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
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.
Fischer'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:
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.
Copyright © zar.co.za January 2007