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Bram Fischer – A Son of Africa whose life defined the meaning of Integrity

Last month marked the 47th anniversary of Bram Fischer’s death on 8 May 1975. An Afrikaner,  advocate and  socialist  revolutionary, Bram  Fischer sacrificed his family, his heritage, his career, and his life in the struggle to establish a just society in South Africa.

Delivering the inaugural Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture on 9 June 1995, Nelson Mandela said :

As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his heritage and be ostracized by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself. No matter what I suffered in my pursuit of freedom, I always took strength from the fact that I was fighting with and for my own people. Bram was a free man who fought against his own people to ensure the freedom of others.” 

When Bram Fischer joined the Johannesburg Bar in 1935, he had good reason to consider himself blessed with good fortune: he was the son of the Judge President of the Orange Free State, grandson of the former Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony, a Rhodes scholar and an Oxford graduate.

Power, wealth, and fame – all the grandeur of which common folk dream were within his reach ;but he chose to sacrifice the privileges of his birth to pursue a cause greater than himself.

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On 9 May 1966, the Pretoria High Court sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges of furthering the aims of communism, conspiracy to commit sabotage, and  overthrow the Government by violent means.

The prison authorities singled out Bram Fischer for harsh treatment. The Anglo-Boer Wars pitting the Afrikaner nationalist movement against the British Empire had ingrained in the former the idea that an Afrikaner who betrayed his own people – as they believed Bram Fischer had done – deserved a fate worse than an enemy.

Fuelled by this conviction, the apartheid  authorities did all that was in their power to subject Bram Fischer to  the most cruel and degrading treatment. They made him wash toilets with a toothbrush and mocked him unsparingly; when his son Paul died at 23, they did not allow him to attend the funeral; his children were forbidden to touch him during prison visits.

In 1974, Bram Fischer was diagnosed with terminal cancer while serving his sentence.As his condition deteriorated, with death drawing close, his family’s pleas that he be released fell on deaf ears. The international outcry for his release, instigated by fellow political prisoner Dennis Goldberg, failed to move the conscience of the Afrikaner authorities.

They eventually released him a few days before his death – only after they had passed special legislation designating his brother’s house a prison; this meant that even in his dying moments, strict prison regulations governed all visits to his brother’s house. 

Their vengeance knowing no bounds, they denied Bram Fischer a proper burial: they confiscated his ashes and refused to release them to his family. Throughout his illness, the prison medical department had deliberately neglected to give Bram Fischer proper medical treatment, bringing shame to their profession.

Early Life

Bram Fischer was born on 25 April 1908. Like many Afrikaners at the time, his infant years were spent on a farm, where his closest friends were Black. But when he moved to the city to attend school and later University, he became enmeshed in a regimented Afrikaner society, bound by a covenant its ancestors had made with God in 1838. In this setting, he came to regard apartheid as normal.

During his trial, Bram Fischer recounted an experience that transformed his thinking. It was in his late teens ,when, as a high school student attending a joint Council of Europeans and Africans, he suddenly felt extreme discomfort at being asked to shake the hands of a Black person.This reaction so troubled Bram Fischer that in the days that followed, he spent sleepless nights in honest introspection, tossing and turning – unable to reconcile his happy childhood amongst Black friends with the person he had now become :

“That night, I spent many hours in thought trying to account for my strange revulsion when I remembered that I had never had any such feelings towards my boyhood friends. What became abundantly clear was that it was I and not the Black man who had changed, that despite my growing interest in him, I had developed an antagonism for which I could find no rational basis whatsoever. I came to understand that colour prejudice was a wholly irrational phenomenon and that all human friendship could extend across colour bar once the initial prejudice was overcome.”

In the years that followed his Damsascean conversion, Bram Fischer underwent a complete transformation, setting him on a path to making a covenant, not with God – he was an atheist – but with himself, that he would strive, in every aspect of his life to become a moral person and to be honest to himself. 

At the age of 22, he  was speaking openly about his deeply held conviction that apartheid and all it stood for was immoral and indefensible.

At University, Bram Fischer excelled in sports. In 1928 he  represented  the Orange Free State as a scrum-half in a match against the All Blacks of New Zealand. He completed his law degree with first-class honours and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

Law and Political Struggle

In 1937 he married Molly Krige, the niece of Field Marshall Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony between 1939 and 1948. Bram Fischer and Molly shared a common worldview. They were united in their  opposition to apartheid. To both, the Marxist theory of revolution held a strong moral appeal. In 1938 they joined the Johannesburg district of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). For several years  they were subject to banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act, prohibiting them from attending political gatherings.

In 1943 Bram Fischer helped AB Xuma to revise the ANC constitution. Following its banning in 1950, the Communist Party of South Africa reconstituted in 1953, as an underground party, under the name South African Communist Party (SACP). Bram and Molly Fischer continued as members of the underground movement, with Bram Fischer serving on the Central Committee and at one time as its chairperson.

For more than two decades  Bram Fischer  straddled two worlds – as a cadre of the Communist Party in the anti-apartheid struggle and as an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar.

In its heyday, the Johannesburg Bar comprised advocates of exceptional talent- men and women whose forensic skills reached heights of excellence that attracted universal admiration in  the British Commonwealth.  Among other great advocates, Nelson Mandela calls to mind  Issie Maisels, Rex Welsh, and Sydney Kentridge. All, like Bram Fischer, were appointed Queens Counsel at a time when  South Africa was  in the Commonwealth. In this distinguished  company  Bram Fischer became one of the most sought-after advocates of his time.

Bram Fischer could have acquired substantial wealth as a commercial barrister- but throughout his legal career, often for little or no financial reward, he made himself available to defend political activists facing trial in apartheid courts. When he was not available, he persuaded his distinguished colleagues to assist. Because of the high esteem in which they held Bram Fischer, they would  not charge for their services.

In 1953,156 anti-apartheid  activists of all  races were arraigned on charges of Treason.  Issie Maisels  QC , assisted by Bram Fischer QC , led the case for the defence. In 1956, following a three year trial, all were acquitted.

Gathering of the Storm Clouds 

Despite continuing overtures for dialogue to find meaningful solutions to the legitimate concerns of the African majority, the acquittal of the treason trialists did not give the apartheid regime cause to pause for thought. And  as they set about  unleashing  new waves of repression, a consensus began to emerge amongst leaders of the ANC and the South African Communist Party – that the only option now presenting itself was to launch an armed struggle.

In a series of secret meetings at Lilisleaf farm in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb, they formed Umkonto We sizwe, comprising members of the ANC and the Communist Party, as a military organization  to execute the armed struggle under the leadership of Nelson Mandela as its first chief of staff.

On 7 July 1963, the security police raided Lilisleaf farm, seized vast quantities of incriminating evidence, and arrested more than a dozen members of the ANC and Communist Party. They  were later indicted along with Mandela in the Rivonia trial on charges of conspiracy to commit sabotage.

The legal team assembled to represent the Rivonia trialists was unanimous in the view that Bram Fischer was the person best suited to lead the defence. But for reasons he could not disclose, Bram Fischer initially declined. Nelson Mandela explains:

“Bram, like many of us, reluctantly came to the conclusion that the State’s institutionalised violence against the majority of the people of South Africa, and more particularly the liberation movement, left us with no option other than to turn to armed struggle.

 Prompted by his humanity, he supported the decision that violence was to be confined to attacks on the symbols of apartheid and that great care should be taken that there should be no loss of lives.

During this period, he remained in close contact with the underground leadership of the African National Congress and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which accepted political violence for the liberation.

 He had personal knowledge of the decisions which had been taken to turn to the armed struggle and had been party to such decisions. He felt that with such knowledge, he could not act as our counsel. But he could not tell our families and lawyers his reasons.” 

In the end, Bram Fischer, a co-conspirator, relented and led the defence. Commenting on the role Bram Fischer played in the trial, Mandela, himself a seasoned lawyer, provides a rare glimpse into the range of forensic skills that Bram Fischer, an exceptionally gifted advocate, had put to the service of his political comrades over a lifetime.  

“He helped to formulate the nature of our defence. The prosecution expected us to try to avoid responsibility for our actions. However, we became the accusers, and right at the start, when asked to plead, we said that it was the Government that was responsible for the State of affairs in the country and that it was the Government that should be in the dock…….

His carefully prepared logical argument led to the quashing of the indictment against us. This helped to change the atmosphere which had been created by government propaganda and led to both internal and international campaigns calling for our release.

When the trial proper started, he spent many hours with us in Pretoria Prison, helping us to prepare the statements that we were to make from the dock and to prepare the statements from which comrades Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and others were to be led. 

He led comrade Walter carefully with compassion and great understanding. As a result, a confident Walter Sisulu was able to put down the overzealous prosecutor who not only wanted to convict us but also to discredit us. We have always felt that Bram’s strategic planning of our defence, the support that we received from freedom-loving people in South Africa, and the unanimous call by the United Nations to release us saved our lives.” 

The day after the Rivonia trial ended, Bram Fischer, anxious to find out how his comrades were faring, set off on a road trip from Johannesburg to Robben Island in Cape Town. On the way, he was involved in an accident in which his wife died. A few days later, he continued his journey to Robben Island, where he saw Nelson Mandela and other comrades now serving life sentences. He asked them if they wanted to appeal their life sentences, but, to a man, they declined to do so.

The arrest and imprisonment of many ANC and Communist Party leaders and the seizure of vital operational documents were a severe setback for Umkonto We Siswe. During and after the Rivonia trial, Bram Fischer and other underground operatives had worked assiduously to resuscitate it. 

It was only a matter of time before they came for Bram Fischer- in November 1965, they arrested him. He was granted bail to travel to the United Kingdom to appear in a trademark dispute in which he was briefed to appear before the Privy Council.

During his brief stay in London, ANC and Communist Party members who were in exile tried to persuade Bram Fischer not to return to South Africa. But Bram Fischer declined, remaining firm in his belief that he owed a duty to the dispossessed in South Africa to return and continue the struggle against apartheid.

On his return to South Africa,  and a few days after his trial commenced, he decided to continue the armed struggle from underground and not to attend his trial.  As a courtesy to the Court, he explained his decision to go underground in a letter that he asked his counsel to read to the trial judge: 

“I wish you to inform the Court that my absence, though deliberate, is not intended in any way to be disrespectful. 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.

If by my fight I can encourage even some people to think about, understand, and abandon the policies they now so blindly follow, I shall not regret any punishment I may incur…

“I can no longer serve justice in the way I have attempted to do during the past thirty years. I can do it only in the way I have now chosen.”

Some progressive and even left-leaning lawyers maintained that as a lawyer and as such an officer of the Court who had sworn under oath to obey the law and the norms of his profession, Bram Fischer’s decision to go underground ,engage in the armed struggle and break his undertaking  to stand trial rendered him unfit to be an advocate. The Johannesburg Bar Council took a similar view – within days of Bram Fischer going underground, they decided to strike him off the roll. 

Bram Fischer stood his ground, telling the Bar Council that their decision was contrary to established legal principles. He responded with this clinical reasoning in a letter to the Bar Council:

“The principle upon which I rely is a simple one, firmly established in South African legal tradition. Since the days of the South African war, if not since the Jameson Raid, it has been recognised that political offences, committed because of a belief in the overriding moral validity of a political principle, do not in themselves justify the disbarring of a person from practising the profession of the law. Presumably this is because it is assumed that the commission of such offences has no bearing on the professional integrity of the person concerned.

When an advocate does what I have done, his conduct is not determined by any disrespect for the law, nor because he hopes to benefit personally by any ‘offence’, he may commit. On the contrary, it requires an act of will to overcome his deeply rooted respect for legality, and he takes the step only when he feels that, whatever the consequences to himself, his political conscience no longer permits him to do otherwise. He does it not because of a desire to be immoral, but because to act otherwise would, for him, be immoral.”

As a fugitive, he  assumed the name “Mr Black” and managed to disguise his appearance through stringent dieting and other measures. Nine months into one of the biggest manhunt’s in South African history, the security police captured Bram Fischer.

After spending four months in solitary confinement, his trial commenced before the Pretoria High Court , on 16 November 1964.

The Trial

Bram Fischer chose not to give evidence and be cross-examined and instead, to address the Court from the dock. He explained to the Court his reasons for taking this approach:

“I accept the general rule that for the protection of society, laws should be obeyed. But when the laws themselves become immoral ad require the citizen to take part in an organised system of oppression – if only by his silence or apathy – then I believe that a higher duty arises. This compels one to refuse to recognise such laws.

My conscience does not permit me to afford these laws such recognition as even a plea of guilty would involve. Hence, though I shall be convicted by this Court, I cannot plea guilty. I believe the future may well say that I acted correctly.”

In much of what has been written about the life of Bram Fischer since his death, the tendency to underplay his commitment to the principles of scientific socialism is evident – the common refrain being that he was motivated more by his moral principles than by a genuine belief in the philosophy of Marxism.

But it seems fitting, whatever our views on socialism may be, that in remembering the integrity of Bram Fischer, we give full recognition to his deep commitment to the moral ideals of Marxism.  

In the opening lines of his speech, Bram Fischer signals a clear intent to proclaim his socialist beliefs, to put apartheid, and capitalism as the enabler of racism, in the dock. 

“Whatever labels may be attached to the fifteen charges brought against me, they all arise from my having been a member of the [South African] Communist Party and from my activities as a member. 

Were I to ask forgiveness today, I would betray my cause. That course is not open to me. I believe that what I did was right. ……..    My first duty then is to explain to the Court that I hold and have for many years held the view that politics can only be properly understood, and that our immediate political problems can only be satisfactorily solved by the application of that scientific system of political knowledge known as Marxism.” 

In painstaking detail, he explains to the Judge the Marxist theory of the inevitability of revolution, predicated on propositions which, as Marxists like Bram Fischer assert, are grounded in empirical evidence: “ It is clear that in the course of its development human society assumes various forms… I do not propose to go through the whole process……… Two things are abundantly clear. The one is that the economic form which one society assumes is incompatible with that of the society which preceded it or with that which will succeed it. The second is that a new form of economic society cannot finally establish itself unless it also develops the new political forms which can allow it to develop to its full extent.”

These political changes, he explains, are inevitable  and  “ whether  they take place by violent or by peaceful means and how long they take ……. depends on the circumstances at any given stage of history…  the balance of forces prevailing and the degree to which people understand the need for political change……. It is not difficult to illustrate this proposition either if one merely compares the French Revolution with the evolution of capitalist democracy in England during the 19 the century.”

Turning his focus on the relevance of Marxist theory to the crisis unfolding in South Africa, he tells the Court that  South Africa was a clear example of a capitalist society in which the political forms did not serve the economic needs of the people; the means of production in South Africa, the factories, mines, and productive land, were concentrated in the hands of the few and not owned by the majority.

He lays the charge that imperialism and the colonisation of Africa were the inevitable outcomes of capitalism’s search for markets and cheap labour in the pursuit of profit; that capitalism is the midwife of racism in that it breeds amongst those who only have their labour to sell, a sense of economic insecurity, a fear of unemployment and poverty.

This fear, Bram Fischer argues: is the fertile soil for producing racialism and intolerance. It was a similar fear which in Europe enabled Hitler to propagate his master’s theory of race superiority, which led to the extermination of 5 million Jews in Germany. It is this fear which provides the scope for the ready acceptance by whites in South Africa of many distorted ideas: that Africans are not civilised; that they are not our fellow citizens……

In uncompromising terms, Bram Fischer tells Justice Boschoff, the trial judge, that the immediate objective of the Communist  Party was to destroy White domination through a  national liberation  movement that unites all sections and classes of the  oppressed behind a national democratic revolution.

The main content of this revolution will be the national liberation of the African people; carried to its fulfillment, this revolution will at the same time put an end to every sort of race discrimination and privilege. The revolution will restore the land and wealth of the country to the people and guarantee democracy, freedom, and equality of rights and opportunities to all.”

To help build the bridges between races to achieve these ideals he urges Afrikaners to reach out to their fellow Africans in an open and clear protest against discrimination. Implicitly acknowledging that this clarion call was moved more out of desperation than any faith  in  his fellow  Afrikaner tribesmen ,Bram Fischer explains why an additional duty was cast upon him to redeem his people who had brought shame upon themselves. 

“Surely, in such circumstances there was an additional duty cast on me, that at least one Afrikaner should make this protest actively and positively, even though, as a result, I now face fifteen charges instead of four.

Ending his speech  in a defiant battle cry Bram Fischer  recalls  the words of an Afrikaner military leader during the second Anglo-Boer in 1899 :   Whether we are victorious or whether we die, freedom will arise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.

The Integrity of Bram Fischer

 In 1998  Stephen Clingman published a biography that sheds new light on the integrity of Bram Fischer. I was struck by this  quote from  Arthur Chalskason , the first Chief Justice of South Africa  :  “Bram Fischer displayed respect for human dignity in all aspects of his life. ” 

Reading the biography, the thought entered my mind  that the fountain of  Bram Fischer’s integrity and all its manifestations was his profound respect for the dignity of his fellow human beings. One of  several instances mentioned in the biography  attesting to this quality is the concession by a state witness under cross-examination at Bram Fischer’s trial,  that ‘Fischer had a saint-like quality’.

In his late 20s, he promised Molly Krige, his wife to-be that he would be as honest to her as it is possible for a human being to be. At her  funeral, expressing values that he  himself  held dear, he  says this of her : “ that she thought not of herself or her family, but of others, less well off than them.”

The lengths to which Bram Fischer was prepared to go, to put the well-being of others before his own, is revealed in Nelson Mandela’s account of his visit to Robben Island, a few days after they had been sentenced to life:

“I then asked Bram about Molly, his wife. No sooner had I pronounced Molly’s name than Bram stood up, excused himself, and abruptly walked out of the room. A few minutes later, he returned, once again composed, and resumed the conversation but without answering my question.

On our way back to the cells, the Major asked me whether I considered Bram Fischer’s behaviour strange. I said yes, it had been. He told me that Molly had died in a car accident the previous week.

We were devastated by the news…….The refusal to talk about Molly and what had happened was typical of Bram’s character. He was a stoic, a man who never burdened his friends with his own pain and troubles. He had come to advise us and to express concern for our predicament; he did not want to become the focus of our concern.”

Bram Fischer’s refusal to go into exile when the opportunity readily presented itself was borne of a sense of duty towards the sufferings of his compatriots – their pain, in a sense, becoming his own.  His concern for others less fortunate than himself moved him to go underground to continue the fight against apartheid. As he explained to the Court:

It was to keep faith with all those dispossessed by apartheid that I broke my undertaking to the Court, separated myself from my family, pretended I was someone else and accepted the life of a fugitive. I owed it to the political prisoners, to the banished, to the silenced, and those under house arrest not to remain a spectator but to act. I knew what they expected of me, and I did it. I felt responsible, not to those who are indifferent to the sufferings of others, but to those who are concerned. I knew that by valuing, above all, their judgment, I would be condemned by people who are content to see themselves as respectable and loyal citizens. I cannot regret any condemnation that may follow me.”

During the four months he spent in remand prison awaiting his trial, Bram Fischer was placed in solitary confinement, itself a form of torture- but at his trial, he made light of how he had been  ill -treated ,  choosing instead to raise concerns about the torture  meted out to his fellow prisoners :  

“Compared with others, I have not suffered. ……., apart from twisting and distorting human personalities like those of Beyleveld and Hlapane… these methods have already produced three suicides, one of them by an Indian who was a close friend of mine, a man no-one could ever have dreamed would take his own life. They have also produced two serious attempts at suicide by two other close friends. The first was by Mrs. Slovo, the mother of three small daughters, a courageous woman if ever there was one. The other, Mr. Heymann, also a person of outstanding character and courage.

These are facts which all should know. They bring shame to our country. Few Whites recognise them. Most accept the application of the 180-day law as normal procedure…… In such circumstances, the administration of criminal law changes its character. It ceases to have integrity.”

Bram Fischer’s integrity led him to choose the most difficult path imaginable in the struggle for freedom. His conscience would not allow him to make lesser sacrifices or show less courage than his political comrades.  

In 1946 the district committee of the Communist Party stood in solidarity with a strike by 76 000 Black miners against the Chamber of Mines. Bram Fischer was absent when the Communist Party took this decision, but, believing it to be the moral thing to do, he accepted legal responsibility and was convicted.

Shortly after his capture, Mandela’s lawyer, George Bizos, asked Bram Fischer whether it had been worth sacrificing his family, his legal practice, and his life for the gains of leading the underground struggle for less than a year.

Bram Fischer took exception  to such a question and replied: “Did you ask Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki or Kathy Kathrada, or any others that have already suffered this punishment? If not, why do you ask me?”

The integrity of Bram Fischer also manifested itself in the mutual bonds of friendship, akin to family, that he enjoyed with his political comrades. When the Communist Party went underground in 1953, Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC at the time, is reputed to have said that he would support their decision if men like Bram Fischer were involved. When Bram Fischer’s son, Paul, died at 23, a grieving Walter Sisulu said that  he had lost a son. Mandela told Clingman, that Bram Fischer’s  relationship with the maid who worked at his home, had been that of brother and sister.

Bram Fischer’s Legacy

Bram Fischer’s life inspired millions of young South Africans  of all races to believe in and join the fight for a non-racial democracy in South Africa.

On 1st April 1965, Frederick John Harris, a 27 year old  White South African school teacher and anti-apartheid activist was executed in Pretoria Central Prison  for planting a bomb in a railway station he mistakenly believed had been cleared of all commuters. As the hangman’s noose was placed around his neck, he sang the famous Afro-American spiritual, We Shall Overcome.  Individual examples of  such commitment to freedom in South Africa  by young South Africans  of all races are too numerous to mention here.  

In a post pandemic world marked by widening socio-economic inequality and deepening levels of poverty, even in rich nations, the integrity of Bram Fischer invites national governments  to respond to the pressing  economic needs of the majority through political reforms that enhance  their  human dignity.

Increasingly the need for such political reform is dominating the  agenda of  Western nations. In the UK, there now exists a Minister for Equality and Levelling Up. As major European economies brace for a summer of discontent, the emerging consensus across the political party divide is that  change is inevitable; and that if continuing social unrest  is to be avoided,  the need for  political reforms that bring a fairer distribution of wealth is imperative.

In South Africa, Bram Fischer’s mother country, the  question  for the ruling African National Congress is whether  the recurring waves of xenophobia  and  seemingly endless  allegations of corruption  that have engulfed  the ruling elite  are in essence,  as Bram Fischer would have said, a manifestation of inherited  political forms that do not serve the  economic needs of the majority.  

Bram Fischer remained true to the covenant he had made with himself in his twenties: He told the Judge that if the conduct with which he had been charged would one day help build bridges between the races , he would  be able to bear with fortitude any sentence the court may impose and that  It will be a fortitude strengthened by this knowledge at least, that for twenty-five years I have taken no part, not even by passive acceptance, in that hideous system of discrimination which we have erected in this country….. “

No one is better qualified then Nelson Mandela to  offer this perspective of  Bram Fischer’s place in the annals of  South Africa’s history:

“The policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years if not generations recovering from that profound hurt but the dictates of oppression and brutality had another unintended effect, and that was it produced the Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Robert Sobukwes of our time – men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character.

 Bram Fischer was one of Africa’s finest sons. Here again are his last words :  Whether we win or whether we die , freedom will rise in Africa, like the sun from the morning clouds.