On 24 October, Rhodes House hosted the the 12th Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture, which was delivered by Professor Stephen Clingman on the topic 'Bram Fischer in our Times'. It was the first occasion when the lecture was live-streamed to an audience in South Africa, and the event there was hosted by Mr Justice David Unterhalter, who practiced at the Johannesburg Bar from 1990 to 2017.
After the lecture, there was a question and answer session in which questions from both UK and South Africa audience members were asked. There was then a deeply moving moment when a memorial plaque honouring Bram Fisher was unveiled by Shaun Johnson, former CEO of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Bram Fischer has no official resting place, so this plaque goes some way towards marking his remarkable life.
Who was Bram Fisher?
Bram Fischer (Orange Free State & New College 1931) is one of many Rhodes Scholars to have helped to shape the future of his or her country. Bram Fischer was a South African lawyer of Afrikaner descent, notable for anti-apartheid activism and for the legal defence of anti-apartheid figures, including Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial. The Rhodes Trust is proud to have him as a part of our legacy. Bram Fischer 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.”
About Professor Stephen Clingman
Professor Clingman was born in South Africa and educated at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) and the University of Oxford (St Edmund's Hall) where he completed his doctorate. He is Distinguished University Professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Stephen was previously Chair of the English Department and founding Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute.
His book 'Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary' was the first full-length Bram Fischer biography. He jointly won the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, and the book is widely regarded as the definitive Fischer biography. Two earlier Bram Fischer speakers have also won this award - Albie Sachs (delivered the lecture in 2009) and Edwin Cameron (spoke in 2015).
Professor Clingman’s biography about Bram Fischer’s remarkable life has been reprinted several times and in 2018 it was released as an e-book. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the biography's publication, so it was a particularly fitting time for him to to speak about Bram's enduring influence. After Professor Clingman completed his research he donated the bulk of the material to the Bodleian Library here in Oxford and it forms an essential part of the Bram Fischer Archive which Lucy McCann (former librarian at Rhodes House) and Yvonne Malan have been working on.
Topic of the Lecture: 'Bram Fischer in our Times'
Professor Clingman spoke engagingly about three symbolic images which represented moments of Bram Fischer's life - a handshake, a pool of water and a doroway. Through these motifs he brought to life the remarkable resilience Bram Fischer showed, as well as some anomalies which echoed through his life trajectory. He reflected on many rarely told stories, from Bram Fisher's personal life, his time at Oxford, and his strong connections to both the local and the global. Professor Clingman drew out aspects of today's world which Bram Fischer might sadly have recognised all too well and how amongst many successes, there are still many instances of injustice both in South Africa and on the world stage. Themes which were important to Bram Fischer's own life and which resonate particularly strongly today include issues of identity, justice, integrity, ethics of reciprocity, intersectionality and belonging.
You can watch the full live-stream below.