Abram Louis Fischer, commonly known as Bram Fischer, (23 April 1908-8 May 1975) was a South African lawyer of Afrikaner descent, notable for anti-apartheid activism and for the legal defense of anti-apartheid figures, including Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial. As Nelson Mandela has said in Long Walk to Freedom, Fischer was one of the bravest foes of apartheid because he gave up more than others: a life of privilege that would have resulted from his pedigreed Afrikaner birthright and a virtually guaranteed senior position in the apartheid government if he had wanted it. Instead, he chose a very different path as is described below.
Fischer came from a prominent Afrikaner family; his father was Percy Fischer, a Judge President of the Orange Free State, and his grandfather was Abraham Fischer, a prime minister of the Orange River Colony and later a member of the cabinet of the unified South Africa.
Prior to studying at Oxford University (New College) as a Rhodes scholar during the 1930s, he was schooled at Grey College and Grey University College in Bloemfontein. During his stay at Oxford, he travelled on the European continent, including a trip in 1932 to the Soviet Union. In a letter to his parents during his trip, he noted similarities between the position of Russian farmers that he encountered along the Volga river and South African blacks.
In 1937, Fischer married Molly Krige, a niece of Jan Smuts; the couple had three children. Molly herself became involved in politics and was detained without trial in the state of emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre. In 1963, Bram and Molly were driving to Cape Town for their daughter's 21st birthday. Bram swerved the car to avoid hitting an animal on the road. The car veered off the road and overturned into a river, causing Molly to drown. Bram was devastated and inconsolable, devoting himself more than ever to his secret life as a leader of the Communist Party.
Fischer joined the South African Communist Party ("SACP") in the 1940s and soon rose to leadership positions within the party. The SACP had a close relationship with the African National Congress ("ANC") and in 1943, Fischer co-authored revisions to the constitution of the ANC. In 1946 he was charged with incitement arising out of his position as a leader of the SACP and the African Mine Workers' Strike of that year.
Fischer played an integral role on the defense team in the Treason Trial of 1956-1961 where Mandela was acquited and led Nelson Mandela's legal defense team at the Rivonia Trial of 1963-1964. The life imprisonment sentence handed down to Mandela, instead of the death penalty the state prosecutor Percy Yutar had been asking for, was considered a victory for the defence. International pressure also played a role. At this time, Fischer's secret life as a Communist leader planning the overthrow of the apartheid government was unknown even to his closest white friends.
Fischer was arrested in September 1964 and charged with the crime of membership of the SACP. He was released on bail to handle a case in London. He had promised to return to face trial and did so despite pressure put in him to forego his bail and go into exile. He returned to South Africa and attended his trial in which he was the first accused. One day, after proceedings began, he did not arrive at Court and instead sent a letter to his counsel, Harold Hanson which was read out in court. He wrote:
"By the time this reaches you I shall be a long way from Johannesburg and shall absent myself from the remainder of the trial. But I shall still be in the country to which I said I would return when I was granted bail. I wish you to inform the Court that my absence, though deliberate, is not intended in any way to be disrespectful. Nor is it prompted by any fear of the punishment which might be inflicted on me. Indeed I realise fully that my eventual punishment may be increased by my present conduct..."
"My decision was made only because I believe that it is the duty of every true opponent of this Government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can..."
Fischer carried on underground activities for almost a year. He was arrested in 1966 (nine months after his return to South Africa) on counts of violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiracy to commit sabotage. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.
During his incarceration, he contracted cancer. A fall induced by the effects of the cancer in September 1974 left Fischer with a fractured neck femur, partially paralysed and unable to talk. It was not until December of that year, that the authorities had him transferred to a hospital. When news of his illness was publicised, the public lobbied government for his release. Fischer was placed under house arrest at his brother's home in Bloemfontein in April 1975. He died a few weeks later. The prisons department had Fischer's ashes returned to them after the funeral and they have never been located.
Burger's Daughter, a novel by Pulitzer prize and Nobel prize winner and fellow South African, Nadine Gordimer, is based on the life of Bram Fischer's daughter; he is the "Burger" of the title. Fischer is also the subject of Stephen Clingman's Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary, which won the Alan Paton Award in 1999. South African director Sharon Farr's documentary, Love, Communism, Revolution & Rivonia - Bram Fischer’s Story, won the Encounters Film Festival Audience Award for Best South African Documentary in August 2007.
In 2003 Fischer became the first South African ever to be posthumously reinstated to the Bar.
In 2004, despite opposition from alumni and management, Fischer was awarded a posthumous honorary degree by Stellenbosch University.