As Nelson Mandela and his comrades were convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964, the underground freedom movement in South Africa was unraveling. Many black activists were imprisoned, while many of their white comrades fled the country. One of the few who remained behind was Bram Fischer, a respected Afrikaner lawyer who had defended Mandela even while serving as secret leader of the outlawed Communist Party. He was charged later that year with party membership and was in the midst of his own trial when he decided the time had come to go underground.
JOHANESBURG– On a Friday night in late January 1965, Bram Fischer’s Volkswagen pulled out of the driveway on Beaumont Street. His daughter Ilse was behind the wheel, his friend Pat Davidson in the passenger seat, and wedged on the floor behind was Bram himself. Ilse drove around aimlessly for a while to lose anyone tailing them, then made her way to nearby Killarney, where a young man met the car. Bram popped out and the young man took him off to a secret location. Ilse and Pat drove home, where Ilse drew the curtains and pretended Bram was still there. She even set out meals for him and she and Pat spoke as if he were in the next room so that police listening in would not realize he was gone.
Monday morning in court the surprise was sprung. Bram’s lawyer read a letter in which Bram announced his decision, explaining that his prime motivation for going underground was his fear that white complacency would lead to widespread bloodshed. “If by my fight I can encourage even some people to think about, to understand and to abandon the policies they now so blindly follow, I shall not regret any punishment I may incur,” he wrote.
The State was outraged by Bram’s flight. J.H. Liebenberg, the prosecutor, called it “the desperate act of a desperate man, and the action of a coward.” But there was no concealing the fact that Special Branch had been caught completely by surprise. Offering what he called “a substantial reward,” General Keevy, Commissioner of Police, said Bram was “somewhere between the South Pole and North Pole.”
In fact, Bram was considerably closer. His first hideout was on a remote farm 80 miles northwest of Johannesburg. While there Bram lost weight, shaved the hair at the front of his head, grew a goatee and dyed it and the rest of his silver hair auburn. He replaced his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses with a pair of rimless spectacles and his lawyer’s suits and Afrikaner khakis for an English-style tweed jacket and cap. After six few weeks at the farm, a forged identity card and driver’s license arrived from London, along with several thousand British pounds. The name on the new papers was Douglas Black. He rented a house on Knox Street in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Waverley and bought a light gray Volkswagen.
At first Bram relied upon a circle of only a half dozen party members. Ilse and Pat Davidson were excluded; it was feared the police would tail them. But as time went on, Bram became lonelier and more isolated. He longed for human contact. Despite the dangers, Ilse and Pat each took to phoning him nightly and visiting him at least once a week. His friend Mary Benson, author of a book on the African National Congress, also started coming round to see him.
Ralph and Minnie Sepel were crucial members of Bram’s inner circle. They constantly urged him to cut off contact with Ilse, Pat and Violet Weinberg, another close comrade, for fear Special Branch would know to keep them under surveillance. Bram said he agreed, but he remained so traumatized by his wife Molly’s recent death and by the strains of living underground that he was incapable of taking steps for self-protection. Instead, knowing that they would disapprove strongly, he simply did not tell the Sepels about his constant contacts with Violet, Pat and Ilse.
Bram tried to remain active. He posted letters to newspaper editors from mailboxes in different parts of the country. He knew the letters would taunt the police, but his real purpose was to try to spark some sort of dialogue in the white community about race and politics.
Bram also wrote a long letter to Beyers Naude, director of the Christian Institute and a fellow Afrikaner, after reading that Naude had been prevented from giving a speech condemning apartheid. “I hesitated in writing to you because I doubted whether you would consider the support of a Marxist to be genuine, but this is the case,” Bram wrote. “The conception of the brotherhood of man, and the idea that you must do unto your neighbor as you would have done unto yourself, are the fundamental contributions of Christ’s philosophy and trust; these are the objects we are striving for, although by other means.”
“Is it not now a suitable time to write a play showing what Christ would see if He should return now and visit South Africa? And how He would be crucified?”
Many fellow Afrikaners looked at Bram as a traitor to his people. White liberals tended to see him as a tragic figure. Even many of his closest comrades saw his decision to go underground as the delusion of a man pushed over the edge by the collapse of the movement and the death of his wife. But many blacks saw it differently. They welcomed and appreciated the sacrifice he was making. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other prisoners on Robben Island heard of his exploits and cheered him on. They accepted the meaning that he himself gave to his flight–-that it was designed, above all, to reassure blacks. “The madness of the brave is the wisdom of life,” Maxim Gorky once wrote. Bram had not crossed the line between courage and madness; he had erased it altogether.
Bram tried to reorganize the underground party. He wrote a paper analyzing the political situation in South Africa and appealing to fellow communists to remain in the country despite recent defeats. But he was preaching to a shrunken and demoralized choir. Remaining party members were scattered, isolated and powerless, unable and unwilling to emerge even to communicate with each other, let alone engage in collective action.
Bram stayed at Knox Street until the middle of July, then he moved to 215 Corlett Drive in the suburb of Bramley. He felt even more lonely and isolated there.
Part of his depression stemmed from his long, fruitless wait for help from his exiled comrades in London. He wrote letters in code and invisible ink to them twice a week addressed to “Kim” and signed “Paulus,” pleading for more money and reinforcements. He also pleaded for a fake passport so that he could travel abroad. But the exiles, who had their own problems adjusting to life in a foreign country, were slow to respond. When an angry Ruth Fischer Eastwood confronted her father’s friends in London that August demanding help for him, she was told that everyone was away for the month. Some of them, she knew, were in Italy on holiday.
But what troubled him most were the actions of his lawyer colleagues. Just two days after he went underground, the Bar Council of Johannesburg filed an action seeking to expunge his name from the Roll of Advocates on the grounds that he had broken his word to the court and dishonored the law. Bram was furious and deeply saddened. Everyone there knew how much he valued his personal integrity. To accuse him of dishonor was a sign of how desperate his colleagues were to curry favor with the government.
He wrote to the press to defend his honor. “When an advocate does what I have done, his conduct is not determined by any disrespect for the law,” he wrote. “On the contrary, it requires an act of will to overcome his deeply rooted respect of legality, and he takes the step only when he feels that, whatever the consequences to himself, his political conscience no longer permits him to do otherwise.”
His friend Arthur Chaskalson defended Bram at the Supreme Court hearing. But the ruling judge found Bram guilty of “dishonest and dishonorable conduct” and struck his name. Thirty years of service as a lawyer were brought to an abrupt end. “Why couldn’t they let the government do its own dirty work?” he asked Mary.
The fake passport under a new alias, Peter West, finally arrived from London in October. Bram hoped to travel to London soon; but first he decided the Sepels could help him find a place in the suburb of Dunkeld. It would be more secure. But he needed cash to close the deal and London was infuriatingly slow in responding. In a coded letter written in early November Bram pleaded with “Kim.” “This item is now very urgent,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I cannot understand your attitude.”
On the night of November 9 Ilse phoned. Special Branch had picked up Violet at her workplace that afternoon, she told him. Bram agreed that he would have to move soon. But first he needed to close the deal on Dunkeld house. A meeting was set for Friday morning, November 12. The Sepels met with him that night and told him it was too long to wait. But Bram hesitated. He just had to pick up a few things, he told them.
Violet, who was 49 and in uncertain health, was taken to security police headquarters in Pretoria. They kept her standing without food or sleep, while a team of officers working in relays interrogated her. Her legs ached, her ankles swelled and her eyes were reduced to slits. If she fell asleep her interrogators would bang the table to wake her up or threaten to douse her with water. They also threatened to arrest her son Mark, who was deaf, and daughter Sheila. “You are like a group of sadistic schoolboys pulling the legs and wings off a fly,” she told them.
Violet held out until the afternoon of Thursday, November 11. Finally, exhausted and broken after 70 hours of sleep deprivation, she collapsed and told them Bram’s address.
An undercover team took up positions around Corlett Drive. Bram emerged early that evening, loading some of his things into his Volkswagen for the impending move to Dunkeld, then headed off in the car. Unmarked patrol cars pulled him over at the corner of Beaumont and Stella Streets. When an old and familiar adversary, Captain J.C. Broodryk, arrived on the scene, Bram admitted who he was and accompanied the police back to Corlett Drive.
Inside, police found face creams, “tan-in-a-minute” lotion, mascara, glasses, two false beards, a wig, moustache and tweezers. They also discovered spare cash, false license plates and identity papers, coded letters, Communist Party propaganda and a complete outfit of women’s clothing.
Bram had held out underground for 294 days. Now he faced a trial for sabotage and the prospect of life imprisonment.
©1999 Glenn Frankel
Glenn Frankel, editor of the Washington Post Magazine, examined life in South Africa while he was a Patterson fellow.