"It was only after I met Percy that I realised the wonders of interracial mingling," recalls Sheila Cohen, widow of Percy Cohen, who died in October aged 90.
"Until then all I knew was the master-servant relationship. I hadn't realised how brainwashed I was."
As white newly-weds in South Africa in 1960 stepping out of line could have dire consequences, but Percy had already taken a courageous stance against apartheid.
"He had a reputation as the most tremendous drinker because, as non-whites couldn't purchase liquor, he bought huge quantities for all his friends without touching a drop himself," said Sheila.
And having studied dentistry in Johannesburg, Percy became known as "the servants' dentist," because people knew they could send their servants to him for free treatment. "By the time I met him he hardly had a commercial practice."
Born in rural Transvaal, Percy was radicalised by the all-white Nationalist Party coming to power in 1948, something which shocked him deeply in the wake of the demise of nazism in Europe.
"When the ANC issued a call for whites to volunteer to participate in its Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws in 1952, I was eager to take part," he recalled a few years ago. At that time the ANC did not admit white members but was seeking to boost support among the disenfranchised black community.
He joined a group which decided to break the law forbidding whites to enter a black township without a permit.
They were promptly arrested walking into a township outside Germiston, in the East Rand, despite local residents chanting slogans of support.
The "Germiston trespass" became the first protest against the apartheid state which resulted in white South Africans being imprisoned, and reverberated around the world. In the months afterwards the ANC grew into a mass movement of more than 100,000 people.
The following year the ANC set up the Congress of Democrats to admit white supporters. Percy became a member, and organised a pioneering multiracial children's summer camp.
"We invited 10 children from each group - black, white, 'coloured' and Indian communities - to join in. A great time was had by all, but the Special Branch called every day, and sat in their car observing us."
For this act of "sedition" Percy was put under house arrest for two years - a tactic which deprived activists of the right to engage in political activity.
As a consequence he missed the ANC's huge Congress of the People in 1955 but also avoided becoming a defendant in the Treason Trial the following year.
In 1957 he stood as a candidate for the Congress of Democrats in the Johannesburg municipal elections, and polled an unexpectedly high 15 per cent of the all-white vote on a platform of racial equality.
The Sharpeville massacre and declaration of a state of emergency in 1960 were signals of a brutal crackdown on protest.
Percy was unlawfully arrested and imprisoned for three months, during which he joined a hunger strike demanding that women who had been rounded up should be charged or released. This condition was met after nine days.
On his release it became clear he was likely to be framed and locked away for a long period.
He was refused a passport, but granted a one-way exit permit and travelled with Sheila to London.
For several months they subsisted on the proceeds of their wedding presents, settling into a life of exile in which Percy was "a dentist by day and activist by night," as their son Amon put it at Percy's 90th birthday party last year. He also became a lifelong member of the South African Communist Party.
There followed decades of campaigning in Britain against apartheid, raising funds and distributing literature about the appalling plight of non-whites in South Africa.
"Percy was one of those people who volunteered for everything," said Naomi Bosman, a fellow ANC militant.
"But we had to be very careful because the Tory Party gave Special Branch room to operate."
Percy's determination in the epic struggle against apartheid was concealed beneath a gentle, unassuming exterior, and his unofficial role as dentist to exiled leaders of the movement in London earned him the epithet "Painless Percy."
He and his family remained in London after the eventual triumph of the liberation struggle, always welcoming young ANC activists.
He himself was only too aware of how much still needed to be done in South Africa to overturn the vicious legacy of apartheid.
On retiring, Percy brought his dental expertise to the reconstruction of skulls at the Natural History Museum in London.
Along with music and glass engraving, palaeontology became a passion for him, and until shortly before his death he gave talks on human origins which, appropriately, showed that as we are all descended from the same African early humans, there are absolutely no rational grounds for racism.
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