Maverick Citizen


Bram Fischer’s legacy: His life holds lessons for change amid the continuing scourge of racism

Bram Fischer’s legacy: His life holds lessons for change amid the continuing scourge of racism
Bram Fischer. (Photo: Gallo Images/Media24 Archive)

His story is one of great suffering, but also of determination, modesty and compassion, which forces us to look carefully at where we are as a country, to consider some of the gains we have made – some minute, some massive – and how we can do better.

In a singular moment – a handshake with a black man at a meeting of the Joint Council of Europeans and Africans in the 1920s in Bloemfontein – Bram Fischer’s life was set on a trajectory that eventually led to his membership of the Communist Party in the 1940s, his defence of Nelson Mandela and his comrades in the Rivonia Trial in 1964, and his decision to abscond from justice and go underground, leading to the loss of his law licence. 

He was subsequently captured and imprisoned before his death from cancer at the age 67. It is not unfathomable to imagine that he was destined for a drastically different life to the one he ultimately chose, given his pedigree as the grandson of a former prime minister of the Orange Free State and the son of a judge president of that province, coupled with the prevailing socioeconomic landscape in South Africa at the time.

The Joint Councils Bram attended brought together black (typically teachers or ministers) and white men to discuss issues of mutual concern. At this time, Bram, a product of his family and their collective history as Afrikaners in British South Africa, was still a nationalist. He therefore found the handshake profoundly troubling, manifesting within him a conflict and revulsion. Although he had arrived at the forum with goodwill, racism’s psychological and physical effects constituted a significant barrier to his interactions within this space. Following the encounter, Bram had the option to withdraw from the Joint Council and return to the familiar world of his family and the cultural and social privilege he enjoyed; the same world in which black people remained an inscrutable mass without any agency, existing only to serve and prop up white interests through their labour and obeisance. Alternatively, he could have continued to attend the gatherings and conditioned himself to conceal his feelings and repulsion at his encounters with black men, since it was only within this space that he had to regard them as “equals”. 

Bram chose neither of these routes. Instead, he chose to reflect deeply on his feelings of disgust and their underlying causes. 

Upon his reflection, he thought of himself and the work that he would have to do on himself to be able to achieve political transformation in South Africa. Through the small, albeit taboo act of a handshake, he found the space to examine himself with intense honesty, evoking an interrogation of race and racism which, to date, South African society continues to struggle with. Moreover, Bram’s approach could be extended to the entire matrix of differences that we currently face in the world, such as class, religion, sexuality, gender or ethnicity.

Sydney Kentridge, who headed the defence team at Bram Fischer’s trial, with George Bizos in Pretoria on 30 March 1966. (Photo: Gallo Images/Rand Daily Mail)

The Legal Resources Centre owes its existence to the moral fortitude of people such as Bram Fischer and the determination of like-minded individuals who worked within the confines of the law to fight the apartheid state, and following the advent of democracy, advancing the rights of the poor and vulnerable. The Bi-annual Bram Fischer Lecture takes place on 10 February 2022 to celebrate and honour his life. Like many events over the past two years, it will be a virtual lecture, making it accessible to a much wider audience. The inaugural Bram Fischer Lecture was presented by President Nelson Mandela in 1995. Mandela described Bram as “one of the staunchest friends of South Africa’s freedom struggle”. In his speech, Mandela expressed his desire that the conversation engendered by paying homage to Bram should continue for as long as South Africans yearn for freedom in a non-racial and democratic South Africa. 

Mandela’s words were true then, almost three decades ago, and they could not be any truer today, and this year’s lecture theme of Race and Democracy in the US and South Africa, is even timelier. 

South Africa exists in a state of tenuous harmony induced by the 1994 moment and its ensuing rainbowism that merely gave a new façade while maintaining the status quo. Raptures present themselves often, such as the 2008 incident at the University of Free State, the utterances of politicians such as the regular comments by Helen Zille extolling colonialism, or, more recently, the wanton killings in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal. When these happen, the discourse is often centred on the acts as those of individuals, neglecting the greater systemic racism that makes these possible. Further, the lack of any meaningful redress for the victims or sanctions for the racists, points to a complex, systemic type of racism that makes both of these failings possible.

On a global scale, the events of the past two years have reinforced that the struggle for racial justice is not South Africa’s concern alone. In fact, the pandemic has made stark the vast global inequalities and, in some places, created deeper fissures that we may never overcome. This is certainly true of the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines wherein countries of the Global North have engendered a vaccine apartheid through their hoarding of these life-saving countermeasures rather than ensuring their equitable distribution to countries in the Global South which need them just as much if not more. The result of this action is, at best, the elongation of the pandemic, and at worst, the advent of virus mutations that undermine vaccine immunity, leading to more lockdowns and death at a massive scale. There seems to be no astute rationale for this except greed and the racism which underpin it. Indeed, the decision by countries such as England, Germany, Canada and the US to block travel from southern African countries upon the latter’s identification of the Omicron variant late in 2021, speaks to a pernicious racism that is patently anti-black, designed to be punitive and continues the age-old trope of associating Africa with disease. 

The pandemic arrived in the wake of Trump’s America and its endorsement of the mainstreaming of white supremacists and other far-right movements. This was another speck in Trump’s long list of the politics of exclusion that comprised also the marginalisation of women through limiting their rights – access to abortion or birth control or equal pay. The Trump administration was intent on being divisive, instituting a Muslim ban in the very early days of his presidency. His racist and xenophobic agenda showed itself in the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico, separating migrant parents from their children, and keeping some of these children in cages while Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on alleged “illegal immigrants” increased by nearly 40%. Similar anti-immigrant sentiment also fomented in Europe with the rise of right-leaning political parties that advance populist nationalism. South Africa has not been left behind in this regard, with, in the past local government elections, the election of Herman Mashaba who has fanned xenophobic flames since his turn as Johannesburg mayor, and his party, ActionSA, continuing the mainstreaming of anti-migrant sentiment within the public sphere. The gravitation towards “disaster nationalism”, with the proliferation of disinformation, rejection of logic and a penchant for violence, cannot be attributed to Mashaba alone. Other political players and parties have also dabbled in this amid dwindling voter numbers and rising unemployment. There seems no end in sight for this narrow type of politics. Evidence points to widespread corruption, the state’s failure and the lack of political will to address long-standing issues, but often, anger and vitriol become misdirected towards the powerless and vulnerable while politicians continue to dodge accountability. What then are we to do about this state of things around the world?

At the start of the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd by American law enforcement precipitated a global movement which resonated with other racialised subjects and cast a spotlight on the plight of black people in America. It is this type of transnational solidarity movement we must build and nurture. We can also draw lessons from figures like Bram Fischer as his “road to Damascus” moment during a time of profound division in the country led to the eschewal of his own privilege to agitate for the freedom of his fellow country folk. Bram’s remarkable sacrifice to the cause of human liberation is why his story persists. His story, one of great suffering, is also a tale of determination, modesty and compassion, which forces us to look carefully at where we are as a country, to consider some of the gains we have made – some minute, some massive – and how we can do better. 

The privileges some of us have attained as a result of the sacrifices of people such as Bram and countless others who died in the pursuit of our freedom, do not mean anything and remain hollow if we are not ALL free. To truly realise the rights enshrined in our Constitution, we must focus on the most indigent, the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable. Once we get this right, then we get it right for everyone else. 

Every one of us possesses habits of oppression, identity and hierarchy which influence how we view others, and ourselves. As a result, we possess preconceptions that guide us subconsciously. While many of us would agree that certain hierarchies, such as patriarchy and systems of domination such as white supremacy, need to be transformed, should we start this process through deep self-reflection, as Bram did?  

The changes we seek as a society cannot be made abstractly, or in theory. Rather, we must embody them. This is how they are introduced into the world. Achieving this is easier said than done, but Bram does offer us an important lesson. By turning his moment of discomfort into one of opportunity for self-reflection, Bram moved from a space of defensiveness to one of openness and compassion. The time is right to figure out whether we are on the right path in dealing with racism, and how we ensure that everyone can say they know what democracy truly means because they can see it at work. That their rights are protected and realised, and they are not merely abstract scribbles framed on the walls of (some) government offices. DM/MC

Muyenga Mugerwa-Sekawabe is a candidate attorney at the Legal Resources Centre. Thabo Ramphobole is the communications officer at the Legal Resources Centre.


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