Harold Wolpe was born on 14 January 1926 in Johannesburg to a Lithuanian Jewish family. Wolpe graduated with a BA in Social Studies in 1949 and an LLB in 1952 from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, where he was President of the Student Representative Council and a leading activist in the National Union of South African Students. In his autobiography, former President Nelson Mandela recalls the intellectual and political ferment of Wits at that time, including the influence on him of the intense discussions with Wolpe and other young communists who were to share ‘the ups and downs of the liberation struggle’.
Wolpe, a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) represented several anti-apartheid figures in the 1950s and 1960s in political cases in court and helped plan anti-government actions by the SACP and the African National Congress (ANC). He was arrested in 1963 after police raided a Communist Party-ANC hideout in Johannesburg and detained top ANC leaders. Wolpe, Arthur Goldreich, Abdulhay Jassat and Mosie Moolla escaped from a Johannesburg jail by bribing a guard, setting off one of the nation's largest manhunts.
For days Wolpe and Goldreich, both white Communists, hid in safe houses until they were finally taken to neighbouring Swaziland in the trunk of a car. Dressed as priests, the two men eventually flew to the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland, (now Botswana), and arranged a flight to Tanzania, where they were met by a horde of journalists.
Wolpe moved to England, where his family joined him from South Africa. He became a Nuffield Foundation Sociological Scholar at the London School of Economics in 1964-65 before joining the University of Bradford and North London Polytechnic (now the University of North London). After that he joined the Sociology Department of the University of Essex.
In an obituary to Wolpe, Professor Henry Bernstein of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, said, “The seminal contribution Wolpe was to make came in his article on ‘Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa: From Segregation to Apartheid’ ( in Economy and Society, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1972) This contribution reformulated the problematic of class and class struggle, and its connections with the different historical moments of codification and practice of white supremacy, in the framework of shifting conditions of capital accumulation and the articulation of modes of production. This was simply the most path breaking theoretical statement in South African Marxism in the apartheid period.
His later work on education registered the impact and aftermath of the student-led Soweto uprising of 1976, another definitive moment of the struggle against apartheid. His understanding of both class and popular struggle was also carried forward in subsequent work on the state, to help define the contemporary conjuncture and its contradictions rigorously, to grasp the strategic and tactical openings they presented to the mass democratic movement.
As a key member of the ANC’s London Education Committee and its National Education Council, Wolpe was involved in intense debates about, and visits to, the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Morogoro, Tanzania, where many of the student militants who fled South Africa after the Soweto Uprising resumed their schooling. At the University of Essex he established a project on Research in Education in South Africa, and edited two books of papers on educational reform after apartheid. Wolpe also worked in various ANC committees and councils. In 1977, he spent his sabbatical in the Law Faculty of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In 1990 Wolpe and his wife left the University of Essex and returned to South Africa. On his return, Wolpe became the Director of the Education Policy Unit (EPU) at the University of the Western Cape and chair of the forum which coordinated the work of five such EPUs at national level. Wolpe passed away on 19 January 1996 aged 70.
At the inaugural conference of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust held at the University of the Western Cape held in April 1997, Dan O'Meara of the Department of Political Science at the University of Quebec, Canada stated that:
“Harold Wolpe's work and actions played a fundamental role in revolutionising the way in which social scientists and activists in the struggle against apartheid understood both the workings of South African society and the appropriate ways to change it. Though he never occupied a leading position in the liberation movement - he declined formal political office throughout his life — through his remorseless intellect and prodigious capacity for analytical synthesis, Harold was without any doubt whatsoever one of the architects of "the new South Africa". His work quite literally reshaped the way in which vast numbers of people saw apartheid South Africa, and in doing so, made a huge contribution to doing away with it.”