Postcard from Capetown: Adventures of a scrambled exile: Mary Russell meets Annmarie Wolpe, who has returned to the scene of her traumatic arrest

WHEN Annmarie Wolpe's phone rings in her university office, she answers it warmly. So warmly, in fact, that it's hard to believe she's speaking to 30-year-old Nicholas, the son she abandoned when he was only a few month's old.

Wolpe was a young Johannesburg mother of 34 when, in 1963, her lawyer husband Harold was arrested, certain to be called to stand trial along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu in the now-famous Rivonia treason case. In The Long Way Home (Virago, pounds 6.99) Wolpe describes Harold's prison break-out, his escape across the border into Swaziland, and his final dash for freedom disguised as a clergyman.

The story, however, is not so much Harold's as that of the wife and children he was forced to leave behind, and of Annmarie's own final abandonment of those same children. Arrested herself, after Harold's escape, separated from her ailing son and two small daughters, released and then threatened with rearrest, she finally snapped. An intermediary was persuaded to approach the South African police with a request that she be allowed to leave the country. The answer, amazingly, was yes - provided she left the following day. Handing the children into the care of Anelina, who kept house for her, and of Marlene, the nurse employed to look after baby Nicholas, who had been ill, she fled to England.

Thirty years on Wolpe has returned to South Africa to work alongside her husband in the University of the Western Cape. Her office is a modest prefab. A raincoat with a C & A label is draped across a chair. A walking stick - necessary to cope with encroaching osteo-arthritis - leans against a wall. Outside, wintry rains drive in from the Cape Flats to lash the campus. Wolpe, now 64, is home - bringing her past with her.

The fact that she abandoned a seriously sick baby, and two small girls who had already suffered the trauma of losing their father under frightening circumstances, is something she deals with in a matter-of-fact way. Had she stayed, undoubtedly to be rearrested, she would, she says, have been totally unable to do anything for her family: 'And as for Nicholas, he still had a tube in his lung and had to be kept, as far as was possible, in a germ-free environment. Moving him would have endangered his life.' The two daughters were subsequently allowed to join their parents, but it was another five months before Nicholas was fit to travel.

All three children have strong feelings about what they perceive as their mother's abandonment of them. Nicholas is particularly bitter. They are critical of the precedence their father gave to politics. As children, they concealed their origins and grew up hating the former South Africa for what it had done to their family. Now, with their parents' return to South Africa, they are suffering a second separation, a feeling which their mother tries to ease by spending a quarter of her salary phoning them in England.

'I wrote this book,' says Wolpe, 'to tell the story from the women's and children's point of view. I wasn't active in the movement at the time. I was simply drawn into it. Everyone suffered, and it's only now that we are learning the extent of that suffering.'

Even the return home has failed to lay the ghosts to rest. Returnees are regarded with hostility, as people who haven't really shared in the suffering of those who stayed, she says. Nicholas is the only one of the Wolpe children to come back, but, ironically, he can't get a job - it's because, his mother says, he's white.

In her own field of work especially, that of gender studies, the problems are enormous: 'Women are driven not only by ethnic differences but also by sexual inequalities. The Women's League is a political movement devoted to the ANC's struggle but not especially to the women's struggle which is seen as simply diversionary. Feminism is regarded as a purely Western phenomenon which has no place in African culture.' African women, she feels, though strong, are oppressed and not willing to admit it: 'Most of the township shebeens are run by women, for example, yet a woman must not be seen drinking in public.'

The Long Way Home paints a picture of middle-class Johannesburg affluence. In the Sixties, the Wolpes had money, servants and influential friends, one of whom provided the bribe needed to effect Harold's escape from prison. Their dinner guests included Joe Slovo, who flirted with Wolpe, and Ruth First, whose intellectualism intimidated her.

Nevertheless, when the going got tough, they were on their own. And they are still on their own in the country they fled 30 years ago, separated from children and grandchildren, isolated by their long exile and finally by their colour: 'African women,' says Wolpe, 'imply that they have something special which white women don't know about.'

In the new South Africa, it seems, some returnees can still feel like exiles in their own country.

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past