Fischer award whips up a storm

December 10, 2004

Even 20 years after his death and a decade after the end of the system he hated, Bram Fischer - the anti-apartheid activist, Communist and former lawyer for Nelson Mandela - still has the power to outrage Afrikaners.

A decision by Stellenbosch University to award Fischer a posthumous honorary doctorate has re-ignited an ideological row.

Some older alumni and academics argue that an uncritical Stalinist who worked to overthrow the state is an inappropriate role model for Afrikaners.

Students, many staff and more progressive alumni say that Fischer was the Afrikaners' conscience during apartheid.

At Stellenbosch, traditionally the intellectual heartland of Afrikaners, it has also triggered a battle between the council and senate, which approved the award, and convocation, which pushed for reconsideration.

Fischer, whose grandfather was Prime Minister and whose father was President of the conservative Afrikaner Free State, became a lawyer, and joined the Communist Party. He defended anti-apartheid activists during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1966, Fischer was convicted of violating the Suppression of Communist Act and conspiracy to commit sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He died from cancer in 1975.

Hermann Giliomee, an apartheid critic and professor of history at Stellenbosch, opposed Fischer's posthumous honour. He said the university was currying favour with the Government.

Annie Gagiano, an English professor at Stellenbosch, said that those opposing the award were older, neo-conservative whites who were "whipping up Afrikaner resentment at the way the university and society are changing".

Amanda Gouws, a politics professor at Stellenbosch, said the university had moved beyond the apartheid view that Fischer "betrayed the Afrikaner clan".

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