Sir Bob Hepple 1934-2015

Law world bids farewell to famed human rights lawyer and former University of Edinburgh external examiner Sir Bob Hepple

The legal community throughout the world is mourning the passing of Sir Bob Hepple, former Master of Clare College, Cambridge and renowned human rights activist. He died on Monday 21 August following a short spell of illness. A fervent opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa, Hepple was best known for acting as Nelson Mandela’s legal adviser during his November 1962 trial. Hepple’s career in the United Kingdom brought him into contact with the University of Edinburgh’s Law School. Professor Emeritus Robert Black recalls:

“In 1973, as a very young lecturer in the Department of Scots Law, I set up a new LLB Honours course in Delict. I asked one of my postgraduate teachers to act as external examiner. He was unable to accept, but recommended Bob Hepple to me. When I approached Bob he agreed, provided that his trips to Edinburgh always included a meal at the Loon Fung, which he regarded as one of the best Chinese restaurants in Britain.

Bob was a magnificent external examiner. He scrutinised exam questions and essay topics with an eagle eye for ambiguities and infelicities of expression. When the essays and exam scripts were sent to him he dealt with them quickly and efficiently. That did not mean that his consideration of them was in any way superficial; he came to examiners' meetings and oral exams with a sheaf of notes on each student's performance. His conduct of oral exams was masterly: he put nervous students at their ease but still probed deeply.

Before he became the Delict external, I had not known the details of Bob's South African background. I had spent 1971 as a visiting lecturer in the Law School of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where Bob had his first lecturing job from 1959 to 1962. One of my colleagues there had been the Law School's Delict expert, Professor Paul Boberg. During one of my first meetings with Bob Hepple, I mentioned to him that I had worked at Wits with Paul Boberg. He quietly asked me never to mention the name Boberg again. Bob had escaped South Africa during the Rivonia treason trial, at which he had originally been one of the accused along with Nelson Mandela, but was later discharged. He left the country illegally just as Paul Boberg's father, a Colonel in the South African police, was about to re-arrest him for treason due to his support for and legal assistance to members of the banned ANC, including Nelson Mandela.

More than twenty years later, after I became Professor of Scots Law, Paul Boberg gave a seminar in the Law School as my guest. Over dinner in the Staff Club, he confirmed the story. Bob Hepple's successful escape blighted what remained of his father's career. Bob would not, I suspect, have been displeased to learn this. But I never told him, obeying his injunction to never mention the name "Boberg" in his presence.

When news of Bob Hepple's death reached South Africa, the Nelson Mandela Foundation tweeted: "Nelson Mandela’s legal adviser, Bob Hepple dies after short illness. Hamba Kahle." Hamba kahle in Xhosa means literally "Go well". Edinburgh Law School is fortunate to have enjoyed a connection with this significant political figure and highly distinguished lawyer, and can echo this salutation.”

We do echo these fine words: Hamba kahle, Sir Bob Hepple.