Bram Fischer is probably one of the better known names of the apartheid struggle, with Commercial Road in Durban having been renamed in his honour, and a number of other important sites across the country also recognising the role that Bram played in our country’s history. But beyond a vague recognition, and perhaps some knowledge of his link to the famous Rivonia Trialists, many South Africans will not be aware of the massive sacrifices that Bram Fischer made in the fight for South Africa’s freedom, sacrifices depicted in the recently released feature film, An Act of Defiance, by Dutch director Jean van de Velde.
The film is centred around the defence of the group of men arrested on the 11th July 1963 during a police raid at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg. Working off information extracted during an interrogation of an ANC cadre, the security police hit pay dirt when they entered one of the outbuildings attached to the farm and discovered the national High Command of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), along with the organisation’s political advisers, in the midst of discussions around ‘Operation Mayibuye’, a plan to destroy white supremacy “by means of mass revolutionary action, the main content of which is armed resistance leading to victory by military means”.
Amongst those arrested were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein and Bob Hepple. Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a five-year prison sentence for having left the country illegally in 1962, was charged alongside the rest of the men, as commander-in-chief of MK.
The potential for career suicide was high, thus defense attorney’s for the accused were in short supply, and it was Bram Fischer who put his hand up to represent the men who were accused of committing acts of sabotage, along with a number of lesser charges. But in fact it was through sheer luck that Bram himself had not been at Liliesleaf when the arrests had been made, and in addition to risking his professional life by representing the accused, Bram also risked his personal freedom by exposing himself as an enemy of the state.
Born Abram Fischer, Bram came from a prominent Afrikaans family. His grandfather had been the prime minister of the Orange River Colony, with his father, Percy Fischer, a much-respected Free State judge. Bram himself was a member of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1943 to 1963, being voted as its chairman in 1961, and had achieved great success in his career despite his unorthodox political leanings. Initially a nationalist, it was while studying at Oxford in the early 1930s as a Rhodes Scholar that Bram visited the Soviet Union, and became a convert to the Stalinist doctrine. Some years earlier he had started dating Molly Krige, who had similar leftist political leanings, and was also attracted to communism. Bram and Molly were married in September 1937, and within a few years the couple had officially become members of the Communist Party of South Africa.
Over the next two decades Molly and Bram would become more and more involved in politics. In 1946 Bram was charged with incitement during a mineworkers’ strike, and a few years later, in 1950, was named under the Suppression of Communism Act. He was also a member of the Congress of Democrats and in 1952 defended Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and eighteen other ANC leaders when they were arrested for participating in the Defiance Campaign. A year later Bram was issued with a banning order preventing him from attending political gatherings, and his house and advocate’s chambers were regularly subjected to raids by the police. Yet despite all of this, Bram Fischer was still a very respected corporate lawyer, who was widely admired and even believed by some to have the potential to lead the country as Prime Minister.
The film, which follows the course of the trial, depicts these two side of Bram Fischer well: a quiet, unassuming, and polite English barrister in the courtroom, while at night plotting with his comrades to overthrow the government. It is clear from the film that there was never a chance of a not-guilty verdict, but that thanks to Bram Fischer and his counsel, the accused men were spared their lives, being sentenced instead to life imprisonment. It is largely thanks to Bram that Mandela was able to continue his fight from within the prison walls, ultimately becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
Sadly shortly after the trial ended Molly Fischer was killed in a car accident, with Bram being arrested a few months later for contravening the Suppression of Communism Act. His trial started on the 16th November 1964, but on the 23rd January 1965, Bram went underground stating that no one should submit to “the barbaric laws and monstrous policy of apartheid”. Within a year Bram had been captured, and now faced more serious charges, including sabotage. He chose not to testify fearing that he would be forced to implicate others, and instead read a statement from the dock:
I accept the general rule that for the protection of a society laws should be obeyed. But when laws themselves become immoral and 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. The laws under which I am being prosecuted are enacted by a wholly unrepresentative body, a body in which three-quarters of the people of this country have no voice whatever.”
In 1966 Bram Fischer was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1974, while still in prison, Bram became seriously ill with cancer, and after an intensive campaign for his release, was eventually moved to his brother’s home in Bloemfontein, where he remained for a few short weeks before his death on the 8th May 1975. Despite a request from his daughters that he be buried next to his beloved Molly, the state chose instead to cremate his body, fearing that his grave would become a shrine for the resistance movement. Sadly his ashes were never returned to his family.
Speaking of Bram in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela described him as “the bravest and staunchest friend of the freedom struggle that I have ever known”.
A number of the sites that make up the Durban Liberation Heritage Route can be found on Bram Fischer Road.