AS the people of South Africa cast their vote in South Africa’s sixth non-racial democratic election and determine which political parties should represent them in Parliament and the Provincial Legislatures, our memory of Abram Fischer (“Bram” as he was affectionately known) – an outstanding hero of our struggle – looms large.
He was born on a Free State farm on 23 April 1908 from one of the most distinguished Afrikaner families in South Africa. His father, Percy Uhlrig Fischer, was a Judge President of Orange Free State, identified himself with Hertzog’s brand of Afrikaner nationalism and even organised an ambulance service to help those who in 1914 rebelled against Louis Botha’s Government. His grandfather, Abraham Fischer, was a close confidante of President Steyn of the old Orange Free State at the turn of the last century and particularly during the Anglo Boer War. He later became Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony.
After completing LLB at the University College in Bloemfontein, Bram boarded a ship for England to continue his studies in law at the Oxford University. In 1932, together with three students at Oxford, he toured Russia. In his letters to his future wife, Molly Krige, and his family, it became apparent that he was impressed with the former Soviet Union.
In 1935 Bram became a member of Johannesburg Bar. On 18 September 1937, he married Molly, also from a well-known Afrikaans family, a niece to the wife of General Smuts, South Africa’s Prime Minister during both the First and Second World Wars. Both Bram and Molly played an outstanding role in the struggle for political and social emancipation in South Africa. They eventually joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). They even adopted an African child, Nora Mlambo, in defiance of the racist laws and brought her up in their home.
They joined the Party for two main reasons: because it was the only party in South Africa which stood behind the demand for equal rights for all South Africans, irrespective of race, creed or colour; and because of the outstanding courage of its members and their willingness to work and sacrifice for their ideals. Bram rose into the leading position of the Party and was elected to its Central Committee in January 1945. In 1946 he was one of the members of the Johannesburg District Committee of the Communist Party who were arrested and charged under the Riotous Assemblies Act with causing the strike of 80 000 African miners on the Witwatersrand gold mines. They were fined.
He was a member of the Central Committee of the CPSA when it was banned in 1950 – yet this did not prevent his colleagues from allowing his name to go forward as a Queen’s Counsel (QC). Bram was an outstanding jurist and there is a general consensus that had he remained a narrow Afrikaner Nationalist, he would have ended up as a Cabinet Minister. Had he eschewed politics and stuck to law; he would have become a Chief Justice.
Bram Fischer’s greatest legal and political triumphs were achieved during the mammoth treason trial which ran from 1956 to 1961 and in which he was a leading counsel defending the 156 men and women of all races charged with treason for propagating the Freedom Charter adopted at the historic Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955. He also led the defence team at the Rivonia trial involving Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govern Mbeki and others. The brilliant and painstaking work of Bram Fischer and his team was one of the main factors responsible for saving them from death sentence.
Bram and his wife set off the day after sentence was passed for holiday in the Cape. Molly was killed in a tragic accident. In December 1964 Bram and 13 others were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. Shortly after his arrest he applied for bail to take a case on appeal to the Privy Council in London. He was granted bail of $5 000. He left for London in 1964, argued and won his case before the Privy Council and then returned to face his trial. This was despite pressure put on him by his comrades who were in England, to forego his bail and go into exile.
In 1965 he went underground to lead the forces of the Communist Party against the apartheid regime. In the letter he had left after going underground he wrote: “My decision was made only because I believe it is the duty of every true opponent of the Government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in its power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can’.
Bram was ultimately arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. In his speech from the dock he said, inter alia; “if one day it may help to establish a bridge across which white leaders and real leaders of the Blacks can meet to settle the destinies of all of us by negotiation, not by force of arms, I shall be able to bear with fortitude any sentence which this Court may impose on me. It will be a fortitude, my Lord, strengthened by this knowledge at least, that for the past twenty-five years I have taken no part, not even by passive acceptance, in that hideous system of discrimination which we have created in this country, and which become a by-word in the civilised world”
In prison he was subjected to inhumane treatment. Even when his son died in 1971, he was refused the authority to attend his funeral. Bram suffered from the terminal effects of cancer, the regime released him from prison into the custody of his brother in Bloemfontein. He died within two months on 08 May 1975. Interestingly, the Constitution of South Africa was adopted on this day in 1996.
The SACP described Bram as a communist in the truest mould who was an example of the highest dedication to the cause of freedom and social emancipation regardless of personal cost. In an obituary statement, the ANC wrote:
“He died as he lived – fighting and sacrificing his all for the liberation of the oppressed people in racist South Africa. He sacrificed wealth, fame comfort, high position, a privileged life in an already privileged white society for the hazardous role of working with our cadres in the underground movement.”
He chose instead the long and hard road to freedom not only for himself but for all of us. He chose the road that had to pass through the jail. He travelled it with courage and dignity. He was an inspiration to many generations as incorruptible and selfless leader. Bram would have assiduously fought the state capture as a form of primary accumulation of capital by thievery, robbery, looting, commercial cheating and scams of all sorts. He would have rallied behind the notion of a new dawn as inspired by President Cyril Ramaphosa to renew and grow our country. As we mark the 44th anniversary of his death on 8 May 2019, let us honour of his memory by ensuring that an ANC election victory lays the basis for a clear advance towards a people’s economy, with decent work and a comprehensive social security system.
DR LEHLOHONOLO KENNEDY MAHLATSI is the SACP Free State Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) Member. He writes in his personal capacity.