Thursday, 8 August 2013

Bram Fischer and the Rand Club

Inspired by reading Bram Fischer's biography at the Liliesleaf Farm museum recently, when I saw that there would be a performance of the one man play The Bram Fischer Waltz in Johannesburg I just had to go. The play was originally written in Afrikaans by Joburg based writer/director Harry Kalmer. It went on to win a slew of Afrikaans theatre awards and was subsequently translated into English for the 2013 National Arts Festival. Here's the blurb which explains what it was all about:

The moving story of Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner communist and lawyer who saved Nelson Mandela from the gallows but died in prison himself. Based on research and conversations with people who knew Fischer well, this play explores the personal life, political outlook and choices of an extra-ordinary individual who paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.

Unless you are really familiar with the ins and outs of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1950s and 1960s - and particularly the Rivonia Trial - you may not have heard of Bram Fischer. His name seems to have dropped quietly from the list of famous heroes and has only reappeared in recent years as historians reconsider his story. Recently the Bloemfontein airport was renamed in his honour and a number of biographies have come out putting this great man back in the spotlight.

Bram Fischer was a lawyer by profession. He was born into a very privileged Afrikaner family - his father was the Judge President of the Orange Free State and his grandfather Abraham was once the Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony. He studied at Oxford University and married a niece of prominent South African statesman Jan Smuts (she also was a staunch anti-apartheid activist and his closest ally). He was also a committed Marxist and a leading figure in the South African Communist Party. He gave up a life of immense privilege and went against the prevailing attitude of his community to dedicate his life to helping end apartheid. As he says in the play: 'at least we can say that there was at least one Afrikaner opposing this system they call apartheid' [sic].

The play sees Fischer looking back over his past from a prison cell in Pretoria where he has been sentenced to life imprisonment for his communist activities and conspiracy to overthrow the government. We hear about his admiration for his comrades Nelson and Walter and their inspirational speeches from the dock during the Rivonia Trial (where he was acting as their lawyer). He also tells of his heartbreak at the sudden death of his wife during a car crash (he was driving the car). And we also hear about his last days of freedom on the run from the South African authorities. The whole story was utterly engrossing and my compliments must go out to the amazing David Butler for his touching portrayal of this truly great South African.

Bram had been a secret member of the communist party since the 1940s. In 1964 he was charged for leading the South African Communist Party (it was illegal to be a communist in those days). He was released on bail and travelled to London where friends encouraged him to forgo his bond and go into exile. Bram Fischer however would not give up on his homeland: I am an Afrikaner. My home is in South Africa. I will not leave my country because my political beliefs conflict with those of the Government.”

On his return to South Africa, Fischer then went on the run joining the underground liberation movement, determined to sacrifice all he could for his country's freedom. He left a message for the court explaining his motives: “My decision was made only because I believe that it is the duty of every true opponent of this Government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can...What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination.”

After 290 days on the run he was captured and put on trial. Some friends encouraged him to publicly renounce communism to gain a lesser sentence. Fischer was however true to his beliefs and delivered a passionate defence of his actions and proudly proclaimed himself to be inspired by Marxist theories.

The last scenes of the play are very moving as the final months of Bram Fischer's life were unbearably tragic. Suffering alone in his cell from brain cancer, his health deteriorated drastically and following his partial paralysis and loss of speech the authorities were eventually persuaded to allow his brother's home in the Free State to be declared a prison. He died there in 1975 long before the end of apartheid. His ashes were confiscated after his funeral by the prisons authority and his final resting place is unknown.

The Rand Club

The Bram Fischer Waltz was performed in a most incongruous venue - the Rand Club. The Rand Club is a historic members club in the Joburg CBD which dates back to the days of Cecil Rhodes and the Randlords. Under apartheid it was a whites only, males only club which also discriminated against Jews. Thankfully nowadays anybody is allowed to spend some time relaxing here so long as they obey the 'dress code' (no jeans, no trainers, no sports clothes etc).

The building is super colonial in style. It has a grand staircase, massive bar where they serve beer in engraved tankards (keeps your brew super cold!), an olde worlde library, various posh function rooms, a gun room (yes really), some (probably) extremely valuable and very beautiful drawings of exotic animals and birds and portraits and busts of a grand array of leaders including the young Queen Elizabeth II, Cecil Rhodes and of course dear Madiba. The theatre is down in the basement where they also keep the Pièce de résistance - a crazy billiards hall filled with the taxidermied heads of various African animals - including a giraffe.

In all the building is well worth visiting so keep an eye out for upcoming events and open days on their facebook page and website.

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