Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary

Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary

by Stephen Clingman

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In May 1966, Bram Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa for his political activities against the policies of apartheid. Before his sentencing he had spent nine months underground, in disguise, evading a nationwide manhunt. He was South Africa's most wanted man, his cause recognized and celebrated around the world.

What had brought him to these circumstances? And what led to his untimely death after nine years in prison? This meticulous and finely crafted biography follows a fascinating journey of conscience and personal transformation.

Fischer was born into one of the most prominent Afrikaner nationalist families, yet came to understand that to be a South African in the fullest sense he had to identify with all of South Africa's people. A Rhodes Scholar and distinguished lawyer, endowed with gifts of intelligence, charisma, and integrity, he abandoned the temptations of power and prestige to ensure human rights and justice for all. Drawn to communism in order to solve problems of race, he offered revised versions and visions of both.

Covering more than one hundred years of South African history, the book ranges from the stories of Fischer and his wife, Molly, to the courtroom drama of South Africa's great political trials, to the political intrigue of the 1960s and beyond. It is a remarkable story, remarkably told. Weaving the personal and the public, Stephen Clingman's biography is an account of tragedy and transcendence, showing how the miracle of South Africa's transition to democracy was deeply connected to the legacy of Brain Fischer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781431407521
Publisher: Jacana Media
Publication date: 07/01/2013
Edition description: Second edition
Pages: 500
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Clingman is professor and chair of the English department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Read an Excerpt



1850 – 1913

As for Bram Fischer's paternal grandfather, Abraham Fischer – Oupa Abraham – his journey began elsewhere, and followed different routes.

Firbank 27th November 1907.

My Dear Abraham,

My heart is so full on this auspicious day that I feel I must write and tell you, besides my hearty congratulations, how proud I am of my worthy son on attaining this great appointment of Prime Minister of Orangia which you love so much and for which place you have done so much in times past and will I am convinced do your utmost in the future with God's help and blessing. May he give you health and strength to carry out this big work your people have entrusted to you.

As we cannot be with you to day we will have to satisfy ourselves by looking at your portrait on the dining room chimney gaily decorated by Maggie with a wreath of Orange and Green. Give my fond love to dear Ada and tell her I shall write to her next – and with much love to yourself.

I remain ever Your affectionate Mother Aunt H. Denyssen.
How such a letter came to be written on such an auspicious occasion by someone who called herself a 'mother aunt' is itself a matter of some interest. The Fischer line that led to Abraham traced back two centuries to a Johannes Fischer who had come to the Cape to serve in the artillery of the Dutch East India Company. Three generations later his descendant, one Johannes Jacobus George Fischer, married Catharina Anna Brink; Abraham was their younger son, born at Green Point, in Cape Town, on 9 April 1850.

The Fischers owned a farm called Klein Bottelarij near Stellenbosch, but as Abraham's father was a younger son and would not inherit the family patrimony, he went into government service in Cape Town instead. When Abraham was eleven, however, his father died, and there was an immediate crisis for the family. A woman with children could not survive on her own, and so, according to the custom in such circumstances, Catharina moved in with relatives. Her sister had married another Abraham – this time an Abraham Denyssen – and they absorbed the bereaved family into their home.

It must have been a particularly difficult time for the young Abraham. At that same age – eleven – he left his primary school, Tot Nut van 't Algemeen, and entered the South African College. There, apparently during an initiation accident, his right eye was so badly damaged that it had to be removed. Through these events the consolations of his new home must have been all the more important to him, and in fact Abraham became extremely close to his mother's sister: to the end of his life he would speak with veneration of how much he owed her. As for her, she doted on him, invariably calling him 'my worthy son'. So that was how someone could be both a mother and an aunt – the Mrs Denyssen who wrote to Abraham Fischer with such love and pride when he became Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony.

A young boy who loses a father at that age may develop the will-power to make his way in the world, assume the mantle of his destiny, and prove his worth to those who have shown loyalty to him. Certainly Abraham was surrounded by loyalty, not least on the part of his 'mother aunt' – and if the name revealed an understated and intimate humour, it also suggested a doubled maternal doting and interest. It is tempting to search for (and find) continuities, and much of Abraham's own life became the stuff of legend to his descendants, a family that nurtured and protected its memories. Yet it was as much in its form as in its content that his life became significant: loyalty became a guiding principle for the Fischers; 'family', in both its immediate and extended senses, a guiding if implicit metaphor for the obligations they felt; a certain maternal concern an intrinsic aspect of their engagement with others; a gentle humour one measure of their magnetic effect.

At the South African College Abraham Fischer studied law. Members of each succeeding generation, down to Bram Fischer's children, attended SACS (in its later incarnation as the University of Cape Town), and both Bram and his father Percy became lawyers. Bram went on to study at New College, Oxford, whereas Percy had been a student at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, which seems fitting in retrospect, since he was both son and father in this dynastic triad.

When Abraham returned from England he left Cape Town for Grahamstown, and then in 1872 moved on to Kimberley, where diamonds were just being discovered. The Fischers who remained at Stellenbosch apparently thought this a dubious undertaking, but Abraham seems to have been unafraid of new territory. There, in 1873, he married Ada Robertson of Fauresmith in the Free State; her parents were both Scots immigrants, and her father a doctor. In 1875 the couple moved to Bloemfontein, and founded the farm Hillandale, just outside the town. There, on 22 March 1878, Bram's father Percy was born.

In Bloemfontein Abraham practised law, and was drawn to politics. He became elected to the Volksraad and then, in 1896, was appointed by President M.T. Steyn to the Executive Council of the Orange Free State. Bloemfontein was a small town in an agrarian Boer republic in the hinterland of South Africa, President Steyn its leader sentimentally revered among the white populace. There, in times filled with gathering drama, Abraham Fischer found himself in the midst of conflicting forces.

* * *

Abraham was an inveterate letter writer, as befitted the setting of his life, his culture and his station. His official duties required a wide correspondence, but he wrote multitudes of personal letters as well, especially to his son Percy when the latter left home, first to attend school at SACS, and then when he went on to Cambridge. The letters gave an inner view of Abraham's world, and the ethos which in various ways he handed on.

There was nothing Abraham liked better than tramping for miles over 'Hill and Dale', as he called the farm in his letters to Percy – the name no doubt congenial to Ada with her Scots heritage, the walks a regular Sunday venture for her husband. Abraham watered the orange trees, or observed with attention the large and subtle differentiations of grasses and shrubbery and birds. He described for Percy how, across veld still untamed, he watched with mild amusement as his dog Pickle barked at the 'Spring bucks'. On other occasions there were 'Spring buck hunts', to which the eminent men of the Free State were invited, President Steyn among them. Above all it was trees that Abraham Fischer loved, and he planted willows and karees on his farm, a gesture of belonging and habitation, as if their rooting in the soil were an expression of his own.

Abraham Fischer did well, in time acquiring a town residence, Fern Lodge. He also renovated the Hillandale house, now with a private dressing-room for himself, a new 'west back wing', and two dams on either side of the garden wall to which pipes from the kloof brought water. He had a croquet lawn laid out, and there were numbers of servants to cater to all aspects of the household – a groundsman, a cook, a housemaid, and a 'third white girl' for general help, as well as the regular black farm labourers of the South African landscape. It was an elegant, patrician, paradoxically urbane life for a farm. At Christmas the Fischers would host lunch for two dozen or more, at the height of the South African summer in the open air under the almond trees. In October 1898, when Abraham and Ada celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, they entertained almost a hundred guests. Two enormous tarpaulins were stretched over tables set between the almond, fig and orange trees, decorated with coloured flags along the sides. The guests brought gifts of silver, and chief among them was a magnificent table centrepiece from President Steyn and his wife. Some of those assembled played tennis on the 'tennis ground', now a permanent part of the lawns, since tennis was all the rage in Bloemfontein.

Abraham told Percy, away in Cambridge at the time, that those expecting a religious ceremony at the anniversary must have been disappointed. For he himself was evidently of his world, but not entirely conventional. Abraham Fischer was not a Boer patriarch weighed down by the Bible as well as his beard: for him his customary walks on the veld on Sunday were a more meaningful ritual than anything the Dutch Reformed Church had to offer. He was, in his own way, a man of the world, secure in providing a suitably broadening experience for his son. He took his place among the elite of Bloemfontein, made up of professional, commercial and political families such as the Reitzes, the Steyns, the Frasers and the Fichardts, some of whom were as likely to gather for a reading from Shakespeare as an address from any dominee. Nor was their sense of identity bound up entirely in language: Abraham had married a Scotswoman; the Fichardts were a mixture of German, Dutch and Welsh ancestry; and Ada Fischer and Mrs Steyn conversed together in their native English. They were as a group perhaps as differentiated from the country farmers who soon came to represent the iconic image of the Boer as they were from the styles of Europe they imitated. But that did not mean there was no local nationalism. Dutch, Scots, Welsh, German, English as they were, there was still a fierce attachment to their Republic, once held by the British, now independent, but threatened at the turn of the century once again. Abraham Fischer felt this too, notwithstanding the fact that he wrote to Percy in Cambridge in English.

* * *

Percy was not Abraham and Ada's first child. His brother, Harry, older by three and a half years, had been born when the couple were still in Fauresmith, before they moved to Hillandale. He had also preceded Percy at Cambridge; in this much their experience was alike. Yet it appears that Harry took no degree, in itself a sign that there were differences between the two sons that came to matter to Abraham, especially as time passed.

In everything that Abraham wrote to Percy, their quiet friendship was apparent. When Percy first went off to SACS, Abraham told him how much he missed his 'Confidential Secretary & co Tramper' on his Sunday walks (a routine that Percy later handed on to his own children, on that same farm). Every now and then, Abraham wrote, he would still when 'in gedachte' [lost in thought; Abraham used Dutch for the colloquial intimacies] go into Percy's room with the notion that he was still there. But when he wrote to Percy about Harry a different tone of voice frequently entered in. Sometimes Abraham was amused: 'Harry is at the moment out on the verandah dividing his time between puffs of horrid boer tobacco & singing at the top of his voice, snatches of "The Last Rose of Summer" –.' Yet more often he could not conceal a current of anxiety, in the main about Harry's work habits, for Abraham suspected him strongly of being pleasure-loving and workshy. When President Steyn took an interest in Harry, taking him onto his farm, Abraham told Percy he hoped that Harry might learn an object lesson 'of what hard work & system can do combined of course with knowledge & experience'. He confided to Percy the specific nature of his concern: 'young lady visitors & parties in town do interfere a good deal with satisfactory farming, & I dare say that Harry will see this himself after a bit, at least I hope so for his sake.'

Every letter that Abraham wrote to Percy about Harry was also an implicit injunction to Percy, of what examples he should follow, and what to avoid. For along with his intimate indulgence, Abraham was never reticent on matters either of advice or of ambition, and was always clear on exactly what he expected of Percy, even from early on. 'If you only knew how proud I felt of my little son,' he wrote when Percy was but ten years old, 'when I saw all the big fellows of the class and heard his name called "first," you wd try and always take the lead.' And if Percy enjoyed some particular achievement, Abraham could not resist telling him, in his characteristic phrasing, just 'how proud of Johnny' he was.

When Percy left for Cambridge at the end of August 1897, Abraham said goodbye to him at the Bloemfontein railway station, and then, in his way, went home to write him a long letter which Percy would receive on board ship in Cape Town and read in the open hours at sea on his way to England. He told Percy, with true feeling, how empty Hillandale felt as he 'fossicked' around on his own. He wanted to avoid preaching, but could not resist: 'For the rest, & as to advice I don't believe in sermonising, if a young man is going to make up his mind to keep straight & to work honestly he will do so without being preached at, and if he means the other thing advice will be equally wasted. – You have given me your word as you did before, you kept it then & I believe you now & implicitly trust you, so warnings and reminders would be out of place. If you should, however, have any worry or get into any scrape don't forget that it will always be best at once to consult your "stern parent" in his other capacity of your best friend?'

Abraham's parental respect wrapped Percy in a fine web of trust and gentle conscience, so much more effective than admonition. It was not simply a matter of manipulation, but emotion both suppressed and revealed. As Percy left for England, Abraham extended advice for every occasion: to make friends not only with South Africans, but with people of different views, thoughts and notions; not to start with a prejudice, but to give the new life a fair trial; to take a share in the fun and sociability of his college; to join the Union and take part in debates; to keep in touch (as he put it) 'with ladies' society'. Abraham's hopes were enlightened ones, for the complete experience that his son should enjoy in England, but when Percy did badly at his initial exams, Abraham's understanding had an undisguised edge of exhortation: 'I don't think your place of 13th in the lot so bad after all. But the higher the better & as you take it in the right spirit, that is to try & do better next time, you have our best wishes for better luck at the next trial. Maybe a shot for "first" & make us more than proud of Johnny.' When, far from home, Percy turned twenty-one, Abraham reeled him in with the obligations of responsibility even as he welcomed him to independence: 'you are now arriving at man's estate & the principles you start with are likely to be the guiding ones through life: – try & avoid in the present creating causes for vain regrets in the future. But I am preaching when I only meant to send my loving congratulations ...'

Abraham fussed, Abraham worried, but there was at least a mollifying self-awareness of his incapacity to do otherwise. There was also a wry, dry sense of humour. 'Old Philips the butcher tried to commit suicide on Friday,' Abraham told Percy, 'but he was not as good at his own throat as he had been at that of hundreds of sheep before, consequently he is recovering.' He wrote to Percy about the drought, but thought it had to end soon: 'I can't think Providence intended us to end our existence as involuntarily manufactured biltong [the dried, spiced meat beloved of the Boers].'

If Sunday mornings were spent walking on the veld, Sunday evenings were, religiously, Abraham's time for letter writing when, in his contemplative mood, he would recreate the colorations of the natural world around him and the human preoccupations, both large and small, it contained. As the years passed, Percy became increasingly his confidant, on matters personal, familial and political. Abraham passed on not only information but also a style, handed down from grandfather, to son, to grandson. Bram, like his father and his Oupa Abraham before him, had the same human concern and fussiness, the same restraint and engagement, the same enlightenment and primness, the same humour, the same drive to succeed, the same feel for family and sense of responsibility, the same need to win people over, the same propensity to write letters. Across three generations they all even had the same handwriting. A life begins long before it starts.

* * *

In October 1898, when Abraham Fischer was describing his and Ada's silver wedding anniversary, he wrote to Percy: 'Some twenty odd traps of all kinds made the outspan place look quite like a commando.' There were other signs of a change in the air. Earlier, Abraham had told Percy that Harry had been to his first wapenschaauing [armed parade], looking fierce enough to repel a dozen raids single-handed.


Excerpted from "Bram Fischer"
by .
Copyright © 1998 Stephen Clingman.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: In the Desert C. 1880S,
1 Fathers and Sons 1850 – 1913,
2 A Farm in Africa 1914 – C. 1928,
3 Love and Letters January 1927 – December 1931,
4 Another Country January 1931 – October 1934,
5 Law and Marriage October 1934 – August 1939,
6 Joining Up A Meditation: 1914 – 1945,
7 War and Peace June 1941 – June 1950,
8 Families June 1950 – July 1956,
Photographic Insert,
9 Legal Politics February 1948 – March 1961,
10 Emergency 30 March 1960 – October 1963,
11 Into the Dark October 1963 – 4 July 1964,
12 A Supreme Duty 4 July 1964 – 25 January 1965,
13 Underground 23 January – 11 November 1965,
14 Into the Light 11 November 1965 – 12 May 1975,
Epilogue: On the Mountain 12 May 1975 – 10 May 1994,

What People are Saying About This

Nadine Gordimer

How Bram Fischer resolved — in sacrifice of material success, easy honors, personal freedom, and finally his life — the contradictions of his situation as a white and Afrikaner is told with honesty, deep intelligence, and admirable skill worthy of the subject. The apartheid government would not give Fischer's ashes to his children. He has no monument in stone; but this book is testimony that his life continues in his great contributions to the free South Africa now realized.

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