The lawyer who saved Nelson Mandela’s neck was seen as a terrorist-shielding traitor by his own Afrikaans people. More than 40 years after his death, there was a tribute to Bram Fischer at Wordfees – the Afrikaans literary festival. Even more remarkable is that this was at Stellenbosch University, the heart of Afrikaner intellectualism in apartheid days where Fischer’s name was once mud – just ask the idealistic woman who stood up for him.
Yvonne Malan still gets threats more than 13 years after a campaign for a posthumous degree for Bram Fischer. She fled her African home for England after the furore that brought down wrath that has left her looking over her shoulder for more than a decade.
In the early years of this century, Malan was a young researcher at Stellenbosch University, in the Western Cape. She nominated lawyer Fischer for an honorary law degree, saying it was long overdue.
Fischer was the leader of the legal team in the Rivonia Trial that saved Nelson Mandela from the gallows in 1964; he was vilified by his own people and suffered, for years, from cancer, in prison. When he died, not even his ashes were handed to his family. The apartheid authorities also tried to erase him from history; his image was banned until South Africa’s transition to democracy.
“As a kid, I saw an old history book with one of the pre-1994 photos with Fischer’s face whitened out. It was terrible, it really shocked me that you could just erase someone from history like that,” says Malan from London.
Malan is the grandchild of refugees who fled Nazi Germany in fear of their lives. Her family was all too aware of people being erased from history, she says.
Years into democracy, Malan nominated Fischer to the university’s council and honorary degrees committee. The nomination was accepted with mixed feelings. The university granted an honorary doctorate in law in 2004. It was received by his daughter Ilse Fischer.
But later, newspapers came out strongly against the degree, kicking off a campaign to have it revoked, says Malan.
“This was led by senior Naspers members, a regular columnist for the Naspers papers, a few apartheid-era National Party ministers and MPs, and the [alumni body]. Since they all knew there was no mechanism for the university to revoke the degree, they used the Naspers papers and what one Stellenbosch University academic described as ‘Stalinist tactics’ to attack Fischer as a person and myself as the nominator.”
Naspers refused to talk to FORBES AFRICA regarding the allegations.
This led to months of death threats and assaults. Attackers cracked her ribs and pushed her around. It forced her, after 300 days of chaos, to leave for Oxford, in 2005, to study. Thirteen years on, Malan still looks over her shoulder.
“As to why Afrikaners became so angry, many saw, and still see, Fischer as a volksveraaier (traitor to his people). Secondly, Naspers journos and certain Afrikaner historians proclaimed that Fischer wanted a race war/genocide in South Africa. They never cited any proof, and had they bothered to read Fischer’s remarkable statement from the dock, they would have known that he wanted to avoid violence. Still, many Naspers readers bought this lie and it played a big role in the so-called Fischer ‘debate’ spinning out of control. Thirdly, they claimed that, as a Communist, he was responsible for all the evils committed in the name of the ideology. And that Communism was far worse than apartheid,” says Malan.
In 2017, on a windy Wednesday morning, we follow the Fischer story to the Castle Of Good Hope, in Cape Town. FORBES AFRICA visits 84-year-old veteran, and one of South Africa’s struggle heroes, Denis Goldberg, who escaped the death sentence with Mandela through a defence led by Fischer. Goldberg was the prisoner who eased the last painful days of Fischer in jail.
Goldberg made a walking stick for him, which was confiscated because prison authorities thought it could be used as a weapon. Fischer spent his dying days in his prison bed with Goldberg at his side.
“Bram Fischer gets arrested, Bram Fischer defended us, he was often at Lilliesleaf (a farm used as an underground hideout in Johannesburg), and the farm workers at Lilliesleaf knew him. And then it was strange seeing a man arrive in his beautiful car, his beautiful hat, suit, tie, and briefcase – the perfect life – come to the headquarters of uMkhonto we Sizwe with geese at the farm. But Bram, being a country boy, just walked through them,” he recalls.
The Rivonia Trial could have seen Fischer also facing the death penalty. During the trial, the prosecutor presented documents which had Fischer’s fingerprints, along with prints of other members of the Communist Party, and a letter in Fischer’s handwriting.
“The prosecutor said, ‘There is a document here, that if we knew who the author was, he would be on trial with the accused too.’ while looking at Fischer, because they knew it was his writing,” says Goldberg.
“But they didn’t want to arrest him, so Bram played this political game with them to defend us. I believe by his very careful work and careful understanding of his politics, of what we were doing, was able to convince the judge that while we were talking about an armed uprising, we’d not made that decision, and that was a key moment in that trial.”
With the help of Fischer’s argument in court, the judge gave the accused a life sentence for sabotage instead of death.
“My mother calls up to me and asked what it is. I told her its life, life is wonderful,” laughs Goldberg.
In the end, years later, the authorities got Fischer. They charged him for forging a driver’s license and using a false name and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
“In prison he was absolutely strong. As he develops cancer, he becomes very ill. He was very unhappy that the accused could see that he wasn’t well because Fischer didn’t want to burden anyone with his problems,” says Goldberg.
Fischer was worried about everyone but himself, recalls his cell mate.
“He just wouldn’t show, he wouldn’t show pain, he wouldn’t show pain,” he says.
Fischer eventually got treatment, but it was too late.
Today he is remembered with the Bram Fischer International Airport in Bloemfontein and a play by Harry Kalmer called Bram Fischer Waltz. Plus a disputed honorary degree at Stellenbosch.