Visiting the Nevada desert with a friend in the autumn of 1974, I realized it was time to write a letter to Bram Fischer. It was eight years since I had seen him, eight years in which we had only occasionally been able to exchange letters: 500 words the limit, with no mention of politics or world affairs. But how, I wondered aloud, could I write about all the beauty of this desert to a man in a prison cell?
It was Bram who had opened my eyes to the beauty of barren landscapes, as we drove through the winter veld of the southern Transvaal. But now, to describe this space and freedom to a prisoner, to a man walled in, who saw only a scrap of sky from the exercise yard?
I began to shape the letter, counting the words, and the next morning I settled in the shade of cottonwood trees and wrote to him: Abram Fischer, an Afrikaner – grandson of a Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony – a distinguished lawyer and communist, in prison on Potgieter Street, Pretoria. The prison had been a part of my childhood, for we lived in the house next door and went for walks past its façade, watched by eyes peering through iron-barred windows. Its turreted walls, rising beyond our trees, were the background of snapshots in the family album. I tried to imagine him there, in a modern high-security section designed for the handful of South Africa’s white political prisoners. Could he glimpse anything of the night sky from his little window?