Nicholas Wolpe counted Nelson Mandela as a close friend, but he knows that South Africa’s apartheid still speaks volumes about today. He is touching down in Melbourne and Sydney to articulate his viewpoint.
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When Nicholas Wolpe and his parents returned to South Africa after decades as political exiles in London, they were greeted like royalty.
The son of the late Harold Wolpe, a lawyer and leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, and close friend of Nelson Mandela, Wolpe is visiting Australia this month for a series of public speaking engagements about South Africa, then and now.
He is, in fact, royalty – Swedish royalty. In an unusual honour to bestow on a foreigner, the King of Sweden, Carl XV1 Gustaf, knighted Wolpe in 2017 for his commitment to keeping the memory of the struggle alive in his role as founder CEO of Liliesleaf, a “site of memory” on the Johannesburg farm which was once a nerve centre for the leadership of the African National Congress.
It was there, in 1963, that many of the ANC high command were arrested. While Wolpe’s father was not among them (he was arrested but escaped before the trial and made his way to London), these men were tried along with Mandela at the infamous Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Until returning to South Africa as a young man, says Wolpe, he had been working in the insurance industry, with a rather ordinary middle-class suburban lifestyle in London. “My parents were academics, and we had no idea my father was a commander in MK (the armed wing of the ANC).
“He would go to Angola… He was much more involved than (we) ever knew. There was a completely different life. Then comes 1990 and the release of Mandela …”
The family’s return was an awakening for Nicholas. He said to himself, “I’m a South African first and foremost and I’m coming home. You come back, and go from a humdrum existence to being part of a ruling elite within the ANC. He was very well known, and in the thick of it and everyone knew his name in the 90s. It was very interesting.”
More than that, Wolpe said he suddenly felt purposeful. “Liliesleaf changed my entire life.”
Harold Wolpe was one of a number of Jewish figures deeply involved in the struggle. However, not all Jews were on the side of the angels. Several of the defendants (Denis Goldberg among them) and one of the defence lawyers (Joe Joffe) were Jewish but so was the villain in the piece, Percy Yutar, the main prosecutor for the state.
As Wolpe says, there were no clear-cut little boxes: “The Jewish community was not homogeneous in the sense of how it perceived apartheid and how it responded. There were categories – those who did their bit, demonstrated, those who turned a blind eye, those who got actively involved and those who were sympathetic and supported the apartheid state and colluded.
“People like my father and Joe (Slovo) believed religion was the opium of the masses. The other side of the argument is that they got involved in the struggle because, as Jews, they had an understanding of social justice. That may have been the root but as it unfolded there were other influences that were as important.” Both men were members of the South African Communist Party.
“One also has to accept that the National Party and a lot of its leaders were either Nazi sympathisers or Nazis themselves… and people were thinking, ‘are we going to find ourselves repeating the past?’ You forget how fear is debilitating, paralysing. The instinct is self-preservation and that leads to turning a blind eye or denialism. Some did stand up and suffered the consequences and others did not want the wrath of government. Percy Yutar, what motivated him what led him to do that I don’t know.”
Wolpe will give two public talks in Sydney and Melbourne during his visit and also speak at a Q & A session at the screening of the film Act of Defiance, which dramatises the Rivonia Trial. The film illustrates that Afrikaners too, were not in little boxes. Its central figure is Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner lawyer who defended Mandela and other defendants and was himself later arrested and died in prison.
Wolpe says the word defiance in the film’s title is too weak and does not do Fischer justice. He had been destined to become an Afrikaner leader and his actions were seen as beyond treason. Fischer is still vilified as a traitor today in some circles.
While generally complimentary about the film, Wolpe says it has flaws. There were 10 men on trial at Rivonia; the film has eight. The CIA might have been involved in the raid, an element that is ignored. Nevertheless, Wolpe says the film is a “tool of education – it does a job.”
It’s now almost 25 years since the end of apartheid and Wolpe says that although everything at the top end of South Africa today is in place – the high-level institutions, the freedom of the press, a constitutional court – the country is falling apart at an interpersonal level, in terms of its social interactions.
Under apartheid, it was a fractured society, with 300 years of colonialism and 40 years of apartheid, and torn apart emotionally and physically, through actual physical separation. And it still is, Wolpe says. “We haven’t grown to understand each other,” he says.
Big picture, Wolpe feels, ours is a Masterchef-type world, where people taste little chunks before “moving on” with no understanding, appreciation or overview. Technology, so consumed with the here and now, has exacerbated matters. So we are in an a-historical vacuum, he says. Just as when we go to a doctor for the first time, our medical history is needed before a diagnosis is made, historical awareness should apply to our societal health.
Our past is needed to make sense of our present and a society without history does not have a true national identity, sense of common purpose, or appreciation of a national interest.
“It is all very well to talk about the greatness of Mandela and (fellow anti-apartheid activist Walter) Sisulu, but unless it’s infused into our fabric, our DNA… if you don’t know where you want to head, or want to achieve, you are in limbo and go all over the place. Where does national identity and national pride come from? It all stems from one basic tenet – who we are, what we want to achieve.”
This has echoes for Australia, he observes. While not claiming to be an expert, Wolpe says Australia in recent years seems also to have lacked a sense of purpose. “It’s crazy that a country like Australia has four or five PMs in as many years… The recent PM was toppled by a right-winger and lost out to another right-winger in his own party. Politicians seem to have lost focus about why they were elected, by the people to serve the people.”
Australia seemed also not to appreciate the nuances of racism, he adds. Saying it would open its doors to white farmers had shown “a complete lack of understanding” of his country’s situation, inflaming existing hostility and re-igniting the issue of race. Wolpe says land distribution in South Africa will hopefully occur in a fair and equitable way in line with the principles of the country’s Freedom Charter, that anyone who works the land, be they workers or farmers, should have access to it.
Mandela, his father and others who fought so hard for freedom would, he said, be horrified by the corruption in the ANC of today. “The words I would use would be horrified, disgusted, disappointed and bewildered, as to how we came to this point, and why did we not see it coming.”
Yet he believes there were signs which were ignored. In 2001, an ANC document, Through the Eye of the Needle, had predicted charlatans taking over the ANC and infiltrating branches for nefarious purposes. “Where did we go wrong? That for them would be the crux, why did we not see it coming? But in reality, we did. By 2009, everything in that document had come to pass and started to materialise.”
At a personal level, Wolpe considers himself “supremely lucky” that he returned to South Africa. It’s been a remarkable trajectory and even triumph for someone who as a boy was dyslexic and had trouble with reading and writing until the age of 16 or 17. “As an 11-year-old I remember being pulled to the front of the class and being told the only thing I would amount to would be a road sweeper.
“On that score was a phenomenal thing. My mother was blown away.”
Wolpe considers himself doubly fortunate that at Liliesleaf he was able to contribute also to the recognition of his father’s work, and that of his mother AnnMarie, a prominent anti-apartheid activist and feminist.
This piece was originally published on Plus61J, an is reprinted with permission.