SOUTH AFRICA’S GREAT ESCAPE Part 4
Was the abandonment and displacement worth it? asks the daughter of struggle activists Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe
The middle child of Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe reminisces about her family’s 27 years in the UK, Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years in jail, and her father’s passing 27 years ago.
It’s hard to believe that this July and August 2023 it will have been 60 years since the raid on Liliesleaf Farm and the escape of my father, Harold Wolpe, together with Arthur Goldreich, Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat, from Marshall Square Police Station in Johannesburg. How time flies!
It is now 27 years since Harold died. A lifetime. It is also just more than five years since my mother, AnnMarie, died.
After Harold’s escape from Marshall Square, he was given political asylum in the UK. England became our home for 27 years. Extraordinarily, it is the same length of time that Nelson Mandela spent on Robben Island, and also the same period of time since Harold died.
The long walk to freedom
My memory of that day, Sunday, 11 February 1990, is so clear. The whole family was sitting together in our home in Onslow Gardens, North London, watching Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison unfold on our television screen. I felt utter disbelief and jubilation as we watched Mandela walk to freedom, holding the hand of his wife, Winnie Mandela.
And then the realisation hit that this meant Harold would return to South Africa. He had made it clear that if Mandela ever was released he would go back home, without question. “I have been free all these years. I owe it to the others. I can’t say now: ‘Tough shit, you get on with the work while I enjoy life in London and Europe.’ I can’t do it. It would deny all that I believe in. It would make a mockery of my political beliefs and everything I have stood for and done in the past,” he had said.
He would go back home with or without AnnMarie – returning home would be her choice.
My sheer delight turned to complete panic. How on Earth could Harold even contemplate leaving the UK and, most importantly, leaving AnnMarie, me and my siblings Peta and Nic once again? It was unimaginable. I was furious. Children are supposed to leave home, or leave a country. It is not what their parents are supposed to do.
A sense of abandonment
It was going to happen all over again, and for what? Although I was an adult, a sense of abandonment reared its ugly head again. Children of political activists suffer emotionally and mentally. Many people do not understand this or see it. It is hard to explain how you feel when you know that your parent or parents are politically involved. At a young age it was even more difficult to understand, but clearly there was a sense of fear which emanated from the adults.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The wife who did not wait — AnnMarie Wolpe: mother, academic, feminist and anti-apartheid co-conspirator
England was a safe haven, a place where we could grow up and try to lead as normal a life as possible. It wasn’t always easy. We didn’t look English and with a surname like Wolpe no one could pronounce our last name. People wondered where we came from. I felt different. I didn’t feel English, and I certainly didn’t feel South African. I felt like a nomad. (My husband, Will Hinton, likes to point out that Jews were nomads. Perhaps the nomadic gene is still present somewhere in my make-up.)
Despite all these complex feelings, I felt immense gratitude towards England for giving us a chance at a life.
Family exodus back to the new South Africa
In 1990, South Africa’s then president, FW de Klerk, dropped all charges of sabotage against Harold, which enabled him to return to South Africa permanently in 1991. For AnnMarie the decision was much harder and definitely not as clear. Nevertheless she returned to South Africa later that year, giving up her life and career once again.
In April 1998, Will and I visited Cape Town from London for a weekend to watch our nephew Jonny, Peta’s son, play football – and for his team to lose 9-0. Will felt totally at home and decided that Cape Town was where he wanted to live. On our return to London we immediately started the ball rolling to relocate to South Africa. We upped and moved in June of 1998.
Almost 60 years after my sister and I were put on a plane bound for London, I am sitting in Cape Town today and wondering: “What the hell?”
Was it really worthwhile, the sacrifices made by so many? So many lives destroyed, so many families torn apart, so many families separated? Countless people murdered?
Am I happy here? Is there anywhere else to go?
It’s a hard question to answer. I have truly mixed emotions – I miss Harold and AnnMarie each and every day. And I know in my heart the bitter disappointment they would both be feeling had they been alive in the South Africa of today. DM
Tessa Wolpe is the middle child of Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe. She is retired after a film and television industry career, running a prop business with her husband for 18 years.