OPINION | Afrikaners and Jews, side by side in the fight against apartheid: A tribute to Bram Fischer 45 years on

Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, wrote that Fischer was one of the "bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle that [he had] ever known", writes Jessie Duarte and Cameron Dugmore.

Denis Goldberg, whose passing South Africa and the world mourned just last week, paid tribute to his former lawyer and fellow prisoner, Bram Fischer, in 2014 at the Rhodes House in Oxford.

A week after Goldberg’s death, we remember the 45th anniversary of the death of this great son of the soil and Afrikaner, Abraham Fischer. 

At that lecture in Oxford, Goldberg would describe how he shared an apartheid prison with Fischer for nine years. He nursed him, he said. Loved him for his utter humanity, for his gentleness and for his toughness. 

Goldberg would describe Fischer has having "a backbone of tempered steel".

In that lecture, he would recall how Fischer once explained his embarrassment to shake the hands of his fellow black students at Grey College in Bloemfontein as a young boy.

Fischer explained he could not understand this feeling for he had played with Black children as he grew up on the farm and thought of them as brothers.

Fischer, Goldberg relays, realised that it was he who had changed; not the young black people. He ashamedly recognised that "there was no real or material basis for this shift in his thinking".

Fischer had been taught by his family, his community and his society to be racist and he acknowledged that he had to unlearn this. 

Fellow member of the Communist Party, Ruth First, would later write that while she was questioned about Bram Fischer she told the South African Security Branch in 1963, that: "Bram is a friend, a very dear friend of mine, a wonderful man, and - thank God for the reputation of your people that you have at least one saving grace - he's an Afrikaner.”

Fischer would eventually go on to lead the defense team of the Rivonia treason trialists together with the assistance of George Bizos, Joel Joffe and Arthur Chaskalson and later Vernon Berrange. 

Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, wrote that Fischer was one of the "bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle that [he had] ever known".

bram fischer

Bram Fischer in 1964.  (National Museum) 

Even though he had access to a life of Afrikaner privilege, he rejected this and was subsequently rejected by his own people. This, Mandela said, displayed the "level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself”.

Shortly after the treason trial, Fischer himself was arrested and charged with being a member of the banned Communist Party but was granted bail to plead a case before the British House of Lords Judicial Committee. 

He was encouraged by comrades in exile to stay abroad and not return to South Africa. Instead he courageously returned to South Africa but went underground to try and rebuild the structures of the CP in the country that had been decimated after the Rivonia trial. 

Eventually he was caught, stood trial and in 1966 was sentenced to life imprisonment and three terms of imprisonment of 8 years each to run consecutively.

As Goldberg goes on to tell, in 1974, after suffering severely in prison, Bram Fischer died of cancer while still a prisoner. 

The prison authorities had allowed him to go to his brother’s home but they were so relentless that, despite his illness, he was still to be regarded as a prisoner and so they declared his brother’s house a prison. 

Goldberg acknowledged that while allowing the ill Fischer to go to his brother's house might have been a privilege, “… the whole process was terribly lacking in compassion, despite the Minister’s [of Justice] promise that he could be released to his daughter’s home in Johannesburg". 

Fischer was cremated by the prison authorities.

These authorities denied Fischer’s daughters their father’s ashes because they feared a shrine would be established in his memory and a place of pilgrimage for those who were freedom fighters.

The Afrikaans poet, Antjie Krog, whom Fischer together with Ingrid Brink loved to read, in her book, Country of My Skull, wrote that Fischer “…was so much braver than the rest of us [Afrikaners].

"He paid so much more. His life seems to have touched the lives of so many people - even after his death." 

In closing his lecture at Oxford in honor of Bram Fischer, Denis Goldberg quoted the eulogy for a communist comrade in the 1930s novel, How the steel was tempered, by Nikolai Ostrowski. 

At that occasion, Goldberg said that it could have been written and said about Bram Fischer but as we say our final goodbyes to Fischer’s former fellow prisoner, Denis Golberg himself, it would not be inappropriate to say that the words apply to both Fischer and Goldberg when it says:

“Man's dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that dying he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world - the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.”

Long live the undying of spirits of two of Africa’s most greatest sons, Bram Fischer and Denis Goldberg!

- Jessie Duarte is Deputy Secretary General of the ANC and Cameron Dugmore is ANC Leader of the Opposition in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature 

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