Bram Fischer

Bram Fischer (Abram Louis Fischer 23 Apr 1908 to 8 May 1975), was an Afrikaner South African lawyer.
Fischer’s father, Percy Fischer, was Judge President of the Orange Free State, and his grandfather, Abraham Fischer, had been prime minister of the Orange River Colony.
In his youth he studied at Grey College in Bloemfontein. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England in the early 1930s.
Whilst in Europe he travelled to the Soviet Union in 1932. It would be nearly a decade later before he was to become a communist, but the experience left a profound impression on him. He wrote to his father about the Russian ‘kleinboer’ (literal ‘small farmer’) along the Volga, and he began to make a mental connection between the plight of the Russian kleinboer and South African blacks.
In 1937 Fischer married Molly Krige, niece of Jan Smuts, and they had three children. Fischer’s wife, Molly, was also involved in politics, being detained without trial in the state of emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.
Fischer joined the SACP in the early 1940s and soon rose to leadership positions in the party. In 1943 he aided A.B. Xuma in revising the constitution of the African National Congress (ANC). In 1946 he was charged with incitement because of his position in the South African Communist party (SACP) and the African mineworkers’ strike that year.
Fischer was a key member of the defence team for Nelson Mandela and others in the Treason Trial of 1956-1961.
Two-and-a-half years later came the Rivonia Trial, where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leaders of the ANC, were charged with sabotage and faced the death sentence. Bram Fischer led the defence team and it is no exaggeration to claim that the seven men finally convicted, were not sentenced to death because of the inspired defence led by Fischer.
Fischer did so at great risk to himself. A number of documents seized at Rivonia were in fact in Fischer’s own handwriting. While not a member of MK (the military wing of the ANC), Fischer was acting chairman of the SACP’s Central Committee, and heavily involved with policy making and meetings at their headquarters at Rivonia.
Immediately after the Rivonia Trial verdict, Molly Fischer was tragically killed in a motor car accident. A week later, still shattered and shocked, Bram Fischer visited the Rivonia Trial prisoners on Robben Island to discuss the question of an appeal in their case.
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Reinstated to the Roll of Advocates He did not tell them of his wife’s death, as he did not wish to distress them. A few days later he was arrested, held in solitary confinement for three days and then released.
Fischer was arrested in September 1964 and charged with the crime of membership of the SACP. He was released on bail to handle a case in London. He had promised to return to face trial and did so despite pressure put in him to forego his bail and go into exile. He returned to South Africa and attended his trial.
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.’
He went underground and in 1965 was struck off the roll for conduct ‘unbefitting a member of the Bar and the Society’ in a trial completed in his absence.
Fischer went underground for almost a year. He was arrested nine months in 1966 on counts of violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiracy to commit sabotage. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
During his incarceration Fischer developed cancer and a fall in 1974 left him partially paralysed and unable to talk. It was not until December that year that the authorities transferred him to hospital.
When news of his illness was publicised Fischer was released under house arrest in April 1975. He died a few weeks later on 8 May 1975.
‘Burger’s Daughter’ by Nadine Gordimer is based on the life of Bram Fischer’s daughter.
‘Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary’ by Stephen Clingman won the Alan Paton Award in 1999.
Following a ruling of a full Bench of the Johannesburg High Court in 2003, Fischer was the first person to be reinstated posthumously in terms of the Reinstatement of Enrolment of Deceased Legal Practitioners Act.

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