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Special Hearings

Type Prison Hearings

Starting Date 21 July 1997


Day 1


DR BORAINE: I now call Mrs Ilse Wilson to the witness stand please. I welcome you very warmly to the hearings on prison and prison reform, you have very close and intimate knowledge which we would like to share with you and for you to share with us. Can I take it that both of you will be speaking or just the one? You both are? Will you take the oath or the affirmation?

MRS WILSON: Affirmation.

DR BORAINE: Will you please stand and I think you can take it together.

MRS ILSE WILSON: (sworn states)

MRS RUTH RICE: (sworn states)

DR BORAINE: Thank you very much, please be seated. Mrs Seroke will assist in facilitating your evidence today and Iím going to hand over to her now, thank you.

MRS SEROKE: Ruth and Ilse welcome, weíre grateful that youíve come to share with everybody here and us, the experiences your father Braam Fischer went through. Braam was accused number one as I remember, in the trial which was known as the Braam Fischer Trial and fourteen others. He was detained on the 9th of July 1964 under the 90 day clause but was released after three days, then he was again arrested on the 23rd of September. He had however just been granted a temporary passport to enable him to appear before the Privy Council in London in a case involving patent rights. In view of this, the Judge granted his application for bail which was fixed at ten thousand rand. Mr Fischer won his case in London and returned to stand trial.

On the 15th of November 1963 he was again detained but suddenly he decided that he was going to go into hiding and I would like to quote his reasons for that. He said that he was absenting himself from the remainder of the trial and was going into hiding in South Africa in order to continue opposing the policy of Apartheid for as long as he could. He had not taken this step lightly but feared that unless the whole oppressive system was changed radically and rapidly, disaster must fall. Could you tell us, after this trial what happened to him that necessitated him being incarcerated in this prison?

MRS WILSON: Iíd just like to give a little more background. Braam was an Afrikaner from a prominent Free State family with a strong history of civic responsibility and there was always a presumption that he would go far even when he was a child. He did well at school, he did well at University and in fact won a Rhodes Scholarship to go to Oxford. He came back, he had studied law and started practising as an advocate in Johannesburg but because he was aware of the wrongs in the society around him, he in fact joined the Communist Party because he felt that this was the one party, first of all, which was not divided racially and where he really felt that perhaps he could, some change could come through working in the party.

He continued to practice as an advocate and became a senior advocate of Queens Counsel and did both his political work and his legal work. He was one of the lawyers in the treason trial which went on for four years when the people were acquitted, the accused were acquitted. He was also the lawyer in the Rivonia Trial which I think was very difficult for him because he was defending his comrades, they were not just clients. A lot of people would say that through the defence which he led, the lives of those people were saved as death sentences were being asked for.

Soon after the end of that trial he was arrested, he knew that he would be arrested and was put on trial as you reported. He felt, again as you reported that he could more useful if he went underground, he in fact went underground in January 1965 and remained underground for the best part of that year and was arrested in November again after which he was accused under the Sabotage Act. They threw the book at him that time.

MRS SEROKE: Thank you, going through your statement, you give very painful experiences that you went through when he was in prison, would you care to share those with us?

MRS WILSON: Braam was sent straight away to Pretoria local where he was kept on his own longer that most convicted political prisoners were at that time. He was then joined by his two comrades Izzi Heyman and Harold Strachan who helped him but there seemed to be a very determined effort to humiliate and undermine Braam. The man who was in charge of his section, a man called Du Preez, seemed to take particular delight in trying to humiliate him. He cut Braamís hair short, he made Braam wear clothes that were far too big for him, he made Braam wash the toilets on his knees with a rag endlessly.

These two comrades really did support Braam in that and for which we were very grateful but they too were humiliated with Braam. They were made for instance to keep sweeping the courtyard in silence, the three of them. It had a rough floor and there was a coal burning boiler nearby that spewed instant ashes onto this floor and these three men had to in total silence, sweep continuously. These were the kinds of ways in which people were just deliberately and maliciously humiliated. I think that there was a general sense that Braam particularly was targeted because he as the Afrikaner was the real traitor to the people.

Then of course there were the general prison conditions of those days in terms of the fact that people were, Braam was allowed as other political prisoners one visit from one visitor once every six months for half an hour. He was allowed one letter once every six months and limited to five hundred words. All the news and all the visits were very, very carefully censored so that anything that the warders considered to be news was excluded. This meant that no relationship really was possible and that was really hard for us. I think as we all know these were very petty and vindictive as they didnít really help with state security.

MRS SEROKE: When you got married to Tim, as the daughter Iím sure you would have wanted your father to come to your wedding and give you away, was Braam ever given this permission?

MRS WILSON: We didnít even ask for him to come, we asked if we could have an extra visitor, thatís all we asked for so that we could take a marriage officer with us and get married in front of him but they refused.

MRS SEROKE: When you brother Paul died, was he able to come to his funeral?

MRS WILSON: The most difficult part of Paulís death was that his brother Gustav came from Bloemfontein to tell Braam that Paul had died and Braam was called late one afternoon for this unexpected visit and he was told about it. We went to the visit but of course he wasnít allowed into a private room to talk to his brother. They still had to talk to each other through the partitions with the warders on either side of them so Braam was told of the death of Paul in this way. By the time the visit was over it was lock-up time and Braam went back on his own to his cell and locked up on his own so for fourteen hours after the news of his sonís death, he was left on his own. When we asked whether, he obviously wasnít allowed to go to the funeral and when we went to see him afterwards to share our grief with him, we also had to see him through this partition.

MRS SEROKE: We learnt from your statement that Braam got ill and progressively ill and Iím sure listening to Professor van Heerden now when she was highlighting the lack of medical care in the prisons and the in Braamís instance, the deliberate way that the prison authorities prevented him from seeing that he got that medical care, I wonder if you could share with us what you just discovered long after which were snippets that were written by Dennis Goldberg from day one when he got ill and what happened until ...

MRS WILSON: Iíd like to give you a copy of the report which was ... (tape blank) We were not told how badly Braam was being treated while he was ill because we only at that stage were getting information from him and he always tried to underplay what was happening to him but when we had two visits with him some weeks apart, on both he was on crutches and in great pain, we realised that he just wasnít getting treatment. Iíd like to read a bit from that statement because itís what actually happened at the time.

Braam had had a prostrate operation in July 1974 and about two months after that he saw a Doctor Brand because he had an acute pain in the hip. He was not examined but he was given an analgesic and some physiotherapy. After two weeks with no relief, the physiotherapist referred him back to the doctor and suggested X-rays or an orthopaedic opinion, nothing however was done. The pain was so severe that Braam needed crutches to walk. The prison didnít supply him with crutches so the other prisoners made a crutch for him out of a broom. Later he was provided with crutches but he still wasnít sent for X-rays.

In October a Doctor Groenewald sent him for X-rays and later in that month Braam saw an orthopedic surgeon who warned that the neck of the femur was very fragile and that a fall would be dangerous. On the 6th of November Braam fell while trying to shower on his crutches. On the 7th of November he asked to see a doctor who didnít come. On the 8th of November he again asked to see a doctor but the medical orderly said it was impossible to get a doctor. On the 9th of November Braam was in great paid and the medical orderly provided some analgesics. On the 12th of November Doctor Brand said there was no fracture. I donít even think he did an examination but Braam was still in tremendous pain which continued onto the 13th and the 14th.

Finally on the 15th of November nine days after the fall, Braam again saw Doctor Brand and an X-ray was at last done. The radiographer identified a fracture of the femur. On the 16th of November Braam was seen by a specialist who confirmed the fracture and advised hospitalization. On the 19th of November, thirteen days after the fall and probable fracture and four days after the fracture was diagnosed, Braam was eventually admitted to the H.F. Verwoerd Hospital.

MRS SEROKE: How long did Braam remain in the hospital for this treatment?

MRS WILSON: ... (tape blank) and then for treatment, he was returned to the prison in a wheelchair and just left in the wheelchair. The other prisoners just came across him. He, as we later discovered had secondaries in the brain so he was quite confused and they had just put him in a wheelchair in the middle of the prison. For the next forty eight hours Dennis Goldberg, at his own request nursed Braam, looked after him. He persuaded the authorities to let him stay in the cell with Braam who could do nothing for himself and Dennis nursed him for forty eight hours. He was in great pain, he was feverish and confused. He didnít see a doctor during that period but eventually on the 6th of December he was re-admitted and then he stayed in hospital and got proper treatment.

MRS SEROKE: What happened when he died?

MRS WILSON: Finally he was let out of the prison although he was not released from prison. They turned his brotherís home in Bloemfontein into a prison and that is where Braam then spent the last couple of months of his life. When it became clear to us that his death was very near, we kept asking what the position was going to be, what could we do when he died and they wouldnít tell us anything. All they told us was what we have to do is the moment he dies, we must inform them.

On the 8th of May when he died, we let them know at once and within half an hour prison authorities were there with a list of conditions. The conditions included that if we wanted to have a funeral it had to be in Bloemfontein, it had to be within a week and if there was a cremation the ashes would be retained by the prison authorities and that is indeed what happened. There was a cremation in Bloemfontein within a week but we never were given the ashes.

MRS SEROKE: So even in death Braam was a threat to the security police?

MRS WILSON: Yes a threat.

MRS SEROKE: And even his funeral couldnít be conducted at home, it had to be in Bloemfontein and his ashes were confiscated. We know that when families cremated their loved ones they would like to keep their ashes but even his ashes could not be given to the family. I find that very gruesome.

MRS WILSON: It was very difficult and they never told us anything about it, it was only in the new democratic Parliament when people were asked questions on our behalf, that we were told the ashes had been scattered about a year after Braamís death by the prison authorities in a place of their choice without anyone informing us.

MRS SEROKE: So that was only after twenty years that you knew what happened to the ashes?


MRS SEROKE: I can only say that itís amazing how your family went through such things and I know from the little I know about you that you were brave throughout and you continued following in Braamís footsteps. I also know that Ilse once disguised herself to take out a famous wanted man Sikile Bam, dressed as a farm labourer to cross a road block and we are very, very proud for what Braam stood for. Iím sure that today you are also proud that you could share this with so many people here, thank you very much.

DR BORAINE: Just before you leave, could I just find out if there are any other questions, Hugh? Tom?

MR MANTHATA: I have no questions except to say I wonder how many books are written about Braam, such that generation after generation will read and be proud of Braam Fischer.

DR BORAINE: Thank you, Mr Lewin?

MR LEWIN: If I could ask just two questions. I know a re-burial is impossible but is there any request that you as a family have for us to try and facilitate or assist with, what do you do, how do you re-scatter ashes because it is a request that comes from numbers of families?

MRS WILSON: Weíve never thought about that because as you say itís almost an impossibility although Patrick Lekota, when he was Premier of the Free State had suggested that they might name a garden or some such thing in Bloemfontein after Braam which we thought would be a very nice thing. Braam was particularly interested in gardens and nature so that perhaps a memorial of that sort that other people could enjoy, would be very fitting.

MR LEWIN: Is there a plaque already which notes actually where he was buried?

MRS WILSON: Apparently according to the newspaper, there is in the Bloemfontein garden of remembrance just a little brass plaque that gives his name and his date of birth and date of death.

MR LEWIN: What about the actual record, the medical record that you have, fairly clearly is there anything that you want us to do, in your statement you talk about us subpoenaing the doctors.

MRS WILSON: I suppose really what we want is that it shouldnít happen again and that if by doing something now one can prevent it happening again, that is really what we would want. What we would like is to find out is what happened to Braamís personal effects because we did write to the prisons and never got any reply from them. We know that the letters he received and things like that were never kept. Dennis Goldberg told us after he was released many, many years later that he had in fact packed them up and that they were kept together so we would very much like to have those.

DR BORAINE: Youíve heard the comments from some of the panel. Braam Fischer was a son of Africa and knew no distinction in race or creed or language and thus stands as an enormous symbol of unity in a very divided society and you must be very thankful that even though he was in obscurity for so long, somehow that light went way beyond the prison cell and way beyond his death. There are many, many people who paid tribute to him today and you have done that and we hope that the hope you express, that because of this itís less likely that it can happen again, will come true, thank you very much.

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