always said, we have to be in the process of perpetual revolution in order to progress and guarantee the rights of people. There can be no peacetime so long as there is poverty, hunger, and basic human rights are trodden. Clearly the struggle for freedom is not over.’
In her keynote address, Hassim defined the term ‘scholar-activist’ as being an academic that uses their work to address key questions of the day and bring into conversation their research with communities by asking questions that matter to them and providing empirically sound information and data that would shape the responses of communities.
‘Fatima Meer was driven by the task to develop a sociology for a common society, by a rage against injustice and by a profound belief in the value and capacity of research to convince the powerful of the consequences of their choices. She was, first and foremost, a humanist who explored ideas of freedom, equality, sociability and progress. It is not enough for democracy that scholars are value-driven, we must ask what those values are and whether those values are rooted in democracy, and in mutual respect and well-being for all,’ said Hassim.
She delved further into Meer’s life from academia to politics (Black Consciousness Movement) to activism and even to her writings.
Hassim reflected on the recent events in KwaZulu Natal, and in particular, the tensions between Indian and Black residents in and around Phoenix which for her, made Meer’s work immediately useful for analysis. ‘Meer’s response would have been sharp and clear, and her research into the ragged lives at the margins of the South African miracle would have been used to great effect in public debates.’
‘Meer’s thinking offers a new generation of scholars and activists a different conceptual roadmap to navigating patriarchal racial capitalism and may reinvigorate the radical aspects of the project of nonracialism. It certainly offers Indian South Africans a place, a stake in the country that is clear – not an in-between space, not a space in which Indians are less-than or not enough (not Black, not White), not one foot in India – but decisively here and part of the complexity and diversity that is South Africa,’ said Hassim.
She believes that ‘we will take forward the example of engaged and transformative scholarship that we are offered by Prof Fatima Meer in deliberate and practical ways, and not merely in rhetoric. More than ever, we need historically accurate and fact-based scholarship to ensure that we move towards a genuine and inclusive democracy.’
In response, Dhupelia-Mesthrie shared anecdotes of meeting and engaging with Meer during high school and university. She pointed out that ‘Meer often used her writings as a form of activism but her vision was always for a more just future.’ In relation to forced removals and the Group Areas Act, Dhupelia-Mesthrie reflected on her own scholar activism and that of others. ‘Disillusioned with the trajectory of democracy, scholars also became active in housing struggles. Their writings pointed out the similarities of apartheid-style removals to that of removals under democratically elected local councils,’ she said.
Dhupelia-Mesthrie argues that scholar activism is about being mindful of boundary settings between scholar activists and communities, for example, shack-dwellers seek help and not decisions taken on their behalf because they lack skills and resources.
The virtual lecture included the presentation of the Fatima Meer Social Science Clinical Sociology Honours Book Prize to students, Mr Mohammed Barradeen and Ms Swazi Hlatshwayo. The recipients demonstrated formulation of an exceptional clinical intervention, affecting change.
‘The first UKZN Bachelor of Social Science Clinical Sociology Honours Book Prize 2022 is distinctive in recognising exceptional students’ mini dissertation that develop and facilitate gender, race and class equity. The book prize is conferred annually to a single laureate to advance their clinical and applied work as change agents,’ said Professor Mariam Seedat-Khan, founder of the Clinical Sociology Honours Programme at UKZN and grandniece of Professor Fatima Meer.
A humbled Hlatshwayo said, ‘Much like sociologist Professor Meer, yet on a smaller scale, I fight tirelessly to prevent suicide, encouraging youth to seek treatment and help for depression.’
Barradeen added, ‘Growing up in Overport (Durban) I frequently remember hearing family talk about the magnanimous Professor Fatima Meer. I came to recognise her altruistic role as an activist who fought tirelessly against apartheid. I discovered Meer’s writings on suicide which demonstrated advanced thinking and ability to disrupt traditional thinking. Prof Meer’s legacy continues to affect the lives of all South Africans.’
Both students expressed gratitude to Seedat-Khan and Dr Jayanathan Govender and are keen to pursue their Master’s in Clinical Sociology.
UKZN has embarked on assembling a special collection of the academic and creative work of sociologist, Professor Fatima Meer. Members of the public who would like to make any contributions to the archive can email firstname.lastname@example.org.