The Irishman who fought with Mandela for freedom

Born to Irish immigrant parents in Johannesburg in 1915, Michael Harmel was an important anti-apartheid activist

A bulging file in the UK National Archives contains details on three refugees from South Africa who fled to Botswana, then Bechuanaland, in early 1963. In a memorandum compiled in July 1963, a British civil servant wrote that all three were "said to be South African citizens and listed communists" while one had crossed the border from South Africa "travelling 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 police dragnets: they were Percy Hodgson, his wife Rica and Michael Harmel. All eventually made their way to London, where they participated in an important chapter within the anti-apartheid story- the movement in exile. But how did Harmel, the Irish passport holder of this refugee trio, find his path through the cause?

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

By the mid-1950s, Harmel was playing an active role in the South African Communist Party and the Arican National Congress

Young Arthur navigated the peripheries 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 away from Ireland, that Arthur met and married Sarah Landau, another migrant to South Africa from the Irish Jewish community. When Arthur and Sarah’s only child Michael 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 would always be important to him. His interest in Ireland’s revolutionary history, in particular, shaped his politics. Harmel was educated at Rhodes University College where he studied for a degree in English and economics. It was there that Harmel first adopted the guiding principles of his activist life: Marxism and resistance to the racist structures of his society. He married another Communist Party activist Ray Adler in 1940, and they had had a daughter Barbara. From his student days onwards, Harmel published many articles about his entwined causes of revolution and anti-racism.

In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party returned to power in South Africa. Systems of segregation, repression and control of the country's non-white population were at the heart of the party's projects. Within South Africa and later across the wider world, these racist systems were known by one word: apartheid. By the mid-1950s, Harmel was playing an active role in the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, two organisations whose collaboration would play an important role in apartheid's downfall. Harmel taught English and became the principal at the Central Indian High School. Ahmed Kathrada, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, noted that this was "probably" the first South African school "with a multiracial staff".

Nelson Mandela's ideals and political trajectory set him towards an inevitable meeting point with Harmel. The two activists first met at a communist gathering in the 1940s. Mandela wrote in his autobiography that he was initially taken aback by Harmel's unkempt appearance, but soon developed a close friendship with him. In 1958, a wedding celebration for Nelson and Winnie Mandela was held in 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 gathered and worked together on Liliesleaf Farm

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

Mandela was not 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 the actor Micheál Mac Liammóir reciting Irish revolutionary speeches and poems.

In the early 1960s, Mandela, Harmel and other leaders of the South African liberation struggle gathered and worked together on Liliesleaf Farm, an outwardly unassuming residence that secretly operated as the headquarters of the anti-apartheid resistance. David J Smith, a biographer of Mandela, describes how, on one occasion, a security-conscious Mandela returned from a meeting to find Harmel asleep inside Liliesleaf with the doors open, lights on and music playing loudly. South African police raided the farm in 1963 and leading anti-apartheid figures were arrested.

In 2013, Harmel was posthumously awarded the Order of Luthuli

Harmel left South Africa to carry out his work in exile. He took his Irish passport, available to him through his parents, and left, never to return. Later he was followed by his wife Ray and daughter Barbara, who also travelled with Irish passports.

In 1964, Harmel set out on an important trip to Dublin. In April 1964, a large public meeting was held at Dublin's Mansion House, where luminaries from across Ireland's cultural world and political spectrum gathered to form the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM). Harmel spoke at the Dublin meeting. Louise and Kader Asmal, leading figures in the IAAM, recalled the remarkable political atmosphere that allowed for "an audience liberally sprinkled with nuns" to applaud Harmel, a Communist Party member.

Harmel died in Prague in 1974, aged 59. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Order of Luthuli, a South African honour, for his “relentless fight against injustice as part of the national liberation movement and his contribution to equality for all South Africans”.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world