Professor Sir Bob Hepple was born on 11 August 1934 in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). His father, Alex Hepple, was a trade unionist and Labour Party member, Member of Parliament, the Chairman of the Treason Trial Defence Fund and Chairman of the South African Defence and Aid Fund
The young Hepple attended Jeppe Boys High School in Johannesburg from 1945 to 1952 and then the University of Witwatersrand where he obtained a BA degree in 1954 and a LLB degree, cum laude, in 1957. He was awarded the Society of Advocates Prize for being the best law graduate in 1957. He was admitted as an attorney in South Africa in 1958. From 1959 to 1961, he was a lecturer in Law at the University of Witwatersrand. He practised as an advocate in South Africa between 1962 and 1963.
At the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he was arrested in 1952 while chairman of the Student Liberal Association and went on trial under the Illegal Squatting Act for organising a political meeting in Orlando Township (Johannesburg) under the pretext of a concert. Although it was illegal for whites to spend the night in "black" areas, all the students, including Hepple, were acquitted of the flimsy charge. Later he and his fellow African National Congress (ANC) sympathisers had a narrow escape from rustication by the then University Principal for organising protests over the exclusion of black students from the Wits Great Hall.
From its formation in 1955, Hepple devoted himself to building up the newly formed multi-racial South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). He was joint editor of the SACTU newspaper, Workers’ Unity, and helped the black Metal Workers’ Union and other small unions survive the near-illegal conditions with legal advice, practical aid and education. At the same time, Hepple was working with a few friends to work out a new ideological position and strategy for democratic socialism.
Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, outside Johannesburg, the police shot dead 69 Pan Africanist Congress demonstrators. A state of emergency was declared after this event. The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) executive had appointed Hepple with “absolute powers” to keep SACTU alive if the executive wereever arrested. When the expected arrests took place, he immediately set about the task, establishing contact with the few management committee members still in the country. He took personal responsibility for maintaining the Laundry Workers and Metal Workers’ unions. They formed a provisional National Executive Committee and gradually re-established links with shop floor workers and international organisations. He did all of this under cover while still holding his job as a university lecturer.
He moved out of his home and was constantly on the move in order to avoid arrest. He worked through the offices of a detained lawyer, Shulamith Muller, with the help of her personal assistant, Shirley Goldsmith, whom Hepple married in July 1960. He resigned from his Wits lectureship at the end of 1961 to have more freedom for these activities and took up practice at the bar. He was also a member of the Congress of Democrats.
On 5 August 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested near Howick in Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) and brought to court. When Mandela’s attorney, Joe Slovo, was prevented from representing him by the Government, Mandela turned for legal guidance to Hepple as someone he knew and trusted, and who had helped him evade capture by organising safe houses and holding secret meetings in his home.
On 11 July 1963, Bob Hepple was one of seven people arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, near Johannesburg. After three months’ detention in solitary confinement, they, together with four others, were brought before the Supreme Court and charged with sabotage (which carried the death penalty). Nelson Mandela was the first accused, while he was still serving a five-year sentence following his trial in 1962 when Hepple had acted as his legal representative.
Bob Hepple was the eleventh accused. Whilst in detention, the notorious Security Police subjected him to severe physical and psychological torture.
The defence lawyers launched an attack on the indictment. Shortly before it was quashed by the Judge-President, the State Prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar, announced that all charges against Hepple were being withdrawn, and that he (Hepple) would be called as the first witness for the State. Following this, Hepple was released from custody.
Hepple did not intend to testify against the accused that he admired and respected. With the assistance of Bram Fischer, the lead counsel for the defence, and others, Hepple escaped with his wife Shirley via Bechuanaland Protectorate (Botswana) and Tanzania to England.
Hepple wrote his memoirs, Rivonia: The Story of Accused No.11, in May and June 1964 as the Rivonia Trial ended and while the events were still fresh in his mind. They were intended to provide a factual account of the events leading up to the trial by one of the participants who “got away.” At the time, he decided that it was too dangerous for those still on trial or active in South Africa for him to allow its distribution even on a limited scale. Nothing Hepple wrote could be published until his banning orders were lifted in February 1990, the day after Mandela’s release.
On Saturday 25 November 1963, Hepple and his wife Shirley left their children and parents, home and friends, and the country they loved. With the assistance of two colleagues, they climbed over a fence into Bechuanaland Protectorate en route to the ANC in Dar es Salaam, and eventually to London, where they started a new life. Their children joined them shortly after.
Although legally trained, Hepple realised he needed to acquire further, English, legal qualifications. He went to Clare College, at Cambridge University and he was admitted into the 1964-65 academic year to read for his LLB. He rose to become a Queens Counsel and a distinguished internationally renowned legal academic.
Hepple became a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003. He retired from his Cambridge chair in 2001 and the Mastership of Clare in 2003.
In 2004, Hepple was Knighted. He died on 21 August 2015.