Remembering struggle activist AnnMarie Wolpe
On July 11 of that year, police swooped on Liliesleaf Farm, which was then the underground headquarters of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), situated in what used to be the largely rural suburb of Rivonia.
They arrested the MK high command, among them Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada and Lionel Bernstein. They also seized incriminating documents, which led in due course to further arrests, including that of AnnMarie’s husband Harold and Nelson Mandela.
The raid resulted in the famed Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment.
With AnnMarie’s assistance, Harold, Arthur Goldreich and two other anti-apartheid activists subsequently escaped from police custody. Despite a nationwide manhunt, they made their way to safety across the Swaziland border. AnnMarie was arrested and questioned but released through lack of evidence. She went on to join Harold in exile in the UK. The couple returned to South Africa in 1991.
AnnMarie was born in Johannesburg to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants Abraham and Polly Kantor. She met her future husband, who was also the child of first-generation Lithuanian Jews, while studying at Wits University. They married in 1955.
Harold became a partner in the law firm of James Kantor, AnnMarie’s brother, while pursuing his clandestine activities on behalf of the anti-apartheid resistance.
Although he wasn’t politically active, Kantor was arrested and tried alongside Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists. In the end, he was acquitted, but by then his legal practice was ruined. He also moved to the UK, embarking on a new career in business before dying, aged only 47, of a heart attack.
In the UK, AnnMarie and Harold went on to have successful careers in academia. AnnMarie obtained her PhD at Middlesex University and became a leading voice on gender equality, spearheading gender studies at the institution and being a founding member of the journal, Feminist Review. In addition to penning three academic books on gender and education, she wrote an autobiographical account, titled The Long Way Home, of her family’s experiences leading up to the Rivonia raid and afterwards.
On her return to South Africa, she worked first in the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education and then at the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Western Cape, until her retirement in 1998.
Harold Wolpe died in 1996, aged 70. He and AnnMarie had three children: Peta, Tessa and Nicholas.
Nicholas, who was only three months old when his father was arrested, lives in Johannesburg. As the chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust, he has been instrumental in turning the historic Liliesleaf Farm premises into one of South Africa’s foremost heritage sites.
In 2013, his mother was one of the panellists in a discussion, co-organised by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the Liliesleaf Trust, on South African Jewish responses to apartheid.
A memorial service for AnnMarie was held on February 16 at Temple Israel in Green Point.