Wilfrid Cooper was a rare man during the dark days of apartheid: an advocate whose career coincided almost perfectly with the rise and fall of the Nationalist government, intersecting eerily with that of its “architect” HF Verwoerd, and yet a man whose enlightened principles and liberal thinking saw him regularly defending those less fortunate.
His storied legal career saw him embroiled in numerous political affairs throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He represented, among others, Verwoerd’s assassin Dimitri Tsafendas; the SWAPO Six in Swakopmund; the families of Imam Abdullah Haron, Mapetla Mohapi and Hoossen Haffajee and others who died “jumping down stairwells while in detention” or hanged by their own jeans in their cells; and Steven Biko and other activists who were arrested by the security police in the dead of night. There were also the highprofile criminal cases, including the original Kebble-style “assisted suicide” of Baron Dieter van Schauroth and the scandalous case of the Scissors Murderess Marlene Lehnberg.
Wilfrid Cooper reached the peak of his considerable legal prowess in a time when South Africans led a parallel existence, the majority downtrodden while white privilege reigned serenely in the suburbs – a time that could have easily provided him a less controversial career had he desired. And yet even as he and his gregarious wife Gertrude enjoyed wonderful and very sociable years in their Newlands home in Cape Town – an area that was itself remodelled under the Group Areas Act – he chose to walk the path less taken in the shadow of Devil’s Peak.
This is his story.
Is the information for this product incomplete, wrong or inappropriate?
Let us know about it.
Does this product have an incorrect or missing image?
Send us a new image.
Is this product missing categories?
Add more categories.
Review This Product
Tribute to a man of substance
Fri, 3 Nov 2017 | Review by: Gavin C
Tribute to a man of substance
Wilfrid Cooper grew up as the son of a railway man, a fact that immediately endeared him to me before I plunged into his son Gavin Cooper’s biography. There is something about railways and small towns that holds a particular appeal and nostalgia for a time when trains linked the country.
He was born in Observatory and the family later moved to the hamlet of Klawer, a place where the young Wilfrid learned to appreciate nature and mingle freely with people who lived in the town, but the young boy was aware that the black or “coloured” people were far worse off than the Cooper family.
The author scribes this childhood experience as one of the reasons why Cooper deplored inequality and indeed apartheid. He could not have known then that one of the biggest upheavals in apartheid South Africa, the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd, would play in his career one day.
The young Wilfrid went to Stellenbosch to study law and stayed in residence in Dagbreek. There he came up against racism that he found repugnant.
A fascinating fact that I am ashamed to say I had no idea about was that in 1946 he was part of the setting up of Nusas at Stellenbosch. The prevailing mood of the time meant that most meetings had to take place at UCT, which introduced Wilfrid to another group of students with very different ideas to the prevailing ones at Stellenbosch.
It is perhaps ironic that when Nusas was re-established in the early 1980s in Stellenbosch, the attitude towards it had not changed that much.
Wilfrid qualified and was admitted to the Bar. But, he chose a road less travelled in that he took on the unpleasant cases; the ones that advocates with an eye on the Bench would not have taken.
So it came to pass that he represented Verwoerd’s assassin, Demitrio Tsafendas. It was a huge case but not one that made him popular with the apartheid regime.
He was part of the trial of the infamous “Scissors Murderess” Marlene Lehnberg, heard cases in South West Africa, one in particular where it appears that the state used the killing of a man to declare Swapo illegal.
He defended Steve Biko, who died on September 12, 1977, at the hands of police torturers.
Throughout the fascinating story of the cases Wilfrid took on, his struggle to balance doing the right thing and having to earn enough to look after his family are all interwoven into this book.
It is more than worth mentioning that his wife, Gertrude, started her career at the Cape Times and was the social page editor by the time she retired.
The couple apparently had different views on that type of book Wilfrid should write, although ill health scuppered his attempt to write his own book. She wanted it to be more about their family, he wanted to tell the history of his cases. In the end his son has done a job of creating a book that both recalls a lifer growing up with his parents who were fun, and a father who had a job that took him to dark and dangerous places.
We often forget, or in the light of what seems to be more urgent and troubling business of our lives today both politically and personally , that there was a generation before us, and that many of them gave up the possibility of lucrative, comfortable lives to adhere to their beliefs about the value of all human lives.
Of course as a white advocate Wilfrid would have had privileges denied of others, but the reality that we also have to be honest about is that he tried to change things, and that these attempts at respect for all and human decency mattered hugely.
There are light moments in the book that tell of a different time, a time children played freely, a time when parties at home were the thing and one entertained oneself. There is also the admiration of James Joyce and excerpts and quotes of Wilfrid writing of his life in a style after Joyce.
“And his career was his head too and his head watched over everything he did. Julian tried to understand himself and what was happening around him.”
Under Devil’s Peak is a brilliantly written book and the author has painstakingly researched his father’s life without allowing himself to become the focus of the story. It is a true tribute to a man who stood firm, a man who deserves a place in the history of South Africa.
Cape Times 16 September 2016
Did you find this review helpful? Yes (2) | No (0)