The Little Freedom Fighter with the Ponytail by Greg Ardé

Who will listen to this feisty little woman with the grey ponytail and caftan? 

Greg Arde spoke to Fatima Meer, once a shining light in the fight against apartheid, now a thorn in the side of the fat-cat politicians. (This article first appeared in The Mercury newspaper.)

They sit in leather-lined chairs, cooing sympathetically about the plight of the poor, but drive around in fancy cars mimicking wealthy European and American leaders. It might be a generalisation, but one that's fast gaining ground. Many politicians in South Africa are not at the forefront of the struggle for a better life for all. The struggle is for their own advancement. This is the word from Fatima Meer, sociology professor, friend of Nelson Mandela and widow of IC Meer, an ANC MP who, with Chief Albert Luthuli, faced treason charges during apartheid's darkest hours. When it comes to "struggle cred", Meer has an excess. She has been banned, shot at, imprisoned and had her house bombed. 

But last week leading Durban ANC councillor S'bu Gumede said she sounded like the Democratic Alliance. 

She is at the forefront of a campaign to bring relief to the poor - people who stand to lose their council-owned homes if they cannot pay their rent, electricity and water. 

She has been accused by the ANC leadership in KZN of leading a dissenting faction, an accusation fuelled by her long-standing friendship with the controversial Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. 

The irony, she says, is that she is at odds with "her government" because she started a movement in Chatsworth to persuade Indian voters to cast their ballots with the ANC and not the National Party. 

She did so at the behest of Mandela and now the organisation she started, the Concerned Citizens' Group, is at loggerheads with the ANC over its treatment of poor residents of council-owned flats. ANC councillors fear Meer's involvement in Chatsworth will snowball. Already protesters from Chatsworth have hooked up with people in Wentworth, Lamontville, Mpumalanga and Isipingo.

"These people are beginning to recognise that differences of race do not separate them - their problems are the same," says Meer, initially called "racist" because of her campaign for Chatsworth residents. Clearly, Meer is getting up the noses of people in power. Councillors ask: "Who is she to speak on behalf of the poor?" Meer, they say, uses "rent-a-crowd" tactics, and Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi, currently in an alliance with the ANC, says she is a "fat cat" who distributes "other people's" food to the poor. 

Rajbansi, incensed that his MF is seen as "uncaring" by some Chatsworth residents, says his party has given R47 000 to charity since the elections, including a personal student loan of R3 000 he has made to "an African student" and "R4 000 for fireworks during Diwali" celebrations. He says there is "extreme" poverty in areas other than Chatsworth. 

Meer agrees. That is why, she says, she is involved in helping Engen contract workers in Wentworth. 

But Rajbansi, like others, remains unconvinced.

"I can rabble rouse the whole day, but instead I contribute to feeding schemes." The MF leader is probably among the few MPs who give to charity. Meer is cutting in her criticism of the ruling elite. 

They are "out-Natting the Nats", she says, "no doubt about it". The excesses of government reflect a nation more concerned about adopting First World standards than prioritising the needs of the poor. 

"Unfortunately our government is aping the old order and doesn't want to be like the Asians or the Africans . . . "The council has money. Its priorities are just wrong. There's money spent on drink and public relations. We've just hired Linda Zama to write the mayor's speeches for R120 000. 

"People in positions of power can now have the things they never smelt before. There was an ANC meeting in Durban recently and outside was a mass of bodyguards, each with a cellphone. The cars were lined up. It's all very ostentatious." Meer says what started out as attempts to gain political consensus in South Africa have become expensive exercises in manipulation, aimed not at delivery, but clinging to power. 

"They are all buddies. It's a club of the nouveau rich and the bourgeoisie . . . and from all of this flows corruption because these people develop an appetite for power and consumption." 

Expenditure on the Zulu monarch, for example, supports the king's lavish lifestyle in the hope of securing tribal support for the ANC. Welfare grants have dropped, she adds, but MPs salaries only rise. She says the ANC's attitude in courting the masters of international capital is at odds with the Freedom Charter's socialist commitment. Her stance, she insists, is not naive either. South Africa repays apartheid-era debt in the hope that servicing these loans will inspire confidence in the money capitals of the world - all to no avail, she says, because joblessness continues to grow. 

For her, the government's pretence at First World standards is inextricably linked to its neglect of the poor. This inferior status foisted on the poor is something Meer was taught to resist at a young age by her father. She was the second of nine children born in Durban, where her father ran a small newspaper, the Indian View. Her earliest memory is of her extended family, who supported one another constantly, and her father, who gave her a lot of latitude. 

She became outspoken. With that came opposition, in buckets. Newspaper files bulge with stories about her taking on the apartheid government, defying banning orders, butting heads with Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Inkatha, and supporting the Mandela family while the patriarch was imprisoned. She travelled abroad extensively, had three children, and wrote two biographies - Mandela's Higher than Hope and The Making of the Mahatma, which covers the life of Mohandas Gandhi - both men whose lives were grounded in opposition. The unlikely looking renegade has also been accused of having political ambitions. 

"What political ambitions could I have at 72? My only ambition is to be good with God." 

Meer speaks of the recent candlelight march through Wentworth and how beautiful the lights looked, flickering in the dark.

"It was very moving, we said the Lord's Prayer." 

Hardly the utterance of a hot-head. 

"My spirit," she says, "is with the ANC. It's my government. If your government is doing wrong, who else but civil society will put it right? Your rights do not stop and start with exercising your vote."

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