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  • History, internationalism and intellectuals:the case of Harold Wolpe
  • Peter Alexander (bio)

I thought that something biographical might make this lecture more accessible. An obvious choice would then have been South Africa's most famous sociologist, its first professor of sociology, but that was none other than Hendrik Verwoerd, and I felt that, perhaps, it would be better to leave him to someone else. My choice of Harold Wolpe was not difficult. First, he is probably the country's second most significant sociologist. As the historian Dan O'Meara concludes, his 'work and actions played a fundamental role in revolutionising the way that social scientists and activists … understood … the workings of South African society and the appropriate ways to change it.'2 Secondly, I can empathise with him rather well, because, like him, I was an activist, and later became a sociologist without having any degrees in the subject.3

It is not my intention to present Harold's biography, nor even a balanced assessment of his work. Time is short and I have elected to limit myself to three critical comments. My desire is to clamber on to his shoulders in the hope that we might see more of our social world, for, if Harold was not quite a giant, he was certainly 'a tall man'.4 I begin with a brief sketch of his life, then make my three points and, finally, conclude by rooting my argument in contemporary soil. My thesis will be that a critical assessment of Harold's scholarship can lay a solid foundation for seminal advances in sociology.

To start: a sketch

Harold was born in Johannesburg in 1926.5 The son of Lithuanian immigrants, he attended Athlone Boys High in Bez Valley and, in 1944, went to Wits University. After a year of natural science he transferred to BA Social Science, ie social work. The latter included some sociology,6 and also a course in statistics, which is where he met AnnMarie. Whilst an [End Page 109] undergraduate, he joined the communist party, whose members included Ruth First and Joe Slovo, the latter becoming a close and lifelong friend. Harold was also 'befriended' by Nelson Mandela (his word), and was later the friend and lawyer of Walter Sisulu.7 After graduation and a year as president of the students' representative council, Harold began work on an LLB, which he completed in 1952.

Being an attorney was something that paid the bills rather than a vocation, but Harold was good at his job and one of the few lawyers who took political cases. He was also involved in re-establishing the communist party (the SACP), and helped purchase Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which became the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).8 After the arrest of members of MK's high command in 1963, Harold was also captured, but, together with Arthur Goldreich, escaped from detention, eventually managing to flee the country.9 Mandela said of this achievement, which made headlines around the world: 'It was an embarrassment to the government and a boost to our morale'.10

In exile in London, Harold was joined by AnnMarie, whom he had married in 1955, and their three children. He spent a year working for the movement, another reading sociology books at the London School of Economics, and a third teaching extra-mural students. He then held sociology lectureships at Bradford University, North London Polytechnic, where he was based from 1970 to 1974, and, finally, Essex University.11

In 1991, following the unbanning of political organisations, he took a position at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where he became a professor and director of the Education Policy Unit. Here he played an important role in developing the new government's higher education policy.12 He died from a heart attack in 1996, and O'Meara claimed that he 'worked himself to death'.

In terms of his publications, it is possible to discern three periods: roughly 1970-78, 1978-88, and 1988-96. In the first, the major thrust of his work emphasised economic determinants of social change and the importance of class; in the second his focus was more on political determinants and the...


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