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Apartheid street names replaced Print E-mail
02 June 2008

Denis Goldberg, Ilse Fischer, George Bizos, Ruth Fischer Rice, Ahmed Kathrada, Arthur Chaskalson and Joel Joffe

New street signs have officially been unveiled in Randburg, where Hendrik Verwoerd Drive is now Bram Fischer Drive and Hans Strijdom Drive is Malibongwe. Rivonia trialists and anti-apartheid veterans were part of the celebratory occasion.

Denis Goldberg, Ilse Fischer, Ruth Fischer Rice, and Ahmed Kathrada at the unveiling
Denis Goldberg, Ilse Fischer, Ruth Fischer Rice, and Ahmed Kathrada at the unveiling

THE City has exchanged Hendrik Verwoerd for Bram Fischer, and in the process has rejected the architect of apartheid for a gentle, caring advocate who despised the oppressive system.

Hendrik Verwoerd Drive in Randburg has become Bram Fischer Drive. Another street in the suburb has also been renamed: Hans Strijdom Drive has become Malibongwe Drive.

Verwoerd was the prime minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966, when he was assassinated by Dimitrios Tsafendas. He is considered to be the architect of grand apartheid, particularly the creation of homelands, and the downgrading of education for blacks, saying they were to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water".

Under Verwoerd's premiership the Sharpeville massacre occurred, the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress were banned, and the Rivonia Trial took place.

Strijdom preceded Verwoerd as prime minister, from 1954 to 1958. During his term coloureds were removed from the voters' role, and the Treason Trial began in Pretoria in 1956.

The new street signs were officially unveiled on Friday, 30 May. And to underscore the significance of the occasion, many of the people who remember Fischer with great fondness, were present. Fellow advocates Joel Joffe, George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson were there to pay tribute to him. The four lawyers all represented the Rivonia trialists in 1964; two of those trialists were also present to pay their respects: Ahmed "Kathy" Kathrada, and Denis Goldberg.

Wide consultation
The Johannesburg Development Agency oversaw the renaming, and chief executive Lael Bethlehem said: "It is a very humbling experience to welcome you here - we are here today in the presence of giants who have brought us our freedom ... Today we have cause for real celebration; this is a small justice, some wrong is being put right."

Advocates George Bizos, Arthur Chaskalson and Joel Joffe, who together with Bram Fischer, defended the Rivonia Trialists in 1964
Advocates George Bizos, Arthur Chaskalson and Joel Joffe, who together with Bram Fischer, defended the Rivonia Trialists in 1964

She explained that changing these street names took some time because of wide consultation with the relevant people affected by the change. Five street names in Randburg were named after National Party ministers and senior officials.

"It is not Hendrik Verwoerd we wish to honour; today it is Bram Fischer we wish to celebrate. It is not Hans Strijdom we wish to honour; today it's the women we wish to celebrate."

Malibongwe, meaning "let them be praised", refers to the women who marched in August 1956 to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, registering their protest against having to carry pass books. The women marched singing that by striking a woman, you would be striking a rock.

"Hans Strijdom will be remembered as someone who did strike a rock - the policies of apartheid that were crushed," Bethlehem added.

Bertha Gxowa, one of the women on the historic women's march, was also a guest. She spoke with nostalgia about the protest, and said that today there was one identity book for everyone in the country, issued irrespective of colour or creed.

"We must go back in history and remember where we came from. If we don't remember we won't be able to get where we want to [go]," she said, breaking into song, leading the assembled crowd with a song called Malibongwe.

Courageous opponent of apartheid
Verwoerd and Fischer were both Afrikaners; whereas the former entrenched the oppression of blacks, the latter fought for equal rights for all. He was jailed for nine years for being a communist. Fischer was the son of a distinguished Free State family, his grandfather the prime minister of the Orange Free State, his father the judge-president of South Africa.

"Bram Fischer was one of the most courageous opponents of apartheid," said Bethlehem. Randburg was undergoing a major revitalisation, to turn it into an area "fitting to the names that we have in these streets".

"May we remember the lessons of these magnificent lives, may we remember our history, and build a more democratic, more compassionate world. I really believe Bram Fischer would have expected no less," she concluded.

Ilse Fischer and Ruth Fischer Rice, his daughters, were present. Ruth Fischer Rice said: "I am delighted my father is being remembered and honoured in this way ... Bram was a passionate man who loved his country and his people. He dedicated his life to working for a just South Africa."

She said that he never lost sight of the ordinary people of the country, but at the same time he always had a "unique capacity to see the big picture". She described him as a modest man. "He was proud of being an Afrikaner but modest about his achievements."

He would have been pleased with the country's constitution that enshrines the values he held dear.

Goldberg, who spent 22 years in Pretoria Central Prison, also had great praise for Fischer's courage. "Bram wanted a world free of exploitation." He recounted how he had nursed Fischer in prison, just before he was released into his brother's care, to die.

"His dedication to detail in defending us was remarkable. I truly believe he saved our lives." The Rivonia trialists were tried for treason, an offence which carried the death penalty during apartheid, but were given life sentences which they served on Robben Island.

Although he was extremely ill, he wouldn't talk about his illness. His only concern was other people's happiness, said Goldberg. "He was a grandpa for us all - he listened calmly and gave some advice."

A traitor to his people
Kathrada, who served his time with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu on Robben Island, said that Fischer could have been prime minister or president of the country, but he chose to become an advocate and represent those who were fighting apartheid. He had a chance to leave and go into exile instead of being hounded by the security police, and eventually sent to jail, but he choose to return here, after he went to London to conclude a court case in that city.

"He was regarded as a traitor to his people," said Kathrada, explaining that Fischer was only released from prison when he was terminally ill. "They hounded Bram right up to his death - they even kept his ashes in prison."

Kathrada said that Fischer was "a very simple human being but a very caring person". Fischer visited the trailists on Robben Island, showing concern for their wellbeing, and ascertaining what he could do for them.

The street signs were officially unveiled on Friday, although they have been on the roads for some time already. The new names were approved in June 2007. Several years ago DF Malan Drive, also in Randburg, was renamed Beyers Naude Drive. Malan was the first National Party prime minister, from 1948, while Naude was an Afrikaans dominee who fought for equal rights for all.

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Last Updated on 19 June 2008