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A brilliant legal mind

- By Wits University

Wits University today honoured Bram Fischer, the “Afrikaner revolutionary” and leading advocate who defended Nelson Mandela and others in the Rivonia Trial, during a historic colloquium in the Great Hall. The University will also award Fischer a posthumous Honorary Doctorate of Laws this afternoon.

The colloquium featured a 17-member panel including, among others, Mandela’s co-accused Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg, as well as their lawyers George Bizos and Lord Joel Joffe, and Fischer’s daughters, Ilse Wilson and Ruth Rice.

Mandela had credited Fischer for saving the lives of the Rivonia trialists and this was echoed again by the panel.

“There was only one person to choose to lead the legal team and that was Bram. He was masterful and skilled, unparalleled in my experience. It took extraordinary courage for him to act on behalf of the Rivonia accused,” Joffe, the instructing attorney, remembers.

Fischer faced real danger of being arrested during the trial as he too was a frequent visitor to the Liliesleaf Farm where the accused was arrested, and he might have been identified or implicated by witnesses on the stand. He also turned his back on “his people”, the Afrikaners, to become what Mandela once described as “one of the bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle”.

Goldberg described the Rivonia Trial as one of the most important events that “made ordinary people become great”. His co-accused, Kathrada, said Fischer was a wonderful human being, lawyer and politician who combined all these attributes when he defended them in the trial.

According to Bizos, Fischer was an exceptional lawyer and highly respected among the legal profession. “He was the only person who could convince the judge that Operation Mayibuye was unlawful. If Bram said something, it carried weight,” Bizos said.

Sir Nick Stadlen, QC, who led the panel discussion, said Fischer paid a heavy price for this principled and visionary refusal to acquiesce what he saw as the evil and unjust system of apartheid.

About Bram Fischer

The colloquium is part of #MrBlack Week at Wits – a weeklong celebration to honour the life and work of Fischer who died 40 years ago this year shortly after being released from prison on humanitarian grounds in 1975. At the time he was serving a life sentence for furthering the aims of communism and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government.

This year also marks 50 years since his arrest for those crimes in 1965. While underground for nine months before his arrest, he used the surname “Black” as his pseudonym. Witnesses later referred to “Mr Black” in their statements to the security police and during his trial.

Fischer walked the corridors of Wits – a beacon of multi-racial equality – for a brief period in the mid-1930s as a part-time lecturer in the Wits School of Law.

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