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Impatient diplomat, passionate art collector, fearless campaigner – Bruce Haigh never forgot what the fight was about

Impatient diplomat, passionate art collector, fearless campaigner – Bruce Haigh never forgot what the fight was about
Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh. (Photo: Facebook)

Probably best known in South Africa for his role – as depicted in ‘Cry Freedom’ – in helping a banned Donald Woods flee apartheid South Africa, Haigh believed if people were suffering, he was obliged to use the diplomat immunity his job afforded him ‘constructively and creatively’.

Bruce Haigh, a trailblazing Australian diplomat highlighted in Richard Attenborough’s movie Cry Freedom for helping banned former Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods to escape South Africa, died in Wollongong Hospital south of Sydney at the weekend. 

The first foreign diplomat to meet Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, Haigh secretly aided several anti-apartheid figures evade border guards as they fled South Africa, and ferried funds out of the country to families of ANC prisoners.

Because he concealed his actions from his own government, Haigh’s role in Cry Freedom, played by Australian actor John Hargreaves, was reborn as Australian journalist “Robin Walker”. Haigh was still a serving diplomat. 

It was Haigh who took Woods to the airport for a foreign trip, only to find out when he got home that Woods had been arrested before he could board the plane. Woods was banned and placed under house arrest, and Haigh helped plan his escape.

In Cry Freedom, initially banned in South Africa, Haigh’s character is correctly portrayed as driving across the border to wait nearby for Woods, disguised as a clergyman, to join him for the drive to freedom.

Haigh was only in the Australian embassy from 1976 to 1979, but his passion for South Africa never left him. In the 1970s, he and colleague Di Johnstone, later an ambassador, begancollecting art by black artists who were struggling to get their work recognised.

After apartheid ended, they donated their collections to the Pretoria Art Museum in Tshwane and set up the Ifa Lethu Foundation, which has repatriated 650 South African artworks to South Africa. The collection has been exhibited in Europe and Australia and used to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the South African Constitution, and is the largest collection of South African human rights art.

Haigh arrived in South Africa a few weeks after the Soweto uprising on 16 June 1976, to replace Johnstone, another passionate anti-apartheid diplomat, who became a lifelong friend. 

He soon became known for assiduously seeking out anti-apartheid activists and providing diplomatic and financial support for community projects during a time of protests, banning, detentions and torture.   

In an unpublished memoir called Church Square, he revealed many of his activities for the first time. He used his position as a Western diplomat to shine a spotlight on apartheid excesses among a conservative and comfortable diplomatic corps in Pretoria.

The answer for me was simple. Apartheid was so evil that whatever I could do to help bring it to an end I would, using the unique opportunity provided by my diplomatic immunity.

“My presence (in one of Biko’s trials) was noted by both sides in court,” he recalled. “This was important not only as protection for Steve, but also to show the state we were watching, that they could not operate with total impunity.”

In a diplomatic cable to Canberra, the Australian capital, he wrote: “He is a man who would stand apart in any company,” adding that “(Biko) listed contact with diplomats and visiting world figures as sources of protection”.

Haigh regularly stuck his neck out, warning security police officers that “the Australian government will be keeping a close eye on (prisoners’) welfare”. 

In his unpublished memoir, he added sceptically, “if only”. Some in his government and embassy didn’t care “a tinker’s cuss” about some of the anti-apartheid events he highlighted.

But Haigh had a material effect on diplomats in Pretoria and back home. He made his disapproval of superiors who did not fight apartheid hard enough known in Canberra, and later Australian ambassadors were solidly in his camp. 

Haigh was scathing about most diplomats in the mid-Seventies. “They thought of themselves as elite and members of an elite profession … Eventually the Swedes, Dutch and Canadians became involved, followed by the British and the Americans.”

Haigh recalled that on a visit to my cottage in Melville, Johannesburg, I informed him that Biko had died in detention the previous day. Haigh raced back to the embassy and cabled his government: 

“It is recommended that we make the strongest possible protest to the SA government on the most deplorable event to have occurred since the shooting of school children following the riots after 16 June last year.” 

Haigh worked with Woods to get him and his manuscript about Biko out of the country. He also got the defence lawyer Shun Chetty across the border, and used his connections to serve as a conduit to pass sensitive information to foreign correspondents who could ignore press laws and freely quote banned people. 

His clandestine trips getting activists out of the country had no immediate consequences, but the Bureau of State Security knew he was aiding anti-apartheid groups and set out to smear him.

A story leaked to the media made the front pages saying he spent the night in the home of Dr Mamphela Ramphele, because he was seen in pyjamas there one morning. Haigh blew away the inaccurate smear with humour, retorting: “I never wear pyjamas.”

Work continues

Haigh’s impatient passion hurt his career over the years. On his return from South Africa, he believed he was being deliberately kept off the sensitive South Africa desk. Haigh continued his activist diplomatic work in subsequent postings. 

In Pakistan he befriended Benazir Bhutto soon after her return from her studies in the UK, and in Saudi Arabia he intervened to rescue an Australian nurse who had been sentenced to a flogging – 90 strokes of the cane – for drunken driving. He told the Saudi foreign ministry that the world outcry over a recent documentary, Death of a Princess, would be nothing compared with what would follow the lashing of a Western woman. 

He also pointedly remarked that the son of the Saudi ambassador to Australia had recently been arrested for drunken driving in Canberra. The nurse was quietly released and left the country.

Back in Canberra, he was finally made head of the South Africa desk, but his frustration with superiors earned him a stint of “long service leave”. 

“I was on long service leave because I had told a moderately senior officer … to ‘Get Fucked’. I had had enough of collective stupidity and playing up to people who should have been able to handle policy and decision making….”

“A staffer from (foreign minister Gareth) Evans’s office rang at 1.40pm to ask me to come to Parliament House and brief Evans on the different sporting codes, black and white, in South Africa before he went into the Senate at 2pm! 

“He anticipated questions and criticism on Australia’s position on the issue from National Party senators. His ego and insecurity was overwhelming. I said to the staffer there wasn’t time for me to get to Parliament House.” 

Fearless campaigner

After he left the Foreign Service, Haigh served as a member of Australia’s Refugee Review Tribunal, where his empathy for refugees and resistance to political interference eventually landed him in trouble again. He was a fearless campaigner against the dehumanisation of refugees, and hated government ministers’ use of terms like “boat people”, “queue-jumpers” and “illegal immigrants”.

“People’s lives and often that of their families were in your hands,” he recalled. “Some applicants wept, some shook, all were tense. I had one applicant curl up on the hearing room floor in a foetal position sobbing… 

“Many hearings were sad and fraught, none more so than girls who had been trafficked to Australia from Asia for the sex trade.”

He never forgot what the fight was supposed to be for. He only fought people with more power than he had.

When tribunal decisions displeased the minister, tribunal members were “counselled” and not reappointed. Haigh was counselled – and not reappointed.

Haigh was an unusual recruit to the Foreign Service. Before joining, he had worked on an oil rig and on a ranch as a “jackaroo” – a kind of Australian cowboy. As an apolitical teenager, he was conscripted into the army and sent to Vietnam, which set him on a path to political activism and deep regret.

After retiring from the government, he wrote hundreds of articles and opinion pieces calling for a strong Australian foreign policy that was independent of the US but loudly critical of human rights violations. 

Reflecting on his time in South Africa, he wrote in his memoir that “mostly I was anxious, worried that I wasn’t doing enough, had gone about things in a less than effective way, had put people at risk or had not been sufficiently understanding or compassionate”. 

“Why did I do this? Why did I take a political activist without a passport across an international border to meet another political activist, without knowing the substance of their transaction or what transpired between them? 

“The answer for me was simple. Apartheid was so evil that whatever I could do to help bring it to an end I would, using the unique opportunity provided by my diplomatic immunity, with the exception of transporting arms and materiel that might be used to harm and kill. 

“The reality is that I had very little to do with the ANC. (Biko’s) Black Consciousness Movement did not undertake acts of premeditated violence. Direct action by the BCM was confined to demonstrations and protests; however because of police and army provocation, protests often became violent. The BCM was a mass political movement.”

“If people are suffering, and you are lucky enough to have diplomatic immunity, then it should be used constructively and creatively… Australians mistake physical courage for moral courage … There is a fine line between diplomacy and weakness..”

South Africa and its heritage space owe an enormous debt to Haigh and Johnstone for having the vision to donate what might otherwise have turned out to be an unknown and lost collection of prized South African art, Dr Narissa Ramdhani, director of the Ifu Lethu Foundation, said this week. 

“Bruce Haigh’s commitment to our heritage has ensured that our past is preserved for eternity.”

Through the efforts of Johnstone and Haigh the aspirations of apartheid-era artists were recognised and gained acceptance here and globally, she said. “They purchased artworks of these artists with the intention of donating these to a future and free South Africa.  They kept to their word and this they did in 2005. 

“Although Bruce’s donation was made in 2005, he continued to remain involved in the work of the foundation until three weeks ago when he undertook his last interview for the foundation explaining why the involvement of the foundation in the digital ecosystem was critical for its future sustainability. His legacy and his contributions will live on forever and to inspire the youth.” 

Haigh, who was married twice and leaves three surviving children, was in Laos on holiday when a previous cancer flared up. He was medevacked back to Australia, where he died on 7 April at 77.

He never forgot what the fight was supposed to be for. He only fought people with more power than he had. In a world going mad, he kept his north star.

The Australian High Commission and Ifu Lethu will hold an exhibition of apartheid-era art in tribute to Haigh in Tshwane later this month. DM

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