Bruce Haigh, Diplomat Who Helped Battle Apartheid, Dies at 77
Bruce Haigh, an Australian diplomat who brushed aside the protocols of his profession to offer covert support to anti-apartheid figures in South Africa, including the banned newspaper editor depicted in the movie “Cry Freedom,” died on April 7 in Australia. He was 77.
His sister, Christina Henderson, told Australian news outlets that her brother had been medevacked from Laos when a cancerous condition worsened. He died in a hospital in Wollongong, south of Sydney, she said.
Over the years Mr. Haigh worked variously as a ranch hand (known on Australian sheep and cattle stations as a jackeroo), an oil rig worker; an Australian Army conscript in Vietnam, a diplomat, a champion of refugees, and a columnist and broadcaster decrying what he considered excessive American influence on Australia’s security and defense policies.
But a defining example of his commitment to underdogs and those he saw as oppressed came during his assignment in the late 1970s as a junior diplomat with the rank of second secretary at the Australian mission in Pretoria.
He arrived there shortly after riots on June 16, 1976, in Soweto, a huge and racially segregated township near Johannesburg, that became a generational icon of protest against white minority rule.
According to John Matisonn, a veteran South African journalist, Mr. Haigh was the first foreign diplomat to meet with Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement who died in police custody in 1977, after a brutal beating in a prison cell. At the time, Mr. Biko had been pronounced a banned person under apartheid-era laws designed to isolate and silence the government’s adversaries.
Mr. Biko had befriended Donald Woods, the top editor at The Daily Dispatch of East London, who came under a banning order after Mr. Biko’s death and resolved to flee South Africa for self-exile in London. Mr. Haigh offered to help him and traveled to Lesotho, an independent African nation encircled by South Africa, to meet with Mr. Woods, who crossed the border separately disguised as a hitchhiking priest.
Once in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, Mr. Woods alerted his wife, Wendy, to flee South Africa with their five children. Using United Nations travel documents, the family flew to London via Botswana.
Those events formed the narrative of “Cry Freedom,” a 1987 movie based on Mr. Woods’s writing about his relationship with Mr. Biko and directed by Richard Attenborough. Denzel Washington played Mr. Biko.
Mr. Haigh is portrayed in the film as a journalist “for the purposes of compacting the story into a two-hour account on the screen,” Mr. Woods wrote in a 1987 update to his 1980 autobiography “Asking for Trouble.”
Earlier, in late 1977, Mr. Haigh accompanied Mr. Woods to the airport in Johannesburg, where he was flying to the United States for a conference.
Once Mr. Haigh had left the airport after saying farewell to Mr. Woods, security police officers prevented the journalist from boarding his plane and told him that he was now a banned person and would be subject to house arrest.
Under apartheid laws, banned people could not attend social gatherings or meet with more than one person at a time. Among other restrictions, they were required to report regularly to the police. They were not permitted to write or be quoted or consort with any other banned person.
According to Mr. Matisonn, writing in the online Daily Maverick, a South African news outlet, Mr. Haigh subsequently helped several other anti-apartheid activists to evade the security police, including Shun Chetty, the Biko family lawyer, who fled South Africa in 1979.
Because he had the protection of diplomatic immunity, Mr. Haigh told an Australian interviewer years later: “I was able to take messages around South Africa. I was able to shift people who were banned from one spot to another to meet with each other. I was able to take people across the border.”
At one point the authorities planted a newspaper story that Mr. Haigh had been seen wearing only pajamas at the home of Mr. Biko’s onetime partner and fellow activist, Mamphela Ramphele, who went on to several high-ranking positions including vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town and managing director of the World Bank. Mr. Haigh’s response, Mr. Matisonn said, was to dismiss the story with a quip: “I never wear pajamas.”
Bruce Douglas Haigh was born on Aug. 6, 1945, in Sydney, Australia. His family later moved to Perth. In 1964, he exaggerated his skills as an equestrian to be enlisted as a ranch hand in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia, where he first encountered Indigenous people and cultures.
“There were Black people speaking another language, they were easy with each other, they were in a majority,” he was quoted as saying in a blog post by the author Julian Cribb. “I felt I was in a different country. I was.”
Besides his sister, he is survived by his wife, Jodie Burnstein; his son, Robert, from his first marriage to Libby Mosley; and his daughters, Samantha and Georgina, from his second marriage. Another son from his first marriage, Angus, died in 2016.
During the Vietnam War, when Australia was an American ally, he was a conscript with an Australian armored unit. Later, he studied history and politics at the University of Western Australia and joined Australia’s diplomatic service.
His first posting was to Pakistan, before he went to South Africa and immersed himself in opposition politics — without always declaring his activities to his own government. “The Australian government had no idea of my role in helping Donald and his family escape South Africa,” Mr. Cribb quoted him as saying.
He went on to other diplomatic assignments in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia and back in Pakistan, where he is said to have befriended Benazir Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister before she was assassinated in 2007. He resigned as a diplomat in 1995 after a brief posting in Sri Lanka. He spent several years as a member of an official panel that reviewed the cases of people seeking asylum.
Mr. Haigh left the panel in 2000 and went on to tilt against Australian government policy until shortly before his death.
In one of his final articles this year, he criticized Anthony Albanese, the Australian prime minister, over a security pact with the United States and Britain, saying he was “doggedly and dumbly following in the footsteps of his discredited predecessors.”
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