Opera North Blog

Thoughts in celebration of Harold Wolpe


In our next Liberty Lecture in association with the University of Leeds, the CEO and founder of the Liliesleaf Trust Nicholas Wolpe gives his powerful insight into the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the political crisis the country finds itself in today.

South African writer, playwright and academic Professor Jane Taylor of the University of Leeds looks forward to Nicholas’s visit with some recollections of his father, lawyer, sociologist, political economist and anti-apartheid activist Harold Wolpe, and notes the prescience of his work today.

“I am pleased to be able to recall Harold Wolpe as a colleague. In the 1990s we worked in several committees together (where he was always a fierce and engaged interlocutor) at the University of the Western Cape, an institution that styled itself as ‘the intellectual home of the left’, which had become a locus of much strategic imagining about the emerging state. Professor Wolpe was engaged in the urgent endeavour of reimagining the education system at the end of apartheid.

There was a good measure of utopianism and of pragmatism in that endeavour. “Bantu education” had been a pernicious and brutal program responsible for the systematic diminishing of the majority of South Africans, through a racialised education system. The apartheid state had demonstrated no commitment to the next generation of intellectuals and citizens that might enable South Africa’s future. Rather, educational standards in the 1970s and 1980s had consistently diminished for the majority of the population, who were alienated from the historical links to African intellectual traditions in South Africa. Many of the newly urbanized were being taught in increasingly poor circumstances, and given just sufficient skills to equip them for the workplace. This is one of the reasons why the uprising of 1976 was located in the schools: it was a protest against the demeaning education system.

Harold Wolpe, like others of his community of returning exiles, came back to South Africa after years in exile, in order to work on the imagination of the possible for the emerging South African state. Always, at the heart of his endeavour, was a substantial understanding of the idealism and optimism that had sustained the anti-apartheid movement; this combined with a fair amount of pragmatism.

His intellectual contribution as a social and economic analyst was substantial, demonstrating that apartheid economic logic was based on an inhuman wage scale. Workers in the mines and in industry would be paid at a rate inadequate for the reproduction of humane sociality. This was made viable through a brutal distribution of persons across space. Able-bodied men were given permits (the notorious ‘passbooks’) that allowed them to live and work within the ‘white’ areas of the country, while women and the children were relegated to the so-called ‘homelands’, rural regions dependent on a subsistent economy. Here a grim accentuation of gendered asymmetry reproduced African woman as captive dependents, and men who were living in brutal single-cell workers housing. In effect, the state instituted a regime that undermined affectionate ties, and emotional attachment. The AIDS statistics are part of that shameful legacy.

These are the legacies of the apartheid state, and this was the system that Harold Wolpe had analysed. He understood this mode of distribution to be a perverse imperative for the apartheid economy.

What had seemed in many ways a grotesque aberration for analysts at the time, seems in curious ways to have become increasingly normative. What we have witnessed over the past decade or more, has been the globalized distribution of labour, in the interests of profit margins. Part of what the migrants crisis makes manifest, is that human beings will, so far as is possible, resist the degradation of the conditions of their subsistence. Persons are defined through regard and care.

There is today an appropriate outpouring of distress at the spectacle of children suffering as migrant and refugee families and communities try to navigate their precarious way into futures across vast territories. The flow of human beings, however, has become normative, systematic, with the redistribution of labour across global reaches. The current economic regime has been characterized as a globalized apartheid. If this is so, it would have been in terms that Harold Wolpe helped us to analyse and to understand.

The South African state now is in a crisis, and that country’s capacity to engage seriously with a vision for the more equitable distribution of education and resources is our local need. The same is true of the global arena: in both contexts, the pursuit of self-interest fails to imagine human aspiration.

Professor Wolpe would have understood something of these times."

Professor Jane Taylor holds the Wole Soyinka Chair of Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds. She is a South African who has worked extensively across creative arts and literary and cultural scholarship. In the 1990s she established Fault Lines, a series of cultural responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. She has just completed a book on William Kentridge, a long-term collaborator. 

Nicholas Wolpe delivers our next Liberty Lecture in association with the University of Leeds, ​A Better Life for All? Power, Politics and the Past in South Africa in the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 23 September 2016.

Harold Wolpe, 1963. Credit: Nicholas Wolpe/The Liliesleaf Trust

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