Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans

 

Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Bram Fischer
Revolutionary
23 April 1908 - 8 May 1975

Bram FischerTo the apartheid regime in South Africa, Bram Fischer was a traitor. He was born in 1908 into a powerful Afrikaner family. His grandfather, Oupa Abraham, had been the first (and only) prime minister of the Orange River Colony, and later a minister in the Union Cabinet. Father Percy, studied at Cambridge and became judge president of the Free State. Bram himself was a Rhodes scholar to Oxford, a one-time scrum-half, good enough to play rugby for Free State against the touring All Blacks, and a well-respected lawyer (specialising in mineral rights).

Rejecting traditional South African views on race relations, he joined the Communist Party of South Africa and participated openly in its activities, while at same time he reached the top of his profession as a corporate lawyer. He was widely admired as a brilliant man who, given his family background and qualities of leadership, might have become a prime minister of South Africa had he followed an orthodox political route.

Fischer's Afrikaner-Nationalist background and his ultimate swing toward communism were not at such odds with each other. He loved the South African landscape and held his Afrikaner heritage dearly. He was in awe of the courage of the Afrikaners who fought in the Boer War against British imperialism; his paternal grandfather had fought in that war, and his father had defended the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914. He saw himself as a successor in this tradition of rebels, working to enlarge and redefine Afrikanerness against the segregationist policies of the Nationalists.

The Fischers were part of a secular, European republican tradition - in a colonial setting, of course. Their Afrikaner nationalism was not so much an inward-turned conservatism as an enlightened critique of jingoistic British imperialism. In later decades this still resonated through Bram Fischer. Studying at Oxford in the early 1930s, he wrote home that he had visited Westminster Abbey, a "hideous building, but not bad as a national cemetery".

Fischer's time in Oxford was also used for travel on the European continent - Red Vienna, and, in 1932, the Soviet Union. It would be nearly a decade later before he was to become a communist, but the experience left a profound impression. He wrote to his father about the Russian "kleinboer" he encountered along the Volga, and he began to make a mental connection between the Russian "kleinboer" and South African blacks. A penny was beginning to drop. To the eternal credit of his parents, a great intellectual openness had marked his upbringing. While Percy and Ella Fischer did not agree with their son's later communist views, they respected and encouraged intellectual and political debate.

Young Bram FischerFischer's mentor, Leo Marquard, taught him and then brought him into the Joint Council and the Institute of Race Relations -- and these were defining experiences. In the 1940s he served on both the Johannesburg district committee and the central committee of the CPSA and was charged with incitement in connection with the 1946 African mineworkers' strike. In 1943 he aided A.B. Xuma in revising the constitution of the African National Congress. A member of the Congress of Democrats himself, he worked with the legal team defending leaders of the Congress movement charged in the epic Treason Trial of 1956-1961.

Fischer had a long and intense courtship with Molly, which lasted through his years as a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford, to their marriage in 1937. Three children were born from the marriage. They shared an uncompromising commitment to racial equality in South Africa. Like many political families, they were surrounded by secrecies, disappearances, bannings, police raids, and personal tragedy. In 1960, Molly Fischer was one of more than 1,000 people detained without trial in the state of emergency declared after the Sharpeville Massacre. In 1963, she died in a car accident, just after her husband and the Rivonia trial verdict made international headlines.

Fischer was leading Nelson Mandela's defense. What even his colleagues in the courtroom did not know at the time was that Fischer did so at great risk to himself: A number of documents seized at Rivonia were in fact in Fischer's own handwriting. While not a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the African National Congress), Fischer was acting chairman of the South African Communist Party's central committee, and heavily involved with policy making and meetings at their headquarters at Rivonia. In a letter to the court he stated:
 
"What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred."

Considering the charges of sabotage, the verdict of life imprisonment was a victory for the Rivonia accused -- the defense team's strategy had certainly saved Mandela and his comrades from the death sentence. But their leading lawyer soon faced his own trial. In September 1964, Fischer was arrested and charged with membership in the illegal Communist Party. He was released on bail to handle a case in London. He then skipped bail and went "underground". In 1965, the Johannesburg Bar Council disbarred Fischer and struck him off the roll. Fischer was unable to defend himself as he was on the run from the law, so his trial was completed in his absence. Advocate Sydney Kentridge and the present chief justice Arthur Chaskalson defended him at the hearing at which he was disbarred before judge Quartus de Wet, who was then judge president of the Transvaal.

Bram Fischer - Afrikaner RevolutionaryFischer could have chosen a life of exile. Instead, he made the deliberate and dangerous decision to return to South Africa to continue his political activities, in disguise. Arrested after nine months underground, he was convicted in 1966 on counts of violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiracy to commit sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

As a biography by Stephen Clingman so well demonstrates, the last thing Fischer wanted was a sense of tragedy to envelop his memory. Visiting Fischer in prison, his friend and fellow attorney George Bizos embraced him and asked if it had "all been worth it". Ordinarily a mild-mannered person, Fischer became prickly. He asked if Bizos had asked Mandela the same question when visiting him on Robben Island. After all, Mandela also had a family and a legal practice. No? "Well then," Fischer replied, "don't ask me."

When it became known in 1974 that he was ill with cancer, liberal newspapers and political leaders mounted an intensive campaign for his release, and he was permitted to move to his brother's home in Bloemfontein a few weeks before his death in May 1975. During the Truth and Reconciliation hearings of the 90's, the country finally learned the truth of how he died. Denied medical treatment for a fractured neck femur, caused by a fall related to the cancer that was eating away his brain, Fischer slipped further and further in and out of consciousness. After months of pain and being nursed by a prison inmate because he was unable to speak or go to the toilet, he was finally readmitted to the hospital. This was December 1974. Though he had been ill since September, the prison authorities waited until then to notify the family. Fischer died a few short months later, on the 8th of May. In a bizarre sequel the prisons department demanded that his ashes be returned to them after the funeral.

"Integrity" is the single word most frequently applied to Fischer. He was what he was not despite being an Afrikaner, not despite his devotion to family, and not despite his communism - but profoundly because of all of these.

In an historic ruling in October 2003, a full bench of South Africa's high court posthumously reinstated Bram Fischer to the roll of advocates. The ruling comes almost 40 years after Fischer was struck off the roll because of his anti-apartheid convictions. Fischer's daughters, Ilse Wilson and Ruth Rice applied to have their father reinstated but only Ilse was in court to hear what she described as: 

"...a moving ceremony in the true spirit of reconciliation, rather than a court case".

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Contact the Bram Fischer Foundation:

Email: bram@rsa.org.za 

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