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Ismael Chota Meer (1918 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Ismael Chota Meer (1918 - ) Awarded for:
His excellent contribution to a non-racial and democratic South Africa, struggle for libera¬tion, workers rights and for the formation of the Natal Teachers’ Union.

Profile of Ismael Chota Meer

Mr Ismael Chota Meer was born in 1918 in a small town of Wasbank in Northern KwaZulu-Natal from a father who was a trader. He was forced to go to work at an early age when his father’s business collapsed in 1930. 

In 1946, he completed a Law Degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and while a student there he helped found and run the Natal Teachers’ Union and became involved in radical politics. He joined the Communist Party of South Africa in his second year at university. 

Many would remember Mr Meer as one of the instrumental people behind the signing of the “Doctors’ Pact” of 1947 between Dr AB Xuma of the African National Congress (ANC), Dr Yusuf Dadoo of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) and Dr Monty Naicker of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). 

Mr Meer was also one of the principal participants in both the 1946 Passive Resistance Movement and the 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws, and also played an instrumental role with respect to the drawing up of the Freedom Charter in 1955. During the Defiance Campaign of 1952, he served on the Joint Executive Committee of the ANC and the NIC and actively mobilised against all unjust laws. 

During the 1940s, Chota and a generation of other radical Indian political activists took over from the conservative old guard of Indian political leaders. He worked closely with Dr Dadoo from 1945, and they were elected to the TIC Executive, with Mr Dadoo as president and Mr Meer as secretary. 

They took over the leadership of the South African Indian Congress in 1946. In their new positions they called for a plan of action in the Gandhian spirit of passive resistance.

According to Mr Meer: “It was this Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946 by Indian South Africans against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act that laid the seed for the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the 1955 Congress of the People, the birth of the Freedom Charter and the Treason Trial of 1956.” 

Mr Meer’s political understanding was hugely influenced by the writings of Nehru and his childhood exposure to the charisma of Clements Kadalie of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union. 

He interacted with political luminaries of the time such as ANC leaders Chief Albert Luthuli and Mr AWG Champion. It is during this period that he developed his intellectual and journalistic skills and ideologies through the liberal study group (which he was instrumental in establishing in 1937), the Left Book Club. 

During the same period, he also contributed in an editorial role to Indian Views and New Outlook and to a column entitled, I remember in the Leader newspaper (writing in his brother’s name AC Meer as he, himself, was banned at that time) in which he recalled the involvement of Indians in the social and political life of South Africa. 

He was an active participant in the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign. In 1946, he edited the weekly Passive Resister in Johannesburg and spent a month in prison for his participation in the campaign in then Natal. He was a strong believer in closer African-Indian cooperation in all campaigns. 

Mr Meer served in diverse roles from the age of 19, including being a principled campaigner, a seasoned trade unionist, a prolific journalist, educationist, politician, lawyer and author of the history of the squalid living conditions and struggles of the oppressed majority of South Africa’s population. 

He stands out as one of the longest serving activists against apartheid. He was subjected to continuous harassment by the apartheid regime and was among the 156 leaders charged during the 1956 Treason Trial. He was detained in 1960 together with Inkosi Albert Luthuli during the State of Emergency. In the 1980s, he continued to give advice to the formations of the Mass Democratic Movement. After the establishment of the democratic State in 1994, Mr Meer was sworn as a Member of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Legislature. He served two terms.

His contribution to the national struggle illustrates the contribution of a culturally and linguistically rich individual activist of Muslim and Indian descent, who crossed the South African racial divide to realise noble political aspirations and ideals. 

He was married to Professor Fatima Meer, another struggle icon who contributed enormously to the national liberation struggle. The rich life of Mr Ismael Chota Meer, which is hereby honoured, is captured concisely in his autobiographical work, A Fortunate Man, which was later finished by wife Fatima and the children after he passed away in 2000. 

We are proud to honour Mr Ismael Chota Meer with the Order of Luthuli in Silver for his outstanding contribution and as one of the longest serving stalwarts in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.