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Bruce Douglas Haigh (1945–2023)

by Tim Barlass

from Sydney Morning Herald

Bruce Haigh, by Philip Gostelow, 2001

Bruce Haigh, by Philip Gostelow, 2001

National Library of Australia, 72165005

Bruce Haigh, the retired Australian diplomat who served in South Africa and helped anti-apartheid activists, died in Wollongong on Good Friday after battling cancer. He was 77.

He assisted in the escape from South Africa of outspoken newspaper editor Donald Woods who had befriended Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko. When Biko died in custody after being severely beaten by police in 1977, Haigh helped with the escape.

This was portrayed in the Richard Attenborough film, Cry Freedom. Denzel Washington scored an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Biko and John Hargreaves starred as “Bruce”.

Haigh was the first diplomat in Pakistan to make contact with Benazir Bhutto following her return from exile. They became close friends.

Confirming his passing at home his sister Christina Henderson said that his health had deteriorated two weeks ago and the family got him airlifted out of Vientiane, Laos, where he was holidaying on his own.

She told the Herald and The Age: “It was very sudden but Bruce lived a full life to the end. He started his life with the Shell oil company which he didn’t enjoy, he was a roughneck on a rig, did jackarooing, then he was called up in the army, after that, he went to university and became a diplomat then a farmer.

“It has been a big life, a bit like a schoolboys’ annual. After Steve Biko was killed he got Donald Woods out of South Africa and was very pleased about that, but he still had a lot to do with South Africa. He was always very passionate about poverty in children.”

In a “Lunch with” interview with this masthead in 2013 Haigh said his first meeting with Bhutto had been memorable, at least for him: “She crossed her legs, leaned back and said, ‘Did they tell you what a naughty girl I was at Oxford?’”

Freed of any lingering public service constraints, Haigh became a career activist in support of human rights causes, a frequent newspaper columnist and a spirited radio and television commentator.

ABC Four Corners former producer Peter Cronau, a close friend, said: “Bruce was a man of principle and courage who stepped forward when he needed to. He risked all to help political dissidents escape apartheid South Africa. He was unafraid to speak out on the Department of Foreign Affairs’ policy towards Indonesia and East Timor. And he refused to walk past the plight of refugees coming to Australia. Bruce was the finest of men and a shining light to so many.”

Bruce Haigh is survived by first wife Libby Haigh, wife Jodie Burnstein, sibling Christina, two sons from his first marriage, Robert, Samantha and Georgina from the second marriage. His other son from his first marriage, Angus, died before him.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Bruce Douglas Haigh

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tim Barlass, 'Haigh, Bruce Douglas (1945–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Bruce Haigh, by Philip Gostelow, 2001

Bruce Haigh, by Philip Gostelow, 2001

National Library of Australia, 72165005

Life Summary [details]


6 August, 1945
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


7 April, 2023 (aged 77)
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.