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Abram Fischer, commonly known as Bram Fischer, (23 April 1908 Bloemfontein – 8 May 1975 Bloemfontein) was a South African lawyer of Afrikaner descent, notable for anti-apartheid activism and for the legal defence of anti-apartheid figures, including Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial. Following the trial he was himself put on trial accused of furthering communism. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served eleven years and was released in 1975, crippled by the disease from which he died two weeks later.
Family and education
Fischer came from a prominent Afrikaner family; his father was Percy Fischer, a Judge President of the Orange Free State, and his grandfather was Abraham Fischer, a prime minister of the Orange River Colony and later a member of the cabinet of the unified South Africa.
Prior to studying at Oxford University (New College) as a Rhodes scholar during the 1930s, he was schooled at Grey College and Grey University College in Bloemfontein, he was a resident of House Abraham Fischer which is named after his grandfather Abraham Fischer. During his stay at Oxford, he travelled on the European continent, including a trip in 1932 to the Soviet Union. In a letter to his parents during his trip, he noted similarities between the position of Russian farmers that he encountered along the Volga river and South African blacks.
In 1937, Fischer married Molly Krige, a niece of Jan Smuts; the couple had three children. Their son, Paul died of cystic fibrosis at the age of 23 while Fischer was in prison. Molly became involved in politics and was detained without trial during the 1960 state of emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre. In 1964, Bram, Molly and a friend, Liz Franklin, were driving to Cape Town for daughter Ilse's 21st birthday. Bram swerved the car to avoid hitting a cow that had strayed onto the road. The car veered off the road and overturned into a river, causing Molly to drown. Bram was devastated and inconsolable, devoting himself more than ever to his secret life as a leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Professional and political activities
Fischer joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the 1940s and soon rose to leadership positions. The SACP had a close relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) and in 1943, Fischer co-authored revisions to the constitution of the ANC. In 1946 he was charged with incitement arising out of his position as a leader of the SACP and the African Mine Workers' Strike of that year.
Alongside Issy Maisels and others, Fischer played an integral role on the defense team in the Treason Trial of 1956 – 1961 where Mandela and many other anti-apartheid activists were acquitted on 29 March 1961. In his autobiography, Mandela affectionately recalls Fischer reading the left wing publication New Age at his table during the trial proceedings.
Fischer led Nelson Mandela's legal defense team at the Rivonia Trial of 1963 – 1964. By a coincidence, Fischer had not been present at the raid on Liliesleaf Farm, although he had in fact been part of the trusted Rivonia inner circle. A number of documents seized by authorities were in his handwriting.
Mandela and co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, which the state prosecutor Percy Yutar had been asking for. This was considered a victory for the defence. International pressure also played a role. At this time, Fischer's role as leader of the SACP was unknown even to his closest white friends.
After the verdict, Bram Fischer visited the Rivonia trial prisoners on Robben Island to discuss the question of an appeal in their case. Wishing to protect the prisoners, he did not tell them of his wife’s death one week earlier. After the meeting, Mandela learned about Mrs Fischer's death and wrote to Fischer, a letter that his prison guards never delivered. A few days later Fischer was himself arrested, held in solitary confinement for three days and then released. On 23 September 1964, he was again arrested and joined the 12 white men and women facing charges of being members of the now illegal South African Communist Party.
Fischer was released on bail to handle a patent case in London. He applied for bail to attend to his case. In his appeal to Court in the bail application he stated:
I am an Afrikaner. My home is in South Africa. I will not leave my country because my political beliefs conflict with those of the Government.
Fischer returned to South Africa to face trial despite pressure put on him to forgo his £5,000 bail and go into exile. One day, after proceedings began, he did not arrive at Court and instead sent a letter to his counsel, Harold Hanson which was read out in court. He wrote:
By the time this reaches you I shall be a long way from Johannesburg and shall absent myself from the remainder of the trial. But I shall still be in the country to which I said I would return when I was granted bail. I wish you to inform the Court that my absence, though deliberate, is not intended in any way to be disrespectful. Nor is it prompted by any fear of the punishment which might be inflicted on me. Indeed I realise fully that my eventual punishment may be increased by my present conduct...
My decision was made only because I believe that it is the duty of every true opponent of this Government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can...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.
Fischer went underground to support the liberation struggle against apartheid. In doing so, went against the advice of Mandela, who had advised him to support the struggle in the courtroom, "where people could see this Afrikaner son of a judge president fighting for the rights of the powerless. But he could not let others suffer while he remained free. […] Bram did not want to ask others to make a sacrifice that he was unwilling to make himself."
Imprisonment and death
Fischer carried on underground activities for almost a year. He was arrested in November 1965, nine months after his return to South Africa and after 290 days underground. In March 1966 he was put on trial for a second time on charges of furthering the aims of communism and conspiracy to overthrow the government. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was imprisoned in Pretoria Central Prison.
During his incarceration, he was diagnosed with cancer. A fall induced by the effects of the cancer in September 1974 left Fischer with a fractured neck, femur, partial paralysis, and an inability to talk. It was not until December of that year, that the authorities had him transferred to a hospital. When news of his illness was publicised, the public lobbied government for his release. Fischer was placed under house arrest at his brother's home in Bloemfontein in April 1975. He died a few weeks later. The prisons department had Fischer's ashes returned to them after the funeral and they have never been located.
Fischer is widely acknowledged as a key figure in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Nelson Mandela wrote, Fischer was one of the "bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle that I have ever known." From a prominent Afrikaner family, he gave up a life of privilege, rejected his heritage, and was ostracized by his own people, showing "a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself."
Bram Fischer was reluctant to serve as leader of the defense at the Rivonia Trial since many of the witnesses could implicate him in illegal communist activities. In addition, his handwriting was found on documents from Liliesleaf Farm. However, his white friends could not understand his reluctance and persuaded him to do so, not knowing his clandestine Communist Party membership. As a result, when Robert Resha (a black activist who was prosecuted at the Rivonia Trial) heard about it, he remarked that "He (Bram Fischer) deserves the Victoria Cross".
In Country of My Skull (1998), Antjie Krog wrote, "He was so much braver than the rest of us, he paid so much more, his life seems to have touched the lives of so many people – even after his death.”
In her account of her detention and solitary confinement by the South African Security Branch in 1963, Ruth First writes about being questioned about Fischer during an interrogation. She told her interrogators, "Bram is a friend, a very dear friend of mine, a wonderful man, and – thank God for the reputation of your people that you have at least one saving grace – he's an Afrikaner."
Fischer was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.
In 2003 Fischer became the first South African ever to be posthumously reinstated to the Bar.
Rhodes House (University of Oxford), where Fischer was a student, holds an annual Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture to honour his legacy.
Works about Fischer
Burger's Daughter (1979), a novel by literature Nobel Prize winner and fellow South African, Nadine Gordimer, is based on the life of Bram Fischer's daughter; he is the "Burger" of the title. Fischer is also the subject of Stephen Clingman's Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary, which won the Alan Paton Award in 1999, and Martin Meredith's Fischer' Choice. South African director Sharon Farr's documentary, Love, Communism, Revolution & Rivonia – Bram Fischer’s Story, won the Encounters Film Festival Audience Award for Best South African Documentary in August 2007. Harry Kalmer wrote The Braam Fischer Waltz a play performed by David Butler at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2013 and 2014.
Notes and references
- Clingman 1998.
- Sharon Farr (Director) (2007). Love, Communism, Revolution & Rivonia: Bram Fischer's Story.
Features interviews with daughters Ruth and Ilse Fischer
- Mandela 1995, p. 202.
- Mandela 1995, p. 305.
- Anon 2007.
- Mandela 1995, p. 330.
- Mandela 1995.
- "Bram Fischer, Q.C.". SACP.
- SACP. "Letter sent by Bram Fischer to his Counsel in February 1965 when he went underground, and read to the court".
- Mandela 1995, p. 411.
- Sisulu 2003, p. 266.
- Mandela 1995, p. 79.
- Mandela 1995, pp. 340, 411.
- Krog 1998, pp. 269-270.
- First 1965, p. 117.
- "Bram Fischer reinstated on Roll". The M&G Online. 16 October 2003. Retrieved 2014-10-05.
- Roelf, Wendell (9 December 2004). "Bram Fischer award not just 'empty ritual'". Mail and Guardian. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
- "Bram Fischer International Airport". Airports Company South Africa. Retrieved 15 November 2013.
- Latoya Newman (June 25, 2013). "Afrikaner revolutionary's story on the stage". iol.co.za. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
- Clingman, Stephen (1998). Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary. David Philip Publishers. ISBN 978-0-86486-677-6.
- Sisulu, Elinor (2003). Walter & Albertina Sisulu: in our time. Abacus. ISBN 978-0-86486-639-4.
- Mandela, Nelson (1995). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-1-4087-0311-3.
- Krog, Antjie (1998). Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. Three River Press. ISBN 978-0-8129-3129-7.
- First, Ruth (1965). 117 Days: An Account Of Confinement And Interrogation Under The South African 90-Day Detention Law. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-7481-1905-9.
- Anon (2007). "Biography of Bram Fischer". zar.co.za. Retrieved 2014-10-05.
- Trewhela, Paul (2009). "Chapter 8 The Problem of Communism in Southern Africa". Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO. Jacana Media. ISBN 978-1-77009-776-6.
- Haasbroek, Hannes (2011). ’n Seun soos Bram (in Afrikaans). Penguin Random House South Africa. ISBN 978-1-4152-0217-3.
- Katwala, Sunder (11 February 2001). "The Rivonia Trial". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-10-05.
- "Academic fight brews over honours for Fischer". IOL News. 8 November 2004. Retrieved 2014-10-05.
- "The Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture: President Mandela's Inaugural Speech" (PDF), Consultus, 8 (2), Nov 1995, retrieved 2014-10-05