Bram Fischer’s example worthy of emulation

Mangaung executive mayor Thabo Manyoni. (Supplied)

Mangaung executive mayor Thabo Manyoni. (Supplied)

So says Mangaung executive mayor Thabo Manyoni, who was speaking of the legacy left by anti-apartheid stalwart Bram Fischer. This week the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality hosted the first annual Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture at the Central University of Technology.

“We are inheriting this freedom and democracy that was an ideal for those who laid everything on the line during the struggle. But we seem to be getting worse in terms of being passionate and making selfless sacrifices for those who are less fortunate than us,” Manyoni said in an interview.

“We must learn from those who had everything in life, but decided they would rather identify with the less fortunate, even if it meant losing their status, family and friends for this ideal. “For this to happen we need people with vision and, presently, I think most of us are missing the point and don’t want to go back and learn what they did and why they did it.”

An anomaly of his time

Born into an influential Afrikaner family steeped in the history and structures of the Afrikaner state, Fischer eschewed this privilege in fighting against an unjust system. His grandfather had been State Secretary of the Free State Republic and the only Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony, while his father was a Judge President of the Orange Free State.

It would have been assumed that he would follow a similar path, and certainly he did as far as pursuing a legal career. Where he differed, however, was in using this acumen to fight for the rights of many non-white workers and citizens suffering the oppression of apartheid. He was ostracised by the Afrikaner community partly due to his joining the South African Communist Party in the 1930s (which at that time was not a banned political movement), which was further cemented when he rose to prominence in the 1960s Treason Trial. This was followed by his leading the defence of the Rivonia Trialists, among them Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

“It was unusual for a man who comes from what could be considered Afrikaner aristocracy to decide that he would rather forsake all those privileges to join the liberation struggle,” commented Manyoni. “Considering that he came from this background, which one would assume was very conservative, and to see this man do all he could to try to save the lives of those in the Rivonia Trial and to identify with those people considered third-class citizens must have come from a certain boldness and serious courage.”

Celebrating the struggle

The mayor adds that the Bram Fischer story highlights the misconception that the Free State is a conservative and right-wing province — and the extent to which we have “lost the plot”.

“As South Africans, we need to understand that it’s not about your personal background or where you grew up, it’s about your personal commitment to making sure those less fortunate have some hope in life and that we need to assist them where possible.” Manyoni suggests that Fischer’s example, and those presented by other struggle icons, deserves to be celebrated in a period dominated by tenderpreneurs, bling and instant gratification.

“We need to revisit our stance: if there were people who were privileged but forsook everything to fight for the cause for all, why can’t we now go back to our roots and emulate them? “We think we have arrived, therefore we don’t have to care about those less well off than us. We have not yet arrived. Many South Africans still suffer because of poverty, hunger and unemployment. Everyone thinks they can go and plunder.”

Manyoni said the need for a more humane, global vision extended to the issue of climate change that is in itself doing untold harm to the conditions future generations will be burdened with. He said that adopting a new world view was a question of leadership as shown by those who led the struggle against apartheid, who decided to take bold steps and go against the norm to be agents of change.

“Today we don’t have those nuances in terms of being passionate about the brotherhood of mankind. We keep fighting each other for limited resources and positions — maybe it’s human nature,” he said.

Taking responsibility in the new democracy

This malaise had crept into South Africa’s continental and international image, he suggested. The country, its people and its leaders had a responsibility to live up to the potential that was born out of the fight for democracy. This responsibility comes not only from the country’s economic power on the continent, but also from the faith placed in the liberation struggle by Africa’s people.

“During our struggle in the 1970s and 1980s we were identifying with all the oppressed people and they said that if South Africa isn’t free, we can’t be free. It is time we revisit that course and take it further to say: we will continue the fight for the oppressed as our forefathers did.”

Manyoni said it was time to acknowledge this legacy and the responsibility it placed on everyone to work together to lighten the burden on people less fortunate, whether in South Africa or elsewhere. “Our voice is not loud enough. Instead we are saying: everyone for himself. I don’t believe those great men who sacrificed so much for our freedom were thinking this. They felt they needed to do something to change the status quo and we need to follow in their footsteps.”

He said this quest was not only the preserve of the giants of society, and that everyone had to do what they could to reverse the ills of poverty and inequality. I don’t think that the struggle heroes ultimately thought South Africa would be where it is today, but because they had a vision they felt that, bit by bit, they would reach that destination.”

This article has been paid for and signed off by the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality.