A life of contradiction

Sharon Farr’s method in the documentary Bram Fischer’s Story is deceptively simple. It is a birth-to-death narrative based on the anecdotes of family members and associates in the legal profession and anti-apartheid struggle.

Free of sentimentality and political triumphalism, it is an absorbing and often poignant account of a remarkable life.

The political and personal are closely interwoven. In blurred 8mm home movies from the family archive, Fischer is shown cavorting with the three children he tried to shield from the effects of his activism. In contrast with the cynicism of Gillian and Shawn Slovo, Fischers’ daughters, Ruth and Ilse, speak fondly and often amusingly of their childhood.

Central to the film is the 30-year romance-cum-political partnership with his wife, Molly, from whose death in a car accident he never fully recovered. His pride in his sickly son, Paul, who died in his twenties from cystic fibrosis, is also highlighted.

The film illuminates Fischer’s many intriguing contradictions. And how was he able to glide so effortlessly between the conservative legal profession, which ultimately disbarred him, and the revolutionary underground? How did this scion of the Free State Afrikaner nationalist elite, destined for high office, gravitate to the Communist Party? He remained a segregationist well into his twenties.

A partial explanation — which the film does not explore — was the horizon-­enlarging effect of study at Oxford University.Another dynamic seems to have been temperamental: a combination of unusual sensitivity to others and unbending moral rectitude.

One revealing anecdote concerns a visit to the Rivonia prisoners, who, not understanding the significance of his black hat, asked after Molly’s health. To shield them, he replied that she was well — despite her death weeks earlier.

The film also sheds light on the peculiarly South African character of his communist beliefs, which were much more a radical protest against inequality than an endorsement of command economics, single-party rule and Joseph Stalin.

It suggests that had he lived to see it, he would have approved of South Africa’s liberal-democratic constitution.

At his trial, Fischer quoted Paul Kruger’s famous address to the Volksraad, in which he predicted that freedom would rise over Africa “like the sun breaking through the clouds”. Bram Fischer’s Story highlights the organic link between his Afrikaner nationalism, born of anti-British sentiment, and support for African nationalist struggle.

This raises an interesting question. Why, in redefining their national identity and role in South Africa, have young Afrikaners latched on to a long-dead Anglo-Boer War general, rather than the likes of Fischer and Beyers Naudé?

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday