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Harold Wolpe: South Africa today is a betrayal of my fa...

South Africa


Harold Wolpe: South Africa today is a betrayal of my father’s fight for rights and justice

Harold Wolpe photographed in 1995. (Photo: Sue Kramer)

Harold Wolpe led his life from a moral code not just in rhetoric, but in his work and actions. This code was not borne out of greed and power, but from honesty, integrity and a deep-seated belief in equality – traits that seem largely forgotten in today’s South Africa.

Today, 19 January 2021, marks 25 years since the death of my father, activist, lawyer and acclaimed academic Harold Wolpe. It’s perhaps a fitting anniversary to reflect on the kind of person he was, his life’s work, the sacrifices he made and where we are today.

In recent years I have often wondered what his analysis would be, how he would have made sense of the corruption that has beset our country, the disappointments and the failure of government to right the wrongs of the apartheid era.

Certainly, he would recognise that there have been certain changes for the better since 1994. But it is likely that he would have the same deep concerns he raised in 1995 when he criticised the RDP policy – that the changes are not systemic or sustainable, do not go far enough and have fundamentally supported a pre-existing economic order which ultimately served only a few.

At the heart of what drove people like Harold was the determination to create a better life for all citizens without lining their own pockets and without the need for power. 

“One-thousand Africans are imprisoned and convicted every day because of the pass laws and this causes untold suffering to the individual and their families and it enrages one.” He made this statement after his escape from prison in August 1963.

This rage and striving for equal rights and justice for all underpinned his very being. He led his life from a moral code not just in rhetoric, but evidenced by his work and his actions. This code was not born out of greed and power, but from honesty, integrity and a deep-seated belief in equality – traits that seem largely forgotten in today’s South Africa. As James Blignaut said in a recent Daily Maverick article, we are living in an institutionalised neo-fascist world where “statesmanship based on leadership, justice, kindness and respect is now an ancient artefact”. 

Harold Wolpe was born on 14 January 1926 in Johannesburg, the youngest of four children. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His interest in human rights and politics were evident from an early age and cemented while attending Wits University where he obtained a BA in social studies and then completed an LLB. He joined the Young Communist League and the Progressive Youth Council, was president of the Student Representative Council and a leading activist in the National Union of South African Students (Nusas).

Harold Wolpe in the late 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Peta Wolpe)

After obtaining his law degree, he practised as a lawyer and most of his work was to support political cases and protect the rights of African people. He became increasingly active in the Struggle and was instrumental in securing the purchase of the Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, which was the headquarters of the ANC. He attended numerous political meetings and engaged in drafting and handing out political leaflets. He was active in uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, and contributed to drawing up plans for Operation Mayibuye, the sabotage and military plan that underpinned MK. In short, he was an activist.

In 1960 he was detained under the State of Emergency after Sharpeville and again in July 1963 after the Rivonia arrests, when he was held under the 90-Day Act without charge. He and the other 90-day prisoners were kept in solitary confinement with no access to books. It was only during short exercise breaks that they were able to communicate illicitly with other prisoners.

The Rivonia arrests resulted in the top members of the ANC being detained and led to the well-documented Rivonia Trial in which Nelson Mandela and nine others were charged with sabotage, with eight sentenced to life imprisonment. Wolpe would have been part of that trial except that he and three others managed a dramatic escape from prison.

Rand Daily Mail front page, 13 August 1963. (Photo: Supplied)

In recounting the escape later, his elation at escaping from prison was not primarily from personal relief at his freedom. Rather it was caused by the change of mood engendered by the escape in the townships. “Subversion has been crushed and the underground has been broken, it was claimed. Then came our escape magnificently carried out by very brave men in the face of the biggest manhunt ever organised in South Africa,” he said. In place of a sense of defeat following the Rivonia arrests, the people were overjoyed and saw the escape as proof that the movement was far from dead.

Many activists talk about their imprisonment and solitary confinement almost in a matter-of-fact manner, minimising the personal trauma they experienced. Their accounts are about the Struggle and why they did what they did. Almost none speak of the personal sacrifice, of the impact of their activism on themselves or their families. This was not about them as individuals, but about a cause they felt compelled to be involved in.

Following his arrival in the UK and in response to a letter criticising his actions, my father wrote:

“I was amazed by your suggestion that I did whatever I did without due consideration to the possible consequences to other people. That this suggestion should be made to one who has striven for the past 20 years for the elimination of racialism and for the amelioration of the plight of the non-white people in South Africa is little short of insulting. Whether or not you agree with my approach to the solutions of South Africa’s problems, I think you must concede that it is obvious that I have worked in the interests, according to the way I saw things, of other people at great personal cost. 

“Before you condemn so easily perhaps you should give some consideration to this and to the alternatives which face those who are prepared to risk all for what they believe to be a just cause, that is the liberation of all the people of South Africa.”

This just cause and this moral code have not been lived out in democratic South Africa. The story of South Africa from 1948 until its democracy in 1994 is remarkable in many ways and in historical terms fairly peaceful. Yet, since 1994 the hopes, intentions and promises of the ANC have not been delivered upon. The South Africa of today is built on corruption, greed and personal gain. This is a betrayal of all citizens and is not what my father and the other Struggle veterans fought for.

In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi reminds us that “the unimaginable can happen again” and that those who chose not to see what was in front of them can do so again and again. He writes that most countries will come up against those who crave power, where economic success, racism and political and religious dominance reign. The racism that Trump incentivised as president of the US is testament to that.

“It is necessary for us to distrust the prophets, the enchanters, those who speak and write ‘beautiful words’ unsupported by intelligent reasons,” Levi wrote.

Is this not the case in South Africa since democracy? Is this what has happened to many people and our leaders of today? Is the inherent notion of a politics of humanity something of the past?

The recent documentary on the South African Rugby World Cup win of 2019, Chasing the Sun, gave some hope that something has shifted, however fragile. A commentator said the try in the final by Makazole Mapimpi was “scored by possibly the player that has come from the most hopeless situation in the history of Springbok rugby”. The coach said he was not only playing for South Africa, but that his score and our win represented a human story – a story of where we as a country have reached and where we can and need to get to. 

This glimmer of hope is what Harold Wolpe and many others fought for during the Struggle. This is the story they hoped to achieve and hoped would be played out in the new democratic South Africa. DM


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  • Thanks, Peta. I always think so much of Harold and AnneMarie at this time of year with Harold’s birthday and his untimely death. It is so important for us to be reminded of the ethical, moral, committed scholar-activists, like Harold and AnneMarie, who have contributed so much to imagining democratic, just alternatives for the majority of women and men in South Africa.

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