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Bram Fischer award not just 'empty ritual'

Wendell Roelf

In a ceremony redolent with irony, former struggle icon Abram Fischer received a posthumous honorary doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch in a packed DF Malan hall on Thursday. The controversial award to Fischer, an Afrikaner communist, was a culmination of events that had divided the university.

In a ceremony redolent with irony, former struggle icon Abram Fischer received a posthumous honorary doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch in a packed DF Malan hall on Thursday.

The hall was named after Malan, the country’s first apartheid prime minister, and was inaugurated by another key figure in apartheid, PW Botha, in 1974 to commemorate the centenary of Malan’s birth.

Thursday’s controversial award to Fischer, an Afrikaner communist, was a culmination of events that had divided the university into so-called verligtes and verkramptes (liberals and conservatives).

After accepting the award to a mixed response from the crowd, Fischer’s youngest daughter, Ilse Fischer-Wilson, said debate around the award is healthy.

“A lot of people didn’t know who Bram was, now they do,” she said.

Her elder sister, Ruth Fischer-Rice, said they are delighted with the DPhil honoris causa degree awarded to their father.

“The debate was extraordinary and opened up a lot of issues that have not been to the fore before,” she said.

Fischer-Rice said while there are many differences of opinion, the one thing that troubles her is the “sinister motives” of some.

The award to Fischer—who was sentenced to life imprisonment for high treason under apartheid—stirred up a maelstrom of debate, as both those for and against the awarding of the degree gave vent to their feelings in letters to newspapers, and even protest action.

South African Communist Party deputy secretary general Jeremy Cronin, representing the party to which Fischer was committed, said what is really important is not just the handing over of the degree, but the debate that preceded it.

“It forced us all to think critically and self-critically about our legacies,” he said, adding that the award is not just an “empty ritual”.

Cronin said people can learn a lot from Fischer’s commitment to non-racialism and socialism, “a commitment made because of, and not despite of, the resources available to him in his Afrikaner identity”.

Mingling with the crowds outside the hall after the graduation ceremony, Christoff Pauw—one of a group of students who first proposed the award—said he is happy that everything worked out so peacefully.

“The opposition was silenced before the actual event,” he said, alluding to a motion from certain Stellenbosch alumni opposing the award.

The motion was eventually amended following agreement between the pro- and anti-award groups, before the university’s convocation voted to award the posthumous degree.

Pauw said Fischer’s “redemption” is for everyone in the country, particularly Afrikaners, because Fischer stood for a moral voice and helped point out the “moral corruption” inherent in the apartheid system.

Pauw denied that any of the pro-award students—easily recognisable at the ceremony with their red T-shirts sporting the visage of Fischer and the words “bra Fischer”—were victimised at university.

He said the silent middle voices supported the initiative.

“Fischer has become an icon for the South African youth,” he said.

Meanwhile, university spokesperson Mohamed Shaikh “categorically denied” radio reports of a bomb threat at the venue, saying police sniffer dogs were used as part of the normal security procedures.—Sapa

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