ANNMARIE WOLPE is a no-nonsense middle-class Jewish woman who smuggled tungsten blades into prison 50 years ago by embedding them into French bread in a bid to secure freedom for her husband Harold.
But Harold didn’t escape through filed-down prison bars. A warder, Johannes Greeff, was bribed to buy freedom for Harold and three others – Arthur Goldreich, Mosie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat.
The sensational prison break from Marshall Square has become known as South Africa’s Great Escape, making headline news and commemorated at Liliesleaf – headquarters of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto weSizwe – on August 11.
Had the four not escaped, they would have been tried with Nelson Mandela and other Rivonia treason trialists, facing life in jail.
Catching up with this feisty intellectual at her home on Upper Orange Street, Wolpe mischievously pierces her polished conversation with swear words. She uses the F word at least three times. Off the record, she refers to a certain politician as an “arsehole”.
Reliving her role in the 1963 escape and the turmoil it caused in her life and that of her three children, Wolpe, now 82, says it was “like a B-grade movie”.
But at the time it was “an unbelievable nightmare”.
Wolpe’s life was already in freefall that year, 1963, when her husband – a communist, lawyer and “fixer of the roneo machine at Liliesleaf farm” – was arrested at a roadblock and held at Marshall Square under the 90-day detention law. He had been forced into disguise after a raid on July 11 at Liliesleaf.
Wolpe had been daily visiting the hospital, where her son Nicholas had made history of a different kind, for being the first newborn to be put on a ventilator in South Africa after he had contracted pneumonia.
Then her father, Hooks Kantor, died. Trying to hold it all together, Wolpe visited Marshall Square each evening, and was allowed to take a change of clothing and food to her husband. “Warders would give me dirty washing. I would give them food. That was the interchange.”
Although isolated by the conservative white community around her, she had family support, especially from her brother, James Kantor, a lawyer (who was later also arrested but acquitted in the Rivonia trial).
She and Harold communicated through a handkerchief with cryptic notes squeezed into a seam.
Wolpe became part of an evolving escape plot, with plans hatched, aborted and fine-tuned along the way.
She was instructed to hand over a few thousand pounds to “an Indian man who came to see me at the Blue Moon”. This was the money intended to bribe Greeff.
One evening she smuggled in a handful of blades and a cutter. “Tungsten is one of the strongest metals ever. I knew this because one of my father’s failed ventures was a tungsten mine,” she says with a chuckle. “I stuck them into French bread.”
Thanks to Greeff, the four activists escaped in the early hours of Sunday, August 11.
The next morning, Wolpe got a visit at her door.
“It was 7am. I was feeding Nicholas when the police arrived. They said I have to come with them. I said I am feeding the baby. They said: ‘F*** the baby.’”
Her lifesaver was a nurse, Marlene, who had agreed to look after Nicholas if she was taken away.
She got into the car with security police. “Police in the Volkswagen were very angry with me. I had f****d up their Sunday. They were going to have a braaivleis and play sport. Now they were on duty.”
She was taken to Marshall Square. A brutal 10-hour interrogation followed. “At one stage two men with huge hands came in. One held his hands near my throat.”
Wolpe was kept overnight, in a cell across from Ruth First.
When her brother came to collect her the next day, she burst into “hysterical sobbing”.
Humiliated by the escape, the police launched a huge manhunt with a £5 000 reward.
Wolpe had asked not to be told about her husband’s whereabouts – for her own and her family’s safety.
“I was near total nervous collapse,” she recalls.
Fearing rearrest, she had no option but to leave the country. “Peta was six, Tessa five and Nick under six months.”
After aborting a half-baked planned exit via Durban on a boat, she fled on a one-way ticket to London, leaving her children in the care of family members, Marlene and the nanny Angelina.
Peta and Tessa followed weeks later. The three were reunited with Harold in October, after he had escaped to Swaziland in the boot of a car.
Baby Nicholas joined the family after he was well enough to travel.
Asked how she could leave her children behind, Wolpe said: “I thought if I got out safely, I could look after my children. I was terrified of going back to jail, because what would happen then?”
Although some details are now fuzzy, Wolpe documents her story in meticulous detail in her memoir, The Long Way Home. But it is out of print and she has only her own copy.
The family lived in England until 1991. Like other exiles, they lived clandestinely, under surveillance. Wolpe established herself as a sociologist, feminist and author of a groundbreaking book, Feminism and Materialism, which, has just been reprinted.
Reluctantly, Wolpe followed her husband back home in 1991 after the ANC was unbanned. They both got work at different education units at the University of the Western Cape.
A close-knit family, the three children also returned, and have rebuilt their lives in a country they left when they were very young.
Harold died of a sudden heart attack two years into democracy, in 1996.
The family, who rally together around shared anti-sexist, non-racial, egalitarian principles, have kept alive his legacy with the establishment of the Wolpe Trust, and Nicholas is the founder of the Liliesleaf Trust.
Wolpe, who lives on the same property as her daughter Peta, is almost house-bound after a troublesome hip removal op. “All I do now is write and make mosaics,” she says.
“I’ve had a rough ride since the 1990s with my health, but you can’t sit there and have regrets in life. There is absolutely no point in that.”
Wolpe writes from her study, with a view on to Upper Orange Street and a giant black and white portrait of her husband. She has just completed a second memoir.
She does mosaics in her husband’s study, adjacent to hers, with lots of his paraphernalia still in place, including a collection of miniature owls.
When asked whether she connected with people from that era, Wolpe’s eyes glisten: “A hell of a lot of them have died. That’s true. I am f****ng old. My God, I am 82.”
Where Are They Now? is a new feature in the Cape Times. If you have suggestions for who we can track down, send an e-mail to [email protected]