Fighting for human rights

In the opening pages of Nelson Mandela's autobiography there is a credit to UK lawyer, Iqbal Meer, of Meer Care & Desai.

Handling the South African president's best seller Long Walk to Freedom has been a career highlight for Meer, whose life-long passion to defend human rights in his home country has been continually thwarted.

Another highlight was his recent appointment as the South African High Commission's legal adviser in the UK.

Meer's family, which includes 25 lawyers, has a long history of political involvement, particularly in defending human rights. His grandfather, who was of Indian descent, was involved in politics from the time of Mahatma Ghandi.

His uncle has been a close friend of Mandela since they studied law together. They were both charged with high treason in 1956.

Also imprisoned as a result of their ANC involvement was Meer's father and aunt.

“It was very frustrating not being able to go back to South Africa to practice with the family law firm,” said Meer.

The hurdles preventing him studying South African law were erected when he was 20 years old. An unexpected change in university entrance rules required matriculation in Afrikaans. Meer had studied Latin. He left the country at 20 to study law in London, not realising the move would be one-way.

“I couldn't get back to South Africa because I fell in love and married an English girl,” said Meer of his wife Maureen, also a solicitor at Meer Care & Desai.

At the time, inter-racial marriages were forbidden in South Africa under the Immorality Act. Meer also instantly lost his South African citizenship when he became a citizen of the UK.

“As soon as I was called to the Bar I went to Zambia and did my pupillage,” he said. “It was the nearest point to South Africa and the headquarters of the ANC were in Zambia at the time, so there was a very large South African community.”

He spent 10 years there as a partner of local firm Musa Dudhia & Co working in company commercial law, trade mark and patents. Nearly 10 years after returning to London in 1977, Meer had himself disbarred, and re-sat exams so he could work as a solicitor. The profession is fused in Zambia, enabling him to work as both a barrister and solicitor.

Mandela had been a friend of the family for many years, so it was only natural that he should approach Meer, as a UK-qualified lawyer, to handle his autobiography. The book has been published in 19 languages. Film rights were recently sold and an illustrated version, children's version and an abridged version are soon to be released.

Meer's involvement with the autobiography required regular visits to Mandela while he was held in Victor Verster prison, north east of Cape Town.

“I used to be awe-struck when I visited him in prison,” said Meer. “Here was this majestic figure and he used to put me at ease. He has a very dominating presence.

“It was during the time when negotiations were taking place with the South African government. He was in prison, but given a warder's house. It had a swimming pool and a personal chef. They were treating him with respect at that stage.”

The respect did not extend to Mandela having free access to his lawyers. Visits were difficult to organise and usually at short notice.

“He would put in a request to see his lawyer to the prison authorities and then they would decide whether they would allow a visit or not,” said Meer. “It all had to be with the consent of the Minister of Justice.”

Meer had to be on call, which made booking appointments in his London practice virtually impossible, but his partners were supportive and helped carry the load.

Work on the autobiography has been easier since Mandela became president two years ago. Meer remembers travelling to South Africa for the historic election as an emotional time. “I could have cast my vote in London, but I felt I had to go home to cast it,” said Meer. “So I flew to South Africa, with my wife, to cast my vote for the very first time.”