- Gavin Fischer, great nephew of struggle veteran and lawyer Braam Fischer has produced a BBC documentary based on tape recordings of the historic Rivonia trial
- The Rivonia Trial which lasted from saw anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, jailed for decades
- Today we consider the trial as a key moment in South Africa’s fight for freedom against the white minority apartheid government
The Rivonia Trial brought Nelson Mandela to the world stage, and while his famous speeches from the dock are still remembered today, it is worth noting that those involved in the struggle faced real danger of death.
Briefly.co.za learned that Gavin Fischer, great nephew of struggle veteran and lawyer Braam Fischer, is eager to remind us that the way history ended up working out might have gone very differently.
Nelson Mandela’s famous speech from the dock, declaring that freedom and equality was "an ideal for which I am prepared to die" was far more than just words. He could well have died because he and his co-accused faced the death penalty for acts of sabotage against the state.
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They were spared, but the speech became a rallying cry for black people under the apartheid regime. Mandela would three decades later become the country's first democratically elected president after having spent 27 years incarcerated.
Fischer’s great-uncle, Bram Fischer led the defence team which played a part of saving their lives. He took great risks even getting involved due to him also being an anti-apartheid activist who could himself have been in the dock at the Rivonia Trial.
Fischer never met his heroic uncle who In fact, just a few years later, was also arrested and sentenced to life in prison. He died while still in custody in 1975 before his great nephew was born and was labelled a traitor to his own white Afrikaner people.
Fischer has been able to go back in time and get to know his great uncle Braam due to his being given access to newly digitised tapes from the trial.
“It's been my first chance to hear him speak. Polite to all he addresses, his calm tones are shot through with a seam of fierce authority. Eyes shut and headphones on, I listen. For the first time my great uncle, who has been more myth than man to me, starts to become real,” he said.
The recordings allow us the opportunity today to hear a bit of history and relive some of the trial’s most famous moments.
The searing power of Mandela's speech, Walter Sisulu's impressive philosophical outwitting of the prosecutor, the defiant humour of Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg.
One of the most poignant moments is Elias Motsoaledi's humble but strikingly detailed expression of the life of black people in South Africa as the reason why he committed the acts he was on trial for. "I did what I did because I wanted to help my people in the struggle for equal rights. I felt very strongly about the laws which discriminated against my people and which caused poverty, ill health and misery for which they suffer," he told the court.
Fischer says there is hope in knowing the history and hearing the recordings. “While the recordings contain details which can bring back difficult memories, in playing them to those closest to the trial, I have found all have appreciated the chance to hear voices they thought lost forever.
It is clear even short snippets of tape can help reclaim these stories from the dehumanising mass of the apartheid state.”
In his documentary he visits people close to the trial and speaks to them.
“In these moments, the Rivonia Trial feels not so much of the past, but of the present. As I listen, my great uncle is still alive and the people around me suffer, fight and survive, not knowing what their future holds,” he said.
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