Born in 1908, the son of the Judge President of what was then the Orange Free State and the grandson of the first President of the Orange River Colony, Bram Fischer was destined to become either the Prime Minister or the Chief Justice of South Africa. However, driven by a passion for justice, he gave all this up by joining the Communist Party, the single party in South Africa which refused to accept any colour bar.
In doing this, as Nelson Mandela said, “Bram Fischer challenged his own people because he felt that what they were doing was morally wrong. As an Afrikaner, his conscience forced him to be ostracised by his own people and he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was immeasurable. I fought only against injustice, not against my own people.”
Despite subscribing to the most unpopular political creed amongst white South Africans, Bram had a remarkable legal career. He appeared in many of the most celebrated political trials in South Africa, as well as less publicised trials, sometimes without payment.
In these trials, he would throw himself into the defence with a singleness of purpose and personal dedication only possible for a man devoted both to justice and to the triumph of the ideals which had led the accused to the dock. In between, he also appeared frequently on brief to the great mining corporations in some of the most abstruse legal and financial cases in South African courts. Such was his reputation and personality that he was elected by his colleagues as the Chairman of the Johannesburg Bar Council, despite being a member of the Communist Party.
He appeared in the 1956 Treason trial and after three years the defence team secured the acquittal of all the accused including Nelson Mandela. Later, in the 1963 and 1964 Rivonia Trial, he led the defence team that was instrumental in saving the lives of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other leaders of the liberation movement at great risk to himself.
Shortly after that trial, Bram went underground in order to help regroup the Communist Party; most of its leaders had been arrested. Named the Red Pimpernel by the media – Nelson Mandela was the Black Pimpernel – he evaded arrest for a year before being tracked down and charged under the Sabotage Act.
Like Nelson Mandela, Bram accepted responsibility for his actions and in his statement to the court said, “Were I to ask for forgiveness today I would betray my cause; that course, my Lord, is not open to me. I believe what I did was right.
“I accept, my Lord, the general rule that for protection of society, laws should be obeyed. But when the laws themselves become immoral, and require the citizen to take part in an organized system of repression – if only by his silence and apathy – then I believe a higher duty arises. This compels one to refuse to recognise such laws.
“It was to keep faith with all those dispossessed by apartheid that I broke my undertaking to the court, that I separated myself from my family, pretended that 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 to those under house arrest not to remain a spectator but to act. I felt responsible not to those who are indifferent to the sufferings of others, but to those who are concerned.
“My conscience, my Lord, does not permit me to afford these laws such recognition, as even a plea of guilty would involve. Hence, although I shall be convicted by this court, I cannot plead guilty. I believe that the future may well say that I acted correctly.”
Bram was sentenced to life imprisonment on 9 May 1966 and remained a prisoner until his death on 8 May 1975, at age 67. Nelson Mandela, refused permission to attend the funeral, was to write subsequently: “The dictators of oppression and brutality had other unintended effects and that is what produced the Bram Fischer’s of our time – men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity that their like may never be known again.
By Lord Joffe
Bram Fischer attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (Orange Free State and New College 1931). He arrived in Oxford in January 1932 – his arrival delayed by academic commitments in South Africa. He read for a BA in Law, followed by a diploma in Economics. A keen sportsman, he represented New College in rugby and tennis. While a student, Fischer travelled extensively, including to Russia – a visit many believed played a role in his decision to become a Communist.
In October 1964 Fischer returned to the United Kingdom to argue a case before the Privy Council. The previous month he was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act (the start of the so-called Fischer Trial). He gave his word that he would return to stand trial and was allowed to leave South Africa. New College was one of the last places he visited as a free man.
The first Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture in Oxford was held in 2007 and was initially hosted by New College. The then Warden of New College, Prof Alan Ryan, played a fundamental role in establishing the lecture.
Since South Africa’s transition to democracy, Bram Fischer has been honoured in various ways.
In 2003 he was posthumously reinstated to the Roll of Advocates (he was disbarred in 1965 for his political activities). In 2004, despite opposition from Afrikaners and the Afrikaans media, he was awarded a posthumous honorary doctorate by Stellenbosch University, the cradle of Afrikaner nationalism. Highways in both Johannesburg and Durban are named after him. In 2012 Bloemfontein Airport was renamed the Bram Fischer International Airport. Apart from the annual lecture at Oxford, the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa hosts a lecture. The Mangaung (formerly Bloemfontein) Metropolitan Municipality, where Fischer was born and raised, held a lecture in 2014 and a Bram Fischer week in 2015.