Sir Bob Hepple: Barrister and activist who advised Nelson Mandela and became a pioneering human rights lawyer

An outstanding academic, and pioneer in equal opportunities law, Hepple paved the way for the 2010 Equality Act

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Bob Hepple was an anti-apartheid and human rights lawyer who advised Nelson Mandela before escaping South Africa for London to carve out a new life and career. He became a pillar of the British establishment – barrister, judge and Master of Clare College, Cambridge. An outstanding academic, and pioneer in equal opportunities law, he paved the way for the 2010 Equality Act.

Brought up in the politically charged atmosphere of wartime South Africa – his father, a trade unionist, was beaten up by the Ossewabrandwag Afrikaner resistance organisation, which was pro-Axis, for supporting Jan Smuts' pro-Allied government – Hepple saw the political and racial divide at first hand. He became hardened by life at Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg, where he endured relentless bullying and ostracisation for his father's stance against racial segregation. “Even the teachers were bigots and racists,” he recalled.

Born in Kensington, a suburb of Johannesburg, in 1934, Bob Alexander Hepple was the son of Alex, a meat wholesaler who became leader of the South African Labour Party, which had been founded by Bob's grandfather Tom, a Sunderland shipyard worker who had left Wearside in the 1890s to seek his fortune. His mother, Josephine, was from Dutch stock; her grandfather served as a dispatch rider for the Afrikaners at the siege of Mafeking in the second Boer War against the British.

Hepple's radicalisation continued while he studied law at Witwatersrand University, and in 1952 he was arrested, accused of organising a political event in a township where it was illegal for whites to stay overnight. Graduating, he became a law lecturer at the University and from 1962 practised at the Johannesburg Bar.

His legal skills were soon put to the test. After evading capture for 18 months, Nelson Mandela was arrested in August 1962 on charges of inciting workers to strike and leaving the country without a passport. At the 11th hour the trial was switched from Johannesburg to Pretoria, and Mandela's lawyer, the Lithuanian émigré Joe Slovo, was refused permission to travel, so Hepple was appointed legal adviser. Mandela, representing himself, was sentenced to five years in prison.

Months later, on 11 July 1963, with Mandela still in custody, the police conducted a covert operation and, dressed as laundry men, raided an ANC hide-out at Lilliesleaf farm, just outside Johannesburg, where Mandela had previously spent months in hiding. They arrested a number of high-profile ANC figures – and Hepple, who was visiting in his role as one of their means of communication with the outside world. Hepple recalled one policeman saying, “Ah, Advocate Hepple, now we've got you all.”

Hepple and Mandela had become good friends. Driving a Wolseley 1500, Hepple had acted as Mandela's driver between safe houses – or rather Mandela drove Hepple: “You couldn't have a white driver and a black passenger so he would put on a cap and chauffeur's coat and he would drive me,” Hepple recalled.

Hepple spent three months in solitary confinement and suffered psychological torture, knowing he could be executed. His lowest ebb was when a policeman entered with news that Mandela's diaries had been found: “I realised this would seal Mandela's fate.” Mandela had asked Hepple to have the papers destroyed, and Hepple had been assured that this had been done, but they were in fact hidden in a cellar.

The outcome was the Rivonia Trial, which attracted global coverage. Early in proceedings, Hepple was told he could be freed if he turned state witness. He agreed – but when he was released ANC operatives smuggled he and his wife into Botswana, from where they reached London. Their two children joined them a few months later. Hepple's 2013 book, Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution 1960-1963, told of his experiences in the struggle against apartheid.

Arriving in Britain in 1963, Hepple undertook postgraduate studies in labour law and race relations at Cambridge, where in 1968 he became a fellow of Clare College, lecturing in the emerging fields of labour and discrimination law. He spent the next 26 years developing courses and relationships at numerous universities.

As a specialist in labour law and discrimination law, Hepple published several notable books, including Individual Employment Law (1971), with his friend and colleague Paul O'Higgins, and was a co-founder and president of the Equal Rights Trust. His work, particularly Race, Jobs and Law in Britain, influenced the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Acts of 1976 and 2000.

From 1976 he chaired a number of industrial tribunals, a position he combined with a professorship at Kent University. In 1982 he was appointed Professor of English Law at University College London, where he served as dean and head of department. Between 1993 and 2003, he was Master of Clare College, and was Professor of Law at Cambridge (1995-2001).

As one of the chief architects of the Unified Human Rights Framework on Equality, Hepple paved the way for the Equality Act of 2010. In post-apartheid South Africa, he returned to advise the government on law reform.

A generous, self-deprecating man who seldom raised his voice, Hepple was reticent about his own achievements but inspired many in the legal profession. In 2014 he was awarded the Order of Luthuli, South Africa's highest presidential honour, by President Jacob Zuma, for “his bravery in the times when fighting for liberation was courting danger.”

He remained active in retirement, writing and campaigning on equality while continuing to preside at the Industrial Law Society. Hepple met his former comrade again in 1996, when Mandela, by then President of South Africa, was on a state visit. The two were introduced at a Buckingham Palace banquet. Mandela asked, “Bob, is that you?” and gave him a bear hug. “In that moment of intense feeling,” Hepple recalled, “both Mandela and I rather overlooked the smallish woman who was standing slightly to one side with her hand outstretched.”


Bob Alexander Hepple, lawyer and academic: born Johannesburg 11 August 1934; Kt 2004; married 1960 Shirley Goldsmith (marriage dissolved; one daughter, one son), 1994 Mary Coussey; died Cambridge 21 August 2015.