By JOHN OSTFIELD
An Act of Defiance (the concluding film in the 2018 Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival) tells the story of lawyer Bram Fischer, his wife and family, which plays out against the background of the 1963 trial of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, which included Nelson Mandela.
Referred to as the Rivonia trial, after the Johannesburg suburb where the ANC leaders were holed up on a farm, the South African apartheid regime succeeded in convicting all but one of the defendants and sentencing them to life imprisonment. That outcome was seen as a victory for the defense because the state wanted them to hang.
The defendants were charged with sabotage for creating the ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, in the Xosa language, abbreviated as “MK”), and planning Operation Mayibuye, a program for armed attacks on state institutions.
The defendants were black, East Indian and white. All the whites were Jewish Communists. Fischer, an Afrikaner, was lead attorney for the defense. He also was a secret member of MK and secretary general of the outlawed Communist Party (SACP). He took an enormous risk that he would be exposed while defending the accused. Nelson Mandela later said of Bram Fischer that it was harder for him because in addition to fighting injustice he had to fight his own people.
The film portrays Fischer’s relationship with his wife, Molly, who was completely supportive and took on responsibility for their three children. The relationship of the white wives is shown sympathetically. What we don’t see are the black wives, including Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. They were as active as the white wives, and all were friends.
There is a real women’s story here. With their men imprisoned sometimes for decades, the women stepped into leadership, raised their families and helped other fugitives to escape. Sometimes when the apartheid regime authorities could not reach the men, their wives were arrested.
A case in point is Ruth First and her husband, Joe Slovo. He was sent out of South Africa to strengthen relationships with outside supporters. She was in Johannesburg with three young daughters. She was a journalist and Communist activist from the time she was a teenager. Her parents, immigrant Jews, were founding members of the CPSA. After she finished university, where she met Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and her future husband, she became a full-time writer and editor. The publications she wrote for kept changing names to escape banning.
First kept her name when she married Slovo, in 1949. The only people who ever called her Mrs. Slovo were her hairdresser and the apartheid state prosecutor in the treason trial.
The racist South African regime stepped up its repression following World War II. The triumph of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, in 1948, led to a series of apartheid laws and the banning of the CPSA, in 1950, at which time it went underground. The government charged 156 people, including First, in a mass treason trial that lasted almost four years with starts and stops. Finally, charges were dropped and all were exonerated. The judge told the prosecutor that South Africa was not a police state, yet.
On March 21, 1960, the situation came to a head. In the township of Sharpeville, security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing 69 and injuring some 180 people. Most were shot in the back. The ANC was banned. At that point the leaders of banned organizations started to form MK, having seen all nonviolent approaches closed off.
This underground was more like the Keystone Cops than a real terrorist organization. They had a few leaders who had some military experience, and a copy of Menachem Begin’s memoir, The Revolt. The underground was totally overmatched by the security forces, which used torture and exploited the loose document control and overuse of the telephone by MK. The prosecution was going to make sure that the outcome of the Rivonia trial would be different than the previous one — this time executions.
A few weeks after the raid on the farm that yielded most of the leadership and a large cache of incriminating documents, Ruth First was arrested under the 90-day detention law that allowed the state to hold some people for up to 90 days for interrogation without a lawyer or appearing before a judge. She was part of the underground and knew a lot. They expected death sentences and were not ready to hang a white woman, so they did not charge her. They wanted to break her and turn her to be a state witness.
After 90 days she was released, and then when she went out of the jail, she was rearrested for a further 90 days. They told her they could keep her as long as they wanted. After a total of 117 days she despaired, fearing that she might weaken and give up names. She then attempted suicide. She was released but became a banned person, and soon after went into exile with her daughters.
First continued to write groundbreaking material on all of Africa and taught both in England and in her last years at the University of Mandaline in Maputo, Mozambique. In August 1982, the South African apartheid regime changed their mind and blew her up with a letter bomb. First had predicted in her memoir, 117 Days, that such an attack would happen.
All through their lives, First, Slovo and all of the other Jewish Communists resisted being identified as Jews, but they knew it in their hearts. At the same time there were Jewish proponents of the regime, Jews who thrived in the apartheid system. An Act of Defiance portrays one of these pro-state Jews, Percy Yutar, who was the prosecutor for the regime.
The main communal organization for Jews was the Jewish Board of Deputies. They felt under pressure already because of the Jewish defendants. Also, Israel was voting with the majority of the world at this time for U.N. declarations against apartheid. The organized Jewish community feared the latent anti-Semitism of the Afrikaners, who believed that a global Jewish Bolshevik Zionist conspiracy was inciting South African blacks to rise up against the righteous Christian order. The families of the arrested or those in hiding found no support from the organized Jewish community. They were alone.
Since the transition to majority rule Board has in tentative ways tried to reach out to the few survivors or their children, who many times grew up in exile. It has been hard and in some cases irreconcilable. What everyone knows is that it is because of them that there is a place in the new South Africa for Jews.
There is a lesson for us today in America. When the Jewish community becomes too close to power, there is a danger that it will exclude dissident voices in the community, those who ultimately will be proved right, as Bram Fischer and Ruth First were.
John Ostfield lives in St. Paul.