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News > ODU Events > Gavin Cooper in conversation with Paul Murray on his two books.

Gavin Cooper in conversation with Paul Murray on his two books.

Gavin Cooper talking about his father Wilfred Cooper who 'defended' Dimitri Tsefendas. The other book, tells the story of the killing of Chief Filemon Elifas of Ovamboland in Namibia.
16 Nov 2023
ODU Events
Gavin discussing his books; one of them on the life of his father the iconic judge, Wifred Cooper.
Gavin discussing his books; one of them on the life of his father the iconic judge, Wifred Cooper.

We have been having a series of book discussions, concerts and colloquia at the ODU in Cape Town, and have an action-planned programme ahead together with all the other exciting events for ODs coming up.  

On Wednesday evening, 15 November 2023, Paul Murray the ODA hosted a 'Cheese and Wine' and book discussion at The Mitre.  Several ODs and their partners and friends attended.  OD Gavin Cooper (1965O) spoke on his two books in a Q&A session with Paul Murray with a Q&A from the floor, following.

This is not the commercial promotion or hosting of a book launch as a publisher would; but to bring interesting topics to ODs and their partners and friends of the ODU.     

The one topic is a biography by Gavin Cooper of his father Judge Wilfrid Cooper, entitled: Under Devil's Peak - The life and times of Wilfred Cooper, an advocate in the age of apartheid.  

Judge Cooper is the person who 'defended' Dimitri Tsefendas who assassinated H F Verwoerd, the Prime Minister on 6 September 1966 in Parliament in Cape Town.   

The other is a topic on a book entitled The killing of Elifas - The enigma surrounding the murder of Chief Filemon Elifas. It outlines the assassination on 16 August 1975 of Chief Filemon Shuumbwa Elifas who was shot down outside a liquor store in Onamagongwa, 8km from Ondangwa in what was then South West Africa (today, Namibia). Elifas died of wounds from a PPSH-41 submachine gun.

The question is, who was responsible for the assassination?

Gavin's story shows - amongst others - the effect of apartheid and national service on young white men at the time.  

To read a review please go to

In the same link is a review from the Cape Times (dated 16 September 2016) of Under Devil's Peak, written by Jennifer Crocker, which appears here: 

Wilfrid Cooper grew up as the son of a railway man, a fact that immediately endeared him to me before I plunged into his son Gavin Cooper’s biography. There is something about railways and small towns that holds a particular appeal and nostalgia for a time when trains linked the country.

He was born in Observatory and the family later moved to the hamlet of Klawer, a place where the young Wilfrid learned to appreciate nature and mingle freely with people who lived in the town, but the young boy was aware that the black or “coloured” people were far worse off than the Cooper family.

The author scribes this childhood experience as one of the reasons why Cooper deplored inequality and indeed apartheid. He could not have known then that one of the biggest upheavals in apartheid South Africa, the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd, would play in his career one day.

The young Wilfrid went to Stellenbosch to study law and stayed in residence in Dagbreek. There he came up against racism that he found repugnant.

A fascinating fact that I am ashamed to say I had no idea about was that in 1946 he was part of the setting up of Nusas at Stellenbosch. The prevailing mood of the time meant that most meetings had to take place at UCT, which introduced Wilfrid to another group of students with very different ideas to the prevailing ones at Stellenbosch.

It is perhaps ironic that when Nusas was re-established in the early 1980s in Stellenbosch, the attitude towards it had not changed that much.

Wilfrid qualified and was admitted to the Bar. But, he chose a road less travelled in that he took on the unpleasant cases; the ones that advocates with an eye on the Bench would not have taken.

So it came to pass that he represented Verwoerd’s assassin, Demitrio Tsafendas. It was a huge case but not one that made him popular with the apartheid regime.

He was part of the trial of the infamous “Scissors Murderess” Marlene Lehnberg, heard cases in South West Africa, one in particular where it appears that the state used the killing of a man to declare Swapo illegal.

He defended Steve Biko, who died on September 12, 1977, at the hands of police torturers.

Throughout the fascinating story of the cases Wilfrid took on, his struggle to balance doing the right thing and having to earn enough to look after his family are all interwoven into this book.

It is more than worth mentioning that his wife, Gertrude, started her career at the Cape Times and was the social page editor by the time she retired.

The couple apparently had different views on that type of book Wilfrid should write, although ill health scuppered his attempt to write his own book. She wanted it to be more about their family, he wanted to tell the history of his cases. In the end his son has done a job of creating a book that both recalls a lifer growing up with his parents who were fun, and a father who had a job that took him to dark and dangerous places.

We often forget, or in the light of what seems to be more urgent  and troubling business of our lives today both politically and personally , that there was a generation  before us, and that many of them gave up the possibility of lucrative, comfortable lives to adhere to their beliefs about the value of all human lives.

Of course as a white advocate Wilfrid would have had privileges denied of others, but the reality that we also have to be honest about is that he tried to change things, and that these attempts at respect for all and human decency mattered hugely.

There are light moments in the book that tell of a different time, a time children played freely, a time when parties at home were the thing and one entertained oneself. There is also the admiration of James Joyce and excerpts and quotes of Wilfrid writing of his life in a style after Joyce.

“And his career was his head too and his head watched over everything he did. Julian tried to understand himself and what was happening around him.”

Under Devil’s Peak is a brilliantly written book and the author has painstakingly researched his father’s life without allowing himself to become the focus of the story. It is a true tribute  to a man who stood firm, a man who deserves a place in the history of South Africa.

Please contact Paul Murray for any further related information.


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