Lawyer and Chairman of the SACP
Abram "Bram" Fischer was born on 23 April 1908 in the Orange Free State. He was born into a prominent Afrikaans family, son of Percy Ulrich Fischer, at the time a member of the Bloemfontein Bar. Percy later became a much-respected Free State judge.
The Fischers were a sixth-generation South African family. Percy's father was Abram Fischer, a highly regarded politician of conservative outlook. He was the prime minister of the Orange River Colony from 1907 to 1910. Abram had married a Scotswoman and Percy had married Ella Fichardt, of a family of cosmopolitan descent, who was entirely English speaking. Bram, who was brought up in an Afrikaans and English-speaking home, regarded himself as an Afrikaner - a proud one.
Bram initially was a vocal Nationalist. His schooling was at Grey College, Bloemfontein; from there he went to Grey University College in his hometown. Bram excelled at tennis and rugby. In 1928 he represented the Free State as scrum half against the All Blacks under Maurice Brownlee.
Bram Fischer proceeded to study law (BA LLB degree) at Grey, then part of the University of South Africa. After completing his studies in South Africa he spent 3 years (1931-1934) at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Some years earlier Bram had met and begun to court Molly Krige. Distantly related to the wife of Jan Smuts, she had the same sharp intellect as Bram and had strong leadership qualities. Both became attracted to communism. While he was at Oxford, in the long vacation of 1932, Bram visited the Soviet Union, and, like many others, did not dig below the surface, and became a convert to the Stalinist doctrine. His earlier nationalism converted to anathema; he now considered fascism and Nazism "cancerous nationalism".
Bram's results in the Bachelor of Arts honours degree at Oxford were most disappointing, for he attained a pass only in the third class. Bram was shattered, but the third was quite unrepresentative of his ability and knowledge.
On his return to South Africa, Bram was called to the Johannesburg Bar on 10 January 1935. Initially briefs were slow to arrive. When work came, he devoted himself to it. His briefs he knew intimately. Gradually his practice expanded, and, ironically, particularly in the specialised area of mining law for the great mining houses. It was widely believed that Bram was at the beginning of a career that would culminate in great things, very likely the position of chief justice.
In 1937 Bram and Molly were married, and by 1942 Bram and Molly had become members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). They never deviated from their outward devotion to Stalinist communism. This didn’t seem to harm his career as a corporate lawyer and he was widely admired as a brilliant man with the potential to possibly lead the country as Prime Minister, provided his political opinions became less unorthodox.
The return of the National Party to power at the general election of May 1948 meant the ultimate banning of communistic views and the CPSA in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act. Communism was condemned as a godless belief aiming at racial suicide and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Later, the CPSA resurrected itself surreptitiously as the South African Communist Party (SACP). As was to be expected, Bram was "named" under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. Nevertheless, on 2 November the next year he was appointed a king's counsel (KC).
He was also a member of the Congress of Democrats and in 1952 Bram defended Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and eighteen other ANC leaders for participating in the Defiance Campaign. The year 1953 saw Bram banned under the Suppression of Communism Act from most gatherings and from the Congress of Democrats. For years thereafter there were police raids on his advocate's chambers and his house. None of these happenings affected the flow of briefs coming to Bram, outstanding lawyer and counsel. In court he was the epitome of the ideal English barrister: quiet, unassuming, exquisitely polite and thus often disarming to a hostile witness, and, when necessary, devastating in cross-examination. Except for three years, Bram was elected a member of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1943 to 1963, being chairman in 1961.
In 1960 the ANC and Pan-Africanist Congress were banned. The Sabotage Act of 1962 allowed for detention without trial. Bram and Molly were subjected to further restrictions by the government under that statute. The creation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961 did not end the withholding of participation in the government of the country from blacks. Thus, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) was formed, a product of the ANC and the SACP, committed to a violent struggle.
On 11 July 1963 at Lilies leaf farm in Rivonia the police arrested many of the leaders of the liberation movement. At the subsequent trial for sabotage and other charges, one of the accused was Nelson Mandela. Bram, who by a fortunate chance was not on the farm when the police raid took place, led the defence team. In agreeing to appear for the Rivonia accused, Bram courageously took an enormous risk, for he could easily have been correctly pointed out by some of the witnesses for the prosecution as having attended many meetings at Lilies leaf. In the end, eight accused, including Mandela, were found guilty. That they were sentenced not to death but to life imprisonment was partly a result of the dedicated efforts of the defence team.
On 13 June 1964 Molly was killed in a tragic accident in a motorcar driven by Bram, who was overwhelmed by grief.
It was inevitable that his defence of and involvement with anti-Apartheid activists would implicate him in illegal activities and on 23 September 1964 Fischer was arrested for contravening the Suppression of Communism Act. At the start of the trial he was granted bail to argue a case in England, undertaking to return, which he did. The trial commenced on 16 November 1964. On 23 January 1965, however, Bram went underground. In a letter he stated that no one should submit to the barbaric laws and monstrous policy of apartheid.
He was only recaptured in December, disguised as "Douglas Black". Now his trial was on far more serious charges, including sabotage. In a sworn statement from the dock, he said that there was a higher duty to break immoral laws passed by a small minority to deprive the majority, on account of their colour, of their most elementary rights. "At least one Afrikaner should make this protest."
In 1966 he was found guilty of violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiring to commit sabotage leading to a conviction of life imprisonment. In 1967 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.
In 1974 it became known that Fischer was seriously ill with cancer and liberal newspapers and political leaders mounted an intensive campaign for his release. They were successful and he was moved to his brother’s home in Bloemfontein a few weeks before his death.
• Biographies: Special South Africans. Bram Fischer: Revolutionary 23 April 1908 - 8 May 1975 [Online]. Available at: zar.co.za [Accessed 31 March 2010]
• Joyce, P. (1999)