Renowned activist Fatima Meer is best known for her role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Meer dedicated her life to fighting an unjust system during apartheid and continued to advocate for the poor and under-privileged even after democracy was won in 1994. She declined a seat at Parliament so that she could continue to work with and assist the poor and marginalised. However, a newly opened exhibition at Constitution Hill called Prison Diary shows us an unknown side to Meer, that of an artist. By IHSAAN HAFFEJEE.
In June of 1976, following the student uprisings in Soweto, 11 women from the newly formed Federation of Black women were arrested and detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. Among those women were Fatima Meer and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who, along with the rest of the political prisoners were placed in solitary confinement at Johannesburg’s notorious Fort Prison.
Meer kept a written diary of her experience at the prison but also used her artistic talents to visually document the day-to-day life and struggles of the incarcerated women. At first she used the only thing available to her which was a ball-point pen. Later when she was issued with paints, prison authorities placed strict instructions on her so that she could only paint flowers.
Two prisoners in the courtyard playing a card game. Painting by Fatima Meer.
In keeping with her defiant nature, Meer ignored the prison authorities’ instructions and set about sketching and painting the scenes at the prison. She drew the inside of her cell, as well as scenes from the courtyard where women washed their clothes and stood in line to collect sanitary towels. One painting shows Winnie Mandela standing at her cell door, while others show lighter moments of women plaiting each others’ hair or playing card games in the courtyard. According to Gaisang Sathekge, the exhibition co-ordinator, these paintings are some of the only visual records of what life was like at the women’s jail. “The paintings actually begin to tell a story. The unrecorded story about the women’s jail. These are scenes we have never seen before,” said Sathekge.
Winnie Mandela in Prison. Winnie’s Yard – The cells, five, stood in corrugated iron, with no cross ventilation, and stepped straight into the pavement, divided by a narrow ‘lane’ from the ablution block, also in corrugated iron, facing them. Winnie is seen in the first cell. Ethel Manunya occupied the second and Jane Phakati, Lorrain and Deborah Mashoba occupied the third. Painting and description by Fatima Meer.
Meer was eventually confronted by the prison superintendent for making sketches of the prison, which the superintendent made clear was against the prison rules. A wardress had spotted Meer drawing and reported her to the authorities. She detailed the encounter in her prison diary:
Superintendent: I have a report that you have been making sketches of the prison. You know that is against the rules.
Meer: (Acting surprised) Sketches of the prison? We are locked in our yards, how can I sketch the prison?
Superintendent: I thought as much.
Meer: I’ve been painting flowers and cards. You’ve seen these because they go through your office.
Superintendent: I know. The wardress must have been mistaken.
A day before this encounter with the prison superintendent, Meer, with the help of Madikizela-Mandela had smuggled some paintings out of the prison. “Just yesterday I rolled up the sketches and hid them in my underwear and discreetly passed them on to our lawyer during consultation. Winnie had taken charge of the remaining paintings and had smuggled them out through a vagaash (black wardress).” – Extract from Meer’s book Prison Diary.
Prisoners in uniform in the courtyard. Painting by Fatima Meer
Shamim Meer, daughter of Fatima said that her mother always had a love for drawing and sketching. “When we were younger she would take us to the hill near where we lived in Sydenham, give us pages and crayons and tell us to draw while she sketched the landscape,” recalled Shamim of her childhood memories.
Joyce Seroke who was one of the women incarcerated with Meer said she was very grateful for the drawings Meer had produced as it served as a reminder of the sacrifices women made in the fight for democracy. “Thank God for Fatima’s sketches. She drew those cells as they were and they can now form part of the record of what happened at this place,” said Seroke who noted it was important for the stories of the women in the struggle to be preserved.
Toil and toilets. A laundry bath, rusty and leaking, is brought each morning: the ‘hard labourers’ fill it with warm water, and we take turns bathing in it. The is one other tap in the yard, but you can only use one tap at a time, so in fact there is only one tap. We had one bucket among us, but after a hassle we were given another. Sibongile and Joyce are busy with their laundry. Painting and description by Fatima Meer.
Another former inmate, Sibongile Mkhabela, who is now the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund confessed that she doesn’t like coming back to the former women’s prison which is now a tourist attraction as she still struggles with her memories of the place. “Sometimes we are too quick to celebrate but we haven’t properly dealt with the pain when we haven’t gone inside that pain. We quickly want to forgive. But so long as we don’t know what we are forgiving, we will end up subjecting other people to the same pain,” said Mkhabela.
Reflecting on the anti-pass demonstrations organised by women in the 1950s and the current state of gender violence Mkhabela said: “They fought because they did not want to carry a pass. I carry my pass every day in my heart. Because as a woman I can’t walk freely on the streets. We can’t claim our freedom as women in this country and so we must continue the fight.”
Meer’s exhibition of paintings titled Prison Diary will form part of the permanent exhibition at the old women’s prison on Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, Johannesburg. DM
Morning in the prison yard. 8am. The two prisoners in the foreground are carrying out bath water from the kitchen. The other prisoner brings our flasks of boiling water. The awaiting trial prisoners line up for breakfast on the left. The convicted line up on the right. The three prisoners facing the wall are waiting for sanitary pads. They will get three each for the day. Painting and description by Fatima Meer.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle