Over the next few days, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation will be hosting three signature events celebrating the lives of Bram Fischer, Klaas de Jonge and David Webster.
It is not coincidental that these commemorative events should come in the wake of remarks made by the Secretary-General of the ANC, Ace Magashule, that voters should not vote for an umlungu (a white person) and the disparaging remarks by Gauteng MEC for Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation, Faith Mazibuko, regarding the employment of Whites and Indians in senior managerial positions in government.
The undertones of such comments – which may not be overtly racist – belies the non-racial character and historical traditions of the ANC and the broader liberation movement.
Kathrada, from an early age until his death two years ago, characterised his life’s contribution to the liberation movement as a struggle against racism and for a non-racial, democratic and non-sexist South Africa. Advocating, propagating and promoting the vision of a non-racial society free from racial prejudice, bigotry and discrimination was a central part of his existence.
On April 26, the Foundation will be hosting a special screening of An Act of Defiance. This historical drama captures the life of an Afrikaner anti-apartheid lawyer and leader in the South African Communist Party (SACP), Bram Fischer, who defended the Rivonia accused, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Kathrada.
Fischer came from an illustrious Afrikaner family with his father being the Judge President of the Orange Free State and his grandfather, Abraham Fischer, the Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony.
Fischer, an Oxford graduate, joined the SACP in the 1940s and rose to a leadership position in the party. Alongside Issy Maisels he played an integral role on the defense team in the Treason Trial of 1956, where Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were eventually acquitted on 29 March 1961. He then led Mandela’s legal defense team at the Rivonia Trial.
Following Rivonia, Fischer himself was put on trial accused of furthering communism. During his trial, he went underground and in a letter to his lawyer to be read in court, he said:
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. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow.
Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment and diagnosed with cancer while in prison.
On hearing of Bram’s death, Kathrada wrote a moving letter on 11 May 1975 from Robben Island prison to his daughters. He said:
For you Bram was a father, the kindliest and very best that any child could wish for. But he also meant so much for so many people throughout our country and, indeed, all over the world. Literally millions will therefore grieve his passing. South Africa could ill afford to lose him; for he was a great patriot and statesman, rich in wisdom, selfless, fearless, and determined in leadership. To the legal fraternity he brought brilliance, lustre and distinction. To his political colleagues he showed the path to courage, clarity, and undying hope. To the prisoner he re-enacted the well-established maxim that the path to light and progress traverses through the darkness of prison walls. To humanity at large he gave abundant love, his charm, his unequalled modesty, quiet dignity and disinterestedness. Bram possessed in profusion all the elements that go to make a perfect human being.
Klaas de Jonge
On 28 April, the Foundation will host a breakfast to honour Klaas de Jonge (81), a Dutch anti-apartheid activist and internationalist. He will receive the Presidential Order of the Companions of OR Tambo (Silver), which recognises eminent foreign nationals for friendship shown to South Africa.
Klaas de Jonge had on principle rejected being a recipient of a National Order several years ago under Jacob Zuma’s Presidency.
He was recruited by Joe Slovo into Umkhonto we Sizwe’s Special Ops Unit, and together with his former wife, Hélène, was responsible for reconnaissance on pylons, railway and power stations and military installations, including the SA Air Force HQ in Pretoria. They couriered arms for use by the Special Ops members, who carried out armed attacks inside South Africa.
“We realised that, as whites, it was easier for us to bring arms into South Africa. We felt we almost had no choice when Slovo approached us,” says de Jonge.
He was arrested in 1985 but managed to escape to the Netherlands Embassy, where the South African authorities re-arrested him, sparking an international diplomatic row. He was later returned to the Embassy, where he stayed for 26 months. He was finally released as part of a complex prisoner exchange involving Angola, France, Holland and South Africa.
De Jonge explains his arrest and escape in a calm and almost detached manner.
It was stupid how I got caught, and I was very angry with myself. I was determined to escape from the first day, but how? I needed the police to take me out of my cell. So, I told them that I would take them to the places where I had buried arms caches, knowing they were empty. They took me out several times and began to be more relaxed. I even persuaded them to loosen my leg irons so I could walk better. Then I bluffed them that Special Ops was also going to bomb foreign companies doing business in South Africa and I would show them where. So, they took me to the Nedbank building and I pointed to the company supposedly targeted, which was opposite the embassy. As the three policemen turned their heads towards that office, I stumbled into the embassy. They jumped on me. Too late – I was in already. I was such a headache for the government. The National Party’s Pik Botha said he was so happy that I had left, he could have given me 10 baskets of flowers and boxes of chocolates. I never got the flowers and chocolates from him!
Dr David Webster
On 1 May, the Foundation will commemorate the 30th year of the brutal and cold-blooded assassination of Dr David Webster. He was an anthropologist at Wits University, an anti-apartheid activist in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and a founding member of the Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee (DPSC). Webster’s assassination on May Day came just nine months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
In the 1980s, particularly during the two state of emergencies, the DPSC was active in supporting political detainees and their families, and campaigning actively for the release of political detainees held without trial in South Africa. Webster was also involved in the End Conscription Campaign, the Five Freedoms Forum and the Detainees’ Education and Welfare Organisation.
In 1981, he established the Conference of Academics for a Democratic Society as a pressure group designed to persuade universities to become more involved in community issues.
Webster was shot dead outside his Johannesburg home by an assassin in the employ of the Civil Co-operation Bureau, a clandestine agency of the apartheid security establishment. Apparently, the hit squad was paid R40 000.00 for his murder.
Dr Webster was an active member of the Orlando Pirates supporters’ club. Members of the club formed a guard of honour around his coffin at his funeral.
During an intense period of state repression in the mid-1980s, David and his partner, Dr Maggie Friedman, worked extensively on the impact of state violence and repression on ordinary South Africans.
In an almost prophetic way he had the following to say about political killings by the apartheid state: “Assassinations is used as one of the methods of controlling government opposition when all other methods such as detention or intimidation have failed. It is a very rare event indeed when such assassinations are ever solved.” Little did he realise then that he too would be assassinated.
Oliver Tambo, addressing the First National Consultative Conference of the ANC on 14 December 1990 in Durban, South Africa, emphasized the principle of non-racialism as a cornerstone of the liberation movement and a democratic society. He said:
The idea of non-racialism has triumphed in the country. Even the National Party has finally admitted this much by opening its membership to blacks. This must spur us on to redouble our efforts in transforming our country into an oasis of democracy where a person’s skin colour or sex will no longer be relevant in determining their station in life. Racial and tribal divisions that apartheid has assiduously nurtured over the years should be vigorously fought by all of us. The spirit of non-racialism should not only extend to the people as a whole, but it should also be a firm foundation stone upon which our new society stands. Each of us should, therefore, foster the spirit of oneness amongst all our people. Even though the suspicions will not disappear overnight, the building of one South African nation is a national task of paramount importance.
There can be no doubt that Bram Fischer, Klaas de Jonge and Dr David Webster had contributed immensely to the building of a non-racial and democratic society. For this they suffered enormously. In the case of Fischer and Webster, they paid the ultimate price for the freedom and liberty of others. And in the case of de Jonge, it was at great personal risk and sacrifice that he participated in the armed struggle against a racist state.
The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation remembers their legacy and their deep commitment to struggle for a free, non-racial and democratic South Africa. It saddens us that some leaders and members of the liberation movement – as in society at large – have so quickly forgotten the profound contribution of White democrats and revolutionaries to the struggle for freedom and democracy in our country.
(Dr Ismail Vadi is member of the Board of Trustees of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation)