Farewell to AnnMarie Wolpe: The heroine of the struggle who partied with Mandela

AnnMarie Wolpe, the anti-apartheid activist who partied with Nelson Mandela and once tried to smuggle wire cutters to her incarcerated husband inside a roast chicken, died on February 14 aged 87.

A memorial service will be held at Temple Israel, in Upper Portswood Road in Green Point, Cape Town on February 23 to the dignified activist who spent a lifetime working for liberation and education.

“AnnMarie had a very powerful presence. Warm, flamboyant and gregarious. She succumbed to a battle with cancer and emphysema,” her son Nic said.

Wolpe was one of a band of young turks in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, in the 1960s, that used to hold then illegal multi-racial gatherings. Here politics was mixed with a little drinking and dancing. It was at one of these parties that Wolpe met the young, sharp-suited, Mandela for the first time. She recounted the tale for the documentaries: Liliesleaf – the Untold Story and Nelson Mandela and Beast Called Business that I made for CNBC Africa.

“When I first met Nelson he was an absolutely stunning man; tall, imposing and just totally and utterly charming,” said Wolpe half a century later about the then young practicing lawyer.

“Nelson said when he used to go to court the white lawyers pretended they didn’t notice him. Now, it is almost impossible not notice a man of this stature and the way he walked proudly in immaculate dress.”

But these connections were to shatter her family following the raid on the underground safe house at Liliesleaf in Rivonia, Johannesburg in July 1963. Police arrested her husband, Harold, who was the activists’ advocate, and her lawyer brother James Kantor whom police picked up largely on the grounds that he was related to both of them.
Police released Kantor but made sure they ruined his business and he went to an early grave bitter with the family and its political connections. More than half a century on you could tell that this hurt Wolpe.

“What do you say to someone whose life you have ruined…I’m sorry?” was her heartfelt response.

Her husband was thrown into cells at Marshall Square, in Johannesburg, ahead of an appearance in the so called Rivonia Trial where Mandela and his comrades were to evade the noose but be sentenced to life.

Wolpe was one of the activists who made several attempts to spring her husband and his comrades from police cells including the wire cutters in the chicken. In the process, Wolpe herself saw the inside of a cell and interrogation. In the end, a young police officer freed her husband by agreeing to unlock and hit himself on the head in return for money to buy a car.

Harold Wolpe fled in the boot of a car to Swaziland and then, dressed as a priest, to Francistown in Botswana where he took refuge in a prison for fear of the South African special branch snatching him. It took three scheduled flights – one crashed and another was destroyed on the ground – before he made it to London where he was to spend 27 years in exile with his family. Harold Wolpe returned to South Africa as political times changed and died in 1996.

In London, AnneMarie Wolpe became a sociologist and a founder member of Feminist Journal Feminist Review. She returned to South Africa, with her husband, and worked at the Educational Policy Unit at the University of the Western Cape.

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