Remarkable People

ID #5228

Bram Fischer, Lawyer and Anti-Apartheid Activist, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Abram Louis Fischer (1908-1975), commonly known as Bram Fischer, was a lawyer noted for anti-apartheid activism and the legal defense of anti-apartheid figures, including Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia Trial. As Mandela said in “Long Walk to Freedom”, Fischer was one of the bravest foes of apartheid because he gave up more than others -- a life of privilege resulting from his birthright and a senior position in the apartheid government had he wanted it. In “Country of My Skull” Antjie Krog writes, "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.”

Fischer came from a prominent Afrikaner family. His father was Judge President of the Orange Free State, and his grandfather was a prime minister of the Orange River Colony (Free State) and later a cabinet member in the government.

Prior to studying at Oxford University during the 1930s, he was educated at Grey College and Grey University College in Bloemfontein. During his stay at Oxford, he traveled Europe – which included a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932. In a letter to his parents he noted similarities between the position of Russian farmers along the Volga River and South African blacks.

In 1937, Fischer married Molly Krige, a niece of Jan Smuts. The couple had three children. Molly became involved in politics and was detained after the Sharpeville massacre. In 1963, while driving to Cape Town for their daughter's 21st birthday, Bram swerved to avoid hitting an animal in the road. The car 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 Communist Party.

Fischer joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the 1940s and soon rose to leadership positions within the party. The SACP had a close relationship with the ANC and in 1943 Fischer co-authored revisions to its constitution. In 1946 he was charged with incitement arising from his position as a leader of the SACP and the African Mine Workers' Strike of that year.

Fischer was a member of the defense team during the Treason Trial of 1956-1961 in which Mandela was acquitted. Later he led Mandela's defense team at the Rivonia Trial in 1963-1964. The sentence of life imprisonment, instead of the death penalty asked for by the prosecutor, was a victory for Mandela’s defense. International pressure also played a role. At the time, Fischer's plans to overthrow the government were unknown to his closest friends.

Fischer was arrested in September 1964 and charged with membership of the SACP. He was released to handle a case in London. He promised to return to face trial and did so despite pressure to go into exile. Instead, he returned to South Africa to attend his trial. One day he did not arrive at Court. Instead he sent a letter to his counsel, Harold Hanson, in which 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 realize 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..."

He went underground and was struck off the advocate's roll in 1965. Advocates Harold Hanson, Sydney Kentridge and Arthur Chaskalson defended him at the hearing. Fischer carried on his underground activities for almost a year before he was arrested and charged with violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiracy to commit sabotage. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

During his incarceration, he contracted cancer. A fall in September 1974 left Fischer with a fractured neck femur, partially paralyzed and unable to talk. It was not until December that the authorities transferred him to a hospital. When news of his illness was publicized, the public lobbied for his release. Fischer was placed under house arrest at his brother's home in Bloemfontein in April 1975 where 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.

“Burger's Daughter”, a novel by Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner 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”. 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.

In 2003 Fischer became the first South African to be reinstated to the Bar. In 2004, despite opposition from alumni and management, Fischer was posthumously awarded an honorary degree by Stellenbosch University. New College (University of Oxford), where Fischer was a student, holds the annual Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture to honour his legacy. RSABF



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Last update: 2014-05-14 16:50
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.7

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