Under Devil's Peak

Gavin Cooper
SA nonfiction / memoir
May 2016


Wilfrid Cooper was a rare man during the dark days of apartheid: an advocate whose career coincided almost perfectly with the rise and fall of the Nationalist government, intersecting eerily with that of its “architect” HF Verwoerd, and yet a man whose enlightened principles and liberal thinking saw him regularly defending those less fortunate.
His storied legal career saw him embroiled in numerous political affairs throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He represented, among others, Verwoerd’s assassin Dimitri Tsafendas; the SWAPO Six in Swakopmund; the families of Imam Abdullah Haron, Mapetla Mohapi and Hoossen Haffajee and others who died “jumping down stairwells while in detention” or hanged by their own jeans in their cells; and Steven Biko and other activists who were arrested by the security police in the dead of night. There were also the highprofile criminal cases, including the original Kebble-style “assisted suicide” of Baron Dieter van Schauroth and the scandalous case of the Scissors Murderess Marlene Lehnberg.
Wilfrid Cooper reached the peak of his considerable legal prowess in a time when South Africans led a parallel existence, the majority downtrodden while white privilege reigned serenely in the suburbs – a time that could have easily provided him a less controversial career had he desired. And yet even as he and his gregarious wife Gertrude enjoyed wonderful and very sociable years in their Newlands home in Cape Town – an area that was itself remodelled under the Group Areas Act – he chose to walk the path less taken in the shadow of Devil’s Peak.
This is his story.

Timed for the 50th anniversary of the death of Hendrik Verwoerd, Wilfrid Cooper represented his assassin and saved him from the death penalty.


Gavin Cooper is a businessman and amateur historian, and the son of Wilfrid Cooper. This is his first book.


“A brilliantly written book… a true tribute to a man who stood firm, a man who deserves a place in the history of South Africa.” – Jennifer Crocker, The Cape Times

“An interesting story very well told.” – John Maytham, Friday featured book, Cape Talk

“Gavin Cooper's account of his father's legal career is a fascinating re-examination of some of the celebrated South African court cases occurring in the 1960s and 1970s. An accessible and enlightening read, Cooper does not tie the reader into tedious legalese and the book will inform and educate a new generation of South Africans about the state's perversion of justice in those decades.” – Cape Argus

“[An] absorbing [and] engaging chronicle of key events in our recent past and the personalities who animated them.” - Michael Morris, Weekend Argus

“A gripping read about the life of an advocate in the age of apartheid.” – Atlantic Sun

“A little-known, remarkable story about one man’s involvement in some of the major legal cases in South Africa’s dark apartheid past” – David O’Sullivan, Power FM

“A splendid biography. Gavin Cooper has captured the times so accurately and has succeeded in painting such a true picture of the Wilfrid I knew so well.” – Former Judge President Gerald Friedman

“Dit is meer as 'n verslag oor 'n lewe – dit is 'n insig in 'n stuk regsgeskiedenis van die jare 1960–1990. Veral is dit 'n belangrike verrekening van 'n man wat hom in die donkerste jare van apartheid herhaaldelik bevind het in 'n posisie waar hy, as advokaat van die verdediging, die sluier moes lig oor die dikwels bose optrede van die destydse veiligheidspolisie.” – Amanda Botha, Litnet

“This well researched biography by his son, Gavin, using Cooper's surviving documents and diaries, brings a surprising and unsettling insight into the way politics was harnessed in legal judgements to serve ideological interests… This is an essential biography of a brilliant advocate who deserved far more recognition than he ever received. With hindsight he was a bright light during a dark time in our legal history.” – Rapport (translated from Afrikaans)

“[A] praiseworthy account of Advocate Cooper’s career. This publication will be of value to a wide range of scholars, such as those interested in the history of South Africa’s legal system during apartheid, as well as the many individual cases in which Wilfrid Cooper played a role.” – Barend van der Merwe, Historia, May 2017

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