Most South Africans with a reasonable knowledge of their motherland’s recent history will have heard of Bram Fischer. A substantial percentage of them will certainly be able to mention that he is a struggle hero comparable to the likes of Joe Slovo and Walter Sisulu. Mention the name Molly Fischer, however, and chances are that most people will never have heard of her. She was none other than Bram Fischer’s wife and during her relatively short life (1908-1964) she was as committed to the liberation struggle as her famous husband was. Because she mostly maintained a low profile, her actions are not as well-documented as those of her husband. Still, Molly’s story is an aspect of the South African liberation struggle’s ‘hidden history’ that needs to be told.
Susanna Johanna (Molly) Krige was born on a smallholding in Silverton near Pretoria in 1908. Her father, P.S. ‘Tottie’ Krige, was General J.C. Smuts’ aide-de-camp during the First World War (1914-1918) and his sister, Isie, was married to Smuts. After completing her primary school years at a local farm school, Molly went to Pretoria Girls High where she matriculated at the age of sixteen. After school she went to the Transvaal University College (today University of Pretoria) where she studied to become a teacher. Molly had a strong personality and a vibrant, outgoing and carefree nature. She played in the College’s hockey team and during a tournament in Bloemfontein in 1927 she met her future husband. According to Bram he could not miss Molly’s ‘very very blue’ eyes.
After a short teaching stint at the Housecraft School in Bethlehem during 1930/1, Molly enrolled for a Higher Education Diploma at the University of Pretoria in 1932. During this time Bram and Molly’s relationship deepened, especially after they had declared their love for each other during Bram’s visit to Bethlehem in 1931. In 1934 she accepted a teaching position at a farm school in Jachtfontein, Johannesburg. Although Bram and Molly became engaged during the early 1930s already, the engagement was made public in 1936 only. The couple got married in the garden of Bram’s parents’ house in Bloemfontein on 18 September 1937. Three children were born from the marriage, namely Ruth (1939), Ilse (1943) and a son, Paul (1947; died 1971). Bram and Molly settled in Johannesburg where Bram started to work as an advocate.Although Molly had always shared Bram’s political sympathies, he encouraged her to become more actively involved in politics. Like Bram, she became a committed and active member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA; later SACP), but much of her activities aimed at furthering struggle interests happened behind the scenes. Among other things, Molly organised fundraising initiatives, such as street collections, fetes and jumble sales, to the benefit of the CPSA. In addition to her work for the CPSA, Molly became involved in children’s charity initiatives. She volunteered in crèches set up for black children, established ‘refugee homes’ for destitute black children and educated mothers on how to make ends meet. It was also during this time that Bram and Molly adopted Nora Mlambo, the child of a deceased sister of the Fischer’s domestic servant, and raised her as a member of the family. Despite her busy political life, Molly still managed to create a loving home for her own children – in particular for Paul, who suffered from cystic fibrosis. The Fischer home in Oaklands, Johannesburg, also became a ‘safe’ meeting place for leftists and anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela.
In 1945 Molly rose to political prominence in Johannesburg when she stood as the CPSA’s representative for election to Ward Three (Hospital/Braamfontein) on the Johannesburg City Council. Although she lost against the United Party’s candidate, her political profile received a major boost. In addition to Molly’s ongoing involvement in the CPSA, she unflinchingly supported her husband in his political activities. During the early 1950s she was appointed as secretary of the South African Society for Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union (SASPFSU). Her fundraising abilities also benefited the SASPFSU: in 1954 she made a trip to London to raise funds for the Society and also for the left-wing newspaper, New Age. From London Molly travelled to communist China where she celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Chinese Revolution in Peking (today Beijing) on 1 October. On her way to China she paid visits to other communist countries, including East Germany (today part of Germany), Poland and Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic).
It must be mentioned that Molly befriended many prominent female left-wing activists of that time, including Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein and Violet Weinberg, to name but a few. Molly’s association with these women and other prominent activists attracted the attention of the notorious security police. The state’s response was severe but not unexpected: Molly was ordered to resign from her position as secretary of SASPFSU and also banned from attending gatherings of other left-wing organisations. In April 1960, shortly after the implementation of the State of Emergency in the wake of the Sharpeville shootings, Molly was one of many political activists that were arrested and detained in Pretoria. The 52-year old Molly was released after three months in prison.
The political upheaval of the early 1960s, notably caused by the Rivonia Trial in which Bram was directly involved as senior member of the defense team, also affected Molly. During this time she became a pillar of strength for her husband but the political tension took its toll and she subsequently became a victim of depression. This was aggravated by the fact that many of the Fischers’ close comrades were either banned or detained. In June 1964, shortly after the trial had ended, Bram and Molly took a well-deserved break. They decided to drive to Cape Town for a holiday and to celebrate Ilse’s 21st birthday. On Saturday, 13 June, while travelling near Ventersburg, Bram swung out to avoid an animal. He lost control of his vehicle and it landed in the Kool Spruit. Bram survived unhurt but not Molly: she could not escape from the submerging car and drowned.
Molly Fischer will be remembered as one of the few white women with an Afrikaans background who made a notable contribution to the fight for liberation in South Africa. Her unwavering support of her husband and other political activists makes her a struggle icon in her own right and certainly one worth remembering. Nelson Mandela aptly described Molly as “an absolute pillar of strength for her husband and the struggle”.
Anon., ‘Molly Fischer’, <https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/molly-fischer.co.za> (Accessed: 17.4.2019).
Haasbroek, H. ‘“An absolute pillar of strength for her husband and the struggle”: Molly Fischer (1908-1964) – wife, mother and struggle activist’, New Contree 65, December 2012, pp. 87-110.
Meredith, M. Fischer’s choice: a life of Bram Fischer (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2002).
Last updated: 24-4-2019