Bram Fischer and Nelson Mandel

Bram Fischer and Nelson Mandela changed South Africa forever

Former British High Court Judge emerges as powerful SA storyteller

Bram Fischer and Nelson Mandel

Bram Fischer, leader of the legal team at the Rivonia trial that saved Nelson Mandela and his colleagues from the gallows, made a statement from the dock at his trail which was as remarkable – and arguably more remarkable – than Nelson Mandela’s historic speech.

Sir Nicholas Stadlen, a former British High Court Judge and distinguished Queen’s Council, has spent the past six months immersing himself in the story of the Rivonia trial and is preparing to tell the inspiring story of the leaders and lawyers who laid the foundation for democracy in South Africa.

“It was said of Bram Fischer by Nelson Mandela in the first Fischer Memorial lecture at Oxford that Fischer was in many ways the bravest of the lot.

“As Mandela said: ‘All I had to do was to fight for justice for my people. What Bram Fischer did was that he had to put up with rejection of his own people’,” Stadlen.

He said that Bram Fischer was the “scion of an elite Afrikaner family” whose grandfather was the first and only Prime Minister of the Orange Free Colony and his father was the Judge President of the Orange Free State.

Fischer himself at the age of 21 was elected a nationalist Prime Minister at a student Assembly. He then had what he described in his statement from the dock at his own trial – the same dock in which Mandela had made his famous “prepared to die” speech – his Damascus moment. (listen to podcast).

Fischer had lived a double life as top lawyer and leader of the banned South Africa Communist Party and had been known as the pimpernel. His activities were known to the apartheid government but he had nevertheless agreed to defend the Rivonia trialists because of his belief in their cause.

“When Fischer was eventually caught…….he was sentenced to life in prison having made a statement from the very same dock as Mandela made his famous speech from the dock in court C in Pretoria Supreme Court.

“And it is in many ways no less remarkable – and in some respects arguably even more remarkable – than the magnificent Mandela statement from the dock,” Stadlen said.

Stadlen said that Fischer could have been the Prime Minister of South Africa or its Chief Justice but instead he chose to fight for the liberation of the oppressed in South Africa which had isolated him amongst own people.

Stadlen’s interviews will feature in a documentary to be made about the Rivonia trial. A Hollywood film on the life of Bram Fischer and the Rivonia trial is also in its development stage.

The judge-turned-journalist is determined that in addition to the millions of words published about the extraordinary and inspiring life of Nelson Mandela, the stories of the courageous co-defendants and lawyers who saved them from the gallows needs to be told to a foreign audience.

“What strikes one very powerfully is the contrast between the worldwide fame and admiration that people have for Nelson Mandela – and rightly so – and the comparative lack of awareness, particularly in this country (United Kingdom) of the lawyers and the defendants who took part in those events and who were immensely brave and immensely able,” Stadlen said in an interview.

When Nelson Mandela died on 5th December last year Stadlen found himself in Cape Town and was inspired by an article he read in the Cape Town by former Rivonia trialist prisoner Dennis Goldberg.

He called Goldberg and he and his wife went to visit him in his Hout Bay home in Cape Town where they were given the warmest reception and left with many books and stories relating to the events leading up to the Rivonia trial.

The meeting with Dennis Goldberg set Stadlen on a road of investigation and learning which led to him doing a series of in-depth broadcast-quality interviews with Godlberg, fellow Rivonia trialists Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, Rivonia trial lawyers George Bizos and Lord Joel Joffe, Treason Trial lawyer, Sir Sydney Kentridge, Rivonia activist Bob Hepple and several others connected to the trial.

At a recent lawyers’ tribute to the late Nelson Mandela at the London School of Economics which focussed on a conversation with Bizos and Lord Joffee, Stadlen spoke movingly from the floor about the extraordinary courage of those who put their ideals for a free and just South Africa before their own lives.

“This was a truly remarkable and extremely courageous group of people and the lawyers that defended them were probably the most remarkable team of defence lawyers ever assembled,” Stadlen said.

He said that the Rivonia group had clearly demonstrated that there are times in history where the only way to improve the law is to break it,” he told a hushed gathering of lawyers, academics and dignitaries.

Stadlen, who was a bus boy in New York’s Times Square in his youth when the late Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated in 1968 travelled to the south to experience the extraordinary events which followed Dr King’s death.

It was his first awakening to the issue of racism. He later watched a BBC Panorama program in the UK which brought home the depth of evil underlying the system of apartheid in South Africa.

In 2007, Stadlen had his first foray into mainstream journalist when he conducted and had published on line a series of interviews with global through leaders which included former South African President F W De Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (both available on The Guardian Website – each in two parts).

By John Battersby