Maverick Citizen

SOUTH AFRICA'S GREAT ESCAPE PART 5

Trauma, terror, uncertainty — the apartheid scars of a childhood in exile that never quite go away

Trauma, terror, uncertainty — the apartheid scars of a childhood in exile that never quite go away
(Left), Peta Wolpe is the daughter of Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe. (Middle), This photo was taken of AnnMarie Wolpe, receiving the news that Harold and Arthur had got into Botswana successfully – she is with her daughters, Peta, (Right) 6 and Tessa 4. (Photos: Supplied)

11 August 2023 marks the sixtieth anniversary of what is known as the Great Escape. To commemorate one of the most successful jailbreaks in South African history and the many struggle activists who fought for a democratic South Africa, Daily Maverick is publishing a series of articles and reflections by relatives, friends and comrades of those involved. These articles, all written by people linked in some way to the struggle, are personal accounts of their or their family’s involvement, and the impact that involvement had on their lives. 

Read Part 1: here

Read Part 2: here

Read Part 3: here

Read Part 4: here

 

The eldest child of Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe still wonders who packed her bag when she left to join her anti-apartheid activist parents in London, as she examines the lasting impact of her experiences of a 1960s exile childhood in the UK.  

“Who packed my bag?” was the question I asked my mother, AnnMarie Wolpe, about a year before she died in 2018. I had wanted to know if I was told to pack what I wanted, or if our nanny, grandmother or aunt decided what was important for a child to take along to her new life as she left her home for good.

I was just six years old in October 1963 when my sister, Tessa, aged five, and I travelled on our own from Johannesburg to London to be reunited with our parents, AnnMarie and Harold, whom we hadn’t seen for three months. There was no system of unaccompanied minors on flights in those days and I was responsible for looking after my younger sister.

My mother didn’t know who packed my bag.

I had asked the question because travel, and particularly packing, still leaves me feeling overwhelmed and anxious — almost as if I unconsciously relive the trauma of leaving South Africa again and again. 

We had to leave Johannesburg for life in exile because our parents had fled South Africa. Our father had escaped from prison and in doing so had avoided being sentenced to life imprisonment during the Rivonia Trial, like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg and others had been. 

The experiences of that time, leaving our home and country, were hard. 

My daughter, Alicia Chamaillé, wrote her history honours dissertation entitled “Exile: The Family Experience” at UCT in 2016. In it, she examined the experiences of three South African anti-apartheid activists’ families. I have drawn on her work to aid me in understanding and contextualising my own experiences, in my own life and in this article.

As Alicia noted in her dissertation, “being exiled can cause deep stress, isolation and guilt for those left behind as well as those relocating. There are two words that came up repeatedly in interviews: anger and trauma.”

Alicia Chamaille

Alicia Chamaille 2023, Peta’s daughter. (Photo: Supplied)

Trauma and marmalade

My memories of 1963 are scant, but the ones that remain vivid relate to what happened after the raid on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, on 11 July 1963. Key ANC members were arrested and the end result was the Rivonia Trial. It was a huge blow for the underground movement — the top ANC leaders were now all in prison. 

Harold wasn’t at Liliesleaf Farm at the time of the raid, but he realised that he, too, would be arrested. Documents with his writing and his fingerprints would be found there. He tried to flee the country, and Tessa      and I went with AnnMarie to her cousin’s farm in Rustenburg. 

Harold arrived there looking different — he had dyed his hair orange and shaved his beard. I didn’t understand what was happening, but my strong memory of that farm is of an enormous vat of marmalade being cooked and the overpowering smell of cooked oranges.      

I still can’t eat marmalade to this day.

I remember Harold getting into a car with some other adults. They have a picnic basket with them. Why aren’t they happy? Picnics are supposed to be fun. I love picnics, but I don’t want to go with them, and they don’t invite us along either. Adults can be very serious, but this is different.  Something is wrong. The sounds are muffled. Why don’t they want me to see and what do they not want me to hear? There is no laughter.  

Harold Wolpe

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

Botswana border arrest

On 14 July Harold was arrested trying to cross the border into Botswana. The “picnic” was intercepted by police who had been tipped off by the cousin’s husband. Harold was eventually transferred to Marshall Square Police Station in Johannesburg, along with other political prisoners. 

I remember children making fun of me at nursery school after that, saying my dad was in prison. I didn’t really understand what was happening.

In her dissertation, Alicia noted that my childhood trauma and the feeling of not knowing and not being in control, despite my best efforts, still cause me great stress. While I was unable to verbalise it as a child, I had wanted to protect my family. 

Realising that I was incapable of doing so, and experiencing the disruption of our entire universe after my parents’ arrest, had a far-reaching and profound impact on me. Alicia’s dissertation furthermore examined the impact of such disruption on families in exile, particularly on the children involved, as this was not mentioned much in the literature of the time.

Under cover of wifely duties …

While Harold was incarcerated, AnnMarie would take him food and smuggled hacksaw blades and other items stuffed in roast chicken or baguettes in an attempt to help him and others escape. I know that she was allowed to bring him clean clothes and take away his dirty ones. They exchanged notes on tiny bits of paper hidden in the collar of his shirts. 

By the time Harold arrived at Marshall Square, Arthur Goldreich, Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat, all comrades, were already in the holding cells. They had befriended a sympathetic young guard, 18-year-old Johannes Greeff, who allowed all of them to meet in the corridor of the prison, where they were able to talk. The friendship was further nurtured by the fact that Mosie’s cousin was a tailor who did clothing repairs for Greeff. 

It was Harold who first raised the question of escape. At Mosie’s suggestion, they bribed Greeff to let them out and the four of them escaped from the Marshall Square holding cells on 11 August 1963, a Saturday evening. Harold had been held there for almost four weeks.

I know AnnMarie had helped arrange for a car to be waiting after the escape, which had originally been planned for midnight on Friday 10 August. However, the escape was delayed until about 2am on the 11th, because the police station was very busy on Friday night — the beginning of the weekend meant many arrests of inebriated men, and Greeff was on duty. 

After their escape in the early hours of Saturday morning, the four men discovered that the getaway car was gone. Nonetheless, all of them eventually managed to flee the country.

Vorster and Verwoerd watch as Wolpe and Goldreich escape to Bechuanaland, Sunday Times 1 September 1963.
(Image: Sunday Times)

AnnMarie was arrested and brutally interrogated. She writes in her book, the Long Way Home, that she considered suicide. However, she thought about her two daughters and her baby son, Nicholas, who had a short while earlier nearly died, and was finally recovering at the age of just four months. Although she had helped with the escape, she knew nothing of where the four escapees were and how the escape unfolded.

She was advised to leave the country herself, which she did – leaving us three children behind. As a mother myself, I don’t know how she found the strength to do it.

The police were hoping for information and even offered reward money for news on their whereabouts. (Image: Supplied)

Growing up too fast

I remember the farewell at the airport when Tessa and I left South Africa to join our parents. There were many people. I remember that Angelina, who had been taking care of us, was not allowed to be near us at the airport because she was black. We left with a paper carrier bag full of chocolates. I was terrified.

The separation from our parents, the not knowing, the fear and insecurity, have travelled with me into adulthood. I had to grow up far too fast. I felt responsible for my five-year-old sister on that journey, although I was only six. I know from letters my mother wrote that I helped her look after Nic when he finally joined us about six months later when he was well enough to travel. 

In the UK we had to be careful of what we said. Police officers from Scotland Yard came to our house one day and asked if Joe Slovo had stayed at our home when in the UK. Harold said he did and they notified Harold that they had uncovered an assassination hit list with his and Slovo’s name on it. 

I remember that we once found a bugging device hidden in a black sack on the ground outside the house, and that we would intermittently use a mirror to check the underside of the car in case a bomb had been planted there. When Harold and AnnMarie were away on an extended sabbatical much later, I had to learn how to check the post for letter bombs. 

bugging device article in New Statesman, apartheid

New Statesman article on the bugging device found at our home in London – even though talks had begun between the ANC and Nationalist Party, we were still be monitored as late as 1990. (Image: Supplied)

The personal vs the political 

In her dissertation, Alicia noted that it was clear from her interviews with the Moola, Jassat and Wolpe escapee families that there was the idea of “a physical family and a political family”. For both AnnMarie and Harold, our family unit was important and I have very happy memories of growing up in the UK. But the political family — the ANC and the South African Communist Party — carried significant weight. The comrades were also family, and many decisions showed that this sense of family was a priority. 

When I was an adult and working as a psychiatric social worker in London, Harold and I often debated the issue of the political and the personal. I felt that the ANC did not pay sufficient attention to the personal or physical family, that these families suffered at the expense of “the party”. He would say that was how it needed to be, but I didn’t agree with him. 

Alicia noted that “almost unanimously all interviewees agreed that at one point or another, the political family was put above the physical family. The Wolpe and the Moolla children undeniably experienced their parents’ absences [as] … the political family being prioritised.”

I know that while AnnMarie and Harold’s choices impacted on our lives, they did what they did out of a moral and ethical need. Apartheid South Africa and the way the majority of the population was treated was simply not acceptable. My parents felt they had no choice but to get involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, and I commend them for that. DM

Annemarie Wolpe, apartheid

Dr Annemarie Wolpe in her garden, Cape Town, 2006. (Photo: Sue Kramer)

Peta Wolpe is the eldest child of Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe. She works in the climate and energy space, focusing on energy poverty and the Just Transition. Prior to returning to South Africa in 1996 she worked as a senior psychiatric social worker in London. Alicia Chamaillé is a senior tour editor at VoiceMap, an open platform and app for self-guided audio tours. 

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    There are many children ( black and white) who grew up without their parents under Apartheid who could not join their parents in exile. They should all be remembered for the sacrifice made by their parent(s) and the family life they lost in the process.

  • Jennifer D says:

    Conversely, as a ten year living in Zambia, I was attacked in the street (attempted rape) by young black men who stole my bicycle. Our farm was ransacked and our family too, left overnight and fled to South Africa where we were safe. My father returned less than two months later to find our house occupied and our belongings redistributed. We sit now in the same situation, where my children and grandchildren have left this country where violence, crime and corruption are the order of the day.

  • Mackie L says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a fellow child in exile, I can relate to so much of what you say and especially the part about political and physical families, and like you, traveling for me is stressful. I also carry an incredible need to protect my mother and never feel like I belong. The trauma stays and displays itself in such cynical and small ways that one doesn’t always realise it’s there.

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