The Irishman who fought with Mandela for freedom


A voluminous file in the National Archives of the United Kingdom contains details of three refugees from South Africa who fled to Botswana, then Bechuanaland, in early 1963. In a memorandum written in July 1963, a British official reported wrote that all three were “said to be Southern African Citizens and Listed Communists” while one had crossed the border from South Africa “traveling on an Irish passport”.

The three refugees were all activists whose work against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa had led them to flee the police nets: they were Percy Hodgson, his wife Rica and Michael Harmel. All eventually made it to London, where they participated in an important chapter in anti-apartheid history: the movement in exile. But how did Harmel, the Irish passport holder of this trio of refugees, find his way into the cause?

Michael Harmel was born in Johannesburg in 1915 to Irish immigrant parents. In an authoritative study on the life and political thought of Harmel, Milan Orálek details the history of the Harmel family. Michael’s father, Arthur, was born in 1884 in Ireland to a Russian Jewish family, grew up in Portobello, and trained as a pharmacist in Dublin.

In the mid-1950s, Harmel was active in the South African Communist Party and the Arican National Congress.

Young Arthur navigated the outskirts of early Irish socialism, a welcoming world for migrants from the Russian Empire and their families. In 1910, he emigrated to South Africa. It was there, thousands of miles from Ireland, that Arthur met and married Sarah Landau, another migrant from the Irish Jewish community in South Africa. When Michael, Arthur and Sarah’s only son, was three years old, Sarah tragically lost her life to the Spanish flu.

Michael Harmel’s identity as the son of Irish Jewish immigrant parents will always be important to him. His interest in the revolutionary history of Ireland, in particular, shaped his politics. Harmel was educated at Rhodes University College where he obtained a degree in English and Economics. It was there that Harmel adopted for the first time the guiding principles of his militant life: Marxism and resistance to the racist structures of his society. He married another Communist Party activist Ray Adler in 1940, and they had a daughter Barbara. Since his student years, Harmel has published extensively on his interwoven causes of revolution and anti-racism.

In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party returned to power in South Africa. The systems of segregation, repression and control of the country’s non-white population were at the heart of the party’s plans. In South Africa and later around the world, these racist systems were known by one word: apartheid. In the mid-1950s, Harmel was active in the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, two organizations whose collaboration would play an important role in the fall of apartheid. Harmel taught English and became the principal of Central Indian High School. Ahmed Kathrada, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, noted that it was “probably” the first South African school “with a multiracial staff”.

Nelson Mandela’s ideals and political trajectory led him to an inevitable meeting point with Harmel. The two activists first met at a Communist rally in the 1940s. Mandela wrote in his autobiography that he was initially surprised by Harmel’s sloppy appearance, but soon afterward developed a close friendship with him. In 1958, a wedding celebration for Nelson and Winnie Mandela was held at the Harmel family home and Ray Harmel sewed Winnie’s wedding dress.

In the early 1960s, Mandela, Harmel and other leaders of the South African liberation struggle got together and worked together on the Liliesleaf farm.

A decade and a half later, Mandela would write a letter to Harmel’s daughter, Barbara, from her cell on Robben Island, telling her that he had been fortunate enough to receive a lesson in hope from the “beloved father”. by Barbara.

Mandela wasn’t the only future South African president to cite Harmel’s influence. Speaking at UCD in 2016, Thabo Mbeki, who became the second president of post-apartheid South Africa, recalled being brought to Harmel’s home around 1962 to listen to a vinyl record featuring actor Micheál Mac Liammóir reciting revolutionary Irish speeches and poems.

In the early 1960s, Mandela, Harmel, and other leaders of the South African liberation struggle got together and worked together at Liliesleaf Farm, a seemingly modest residence that secretly functioned as the headquarters of the anti-apartheid resistance. David J Smith, a Mandela biographer, describes how, on one occasion, a safety-conscious Mandela returned from a meeting to find Harmel asleep inside Liliesleaf with the doors open, the lights on, and the music playing. fund. South African police raided the farm in 1963 and prominent anti-apartheid figures were arrested.

In 2013, Harmel was posthumously awarded the Order of Luthuli

Harmel left South Africa to do his work in exile. He took his Irish passport, which he had available through his parents, and left without ever returning. He was later followed by his wife Ray and daughter Barbara, who also traveled on Irish passports.

In 1964, Harmel made an important trip to Dublin. In April 1964, a large public meeting was held at Mansion House in Dublin, where luminaries from the Irish cultural world and political spectrum came together to form the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM). Harmel spoke at the Dublin meeting. Louise and Kader Asmal, leading figures of the IAAM, recalled the remarkable political atmosphere which allowed “an audience generously sprinkled with nuns” to applaud Harmel, a member of the Communist Party.

Harmel died in Prague in 1974, at the age of 59. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Order of Luthuli, a South African honor, for his “relentless fight against injustice within the framework of the national liberation movement and his contribution to equality for all South- Africans. ”.

This article on Extraordinary Emigrants was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA Historian in Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish have shaped and influenced the world.

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