Liliesleaf remembered 50 years on

[Image] Nelson Mandela lived in one of the outbuildings at Liliesleaf.

[Image] The security police searching the main farmhouse at Liliesleaf at the time of the raid.

[Image] The Liliesleaf farmhouse with the outbuildings in the background.
(Images: Liliesleaf Trust)

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Nicholas Wolpe
  CEO, Liliesleaf Trust
  +27 11 803 7882

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Denis Goldberg was sitting in the lounge of the farmhouse reading a book when the police swooped on the high command of the African National Congress‘s (ANC) military wing at Liliesleaf Farm back in 1963.

The police must have been very pleased with themselves – they had hit bull’s eye: members of Umkhonto we Sizwe or MK were poring over Operation Mayibuye, the plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the raid on Liliesleaf, now in the upmarket suburb of Rivonia in northern Johannesburg, on 11 July 1963.

In one of the outbuildings, six men were discussing Mayibuye – Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, Walter Sisulu, Bob Hepple, and Ahmed Kathrada. Nelson Mandela himself was absent – he was serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike, and for leaving the country without a passport.

The men were all taken into custody and charged with sabotage, a sentence that carried the death penalty. But they didn’t go to the gallows – the resultant Rivonia Trial saw eight men convicted to life imprisonment, serving up to 27 years in jail.

Banned

The ANC had been banned in April 1960, forcing it to reconsider its commitment to non-violence, and to go underground. In mid-1961 it was decided to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation. The farm at Liliesleaf was purchased, to be used for meetings of the ANC and MK. Mandela had at various times lived at Liliesleaf, in disguise as a gardener under the alias of David Motsamayi.

The book Goldberg was reading was Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, by Austrian Robert Jungk, first published in 1958. It is the first published account of the Manhattan Project and the German atomic bomb project, which studied the making and dropping of the deadly bomb, as told by the atomic scientists. It is based on interviews with those who played a major role in the construction and deployment of the bombs in WW2.

“They hit the jackpot,” says Goldberg now. He recalls that he ran to the bathroom the moment he heard the police. He wanted to hide the notes he had made, showing his designs for the development of weapons. Goldberg trained as a civil engineer.

Several ironies

There is an irony in the fact that while MK were planning for armed resistance, not a single weapon was found at Liliesleaf. “The police searched the entire farm and confiscated hundreds of documents and papers, though they found no weapons,” writes Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “One of the most important documents remained right on the table: Operation Mayibuye, a plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa.”

Another irony is that this was to be the last meeting at Liliesleaf. Hepple writes in a paper published in Social Dynamics in 1964 on the raid, Rivonia: The story of accused no 11, that they were aware that the police were getting closer to discovering Liliesleaf. “We all knew that the police were closing in on the leaders who were living underground. Many arrests had been made, including on June 25 that of five or six activists who knew about the Place.”

That “Place” was Liliesleaf, of course, also referred to as “Lil’s place”. Hepple explains that there had been several breaches of security, with outsiders invited to Liliesleaf without approval, witnessing “eleven or twelve members of the central leadership”.

Hepple, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar at the time, wrote of his trip out to Liliesleaf: “I was full of anxieties as I drove from my chambers in central Johannesburg to the meeting at ‘Lil’s place’ (which is how we described Lilliesleaf Farm).”

It was never established how the police got to know about Liliesleaf. Says Kathrada in his Memoirs: “The truth is, we never found out who or what led the police to Rivonia that day. Every version that has been bandied about over the years is based on mothing more than speculation.”

New headquarters

Goldberg confirms that they had already bought a new headquarters, Travallyn in Krugersdorp, a small town on the western outskirts of Johannesburg. Several people had already moved into the small holding. But Bernstein had to get home within a specific time, as specified by his banning order. So it was agreed to meet at Liliesleaf for the last time.

Hepple recounts the dramatic events on that afternoon at the farm: “It was about 3.15pm when a van was heard coming down the drive. Govan went to the window. He said, ‘It’s a dry-cleaning van. I’ve never seen it before’. Rusty then went to the window and exclaimed ‘My God, I saw that van outside the police station on the way here!'”

Dogs were heard barking, and Bernstein shouted that it was the cops. “Govan had collected up the Operation Mayibuye document and some other papers and I saw him putting them in the chimney of the small stove in the room. The back window was open, and I helped Govan, Walter and Kathy [Kathrada’s nickname] jump out of it. There was a second or two as I moved back near the door, with Rusty next to me and Ray sitting next to the window. The door burst open. Detective Sergeant Kennedy, whom I had cross-examined in a political trial earlier that year, rushed in: ‘Stay where you are. You’re all under arrest.’ He walked up to me with an excited sneer: ‘You’re Advocate Hepple, aren’t you?'”

It was all over. They were marched outside and searched, bundled into the back of the van, and after several hours, driven to The Fort in the city centre, then on to Pretoria Central Prison. Hepple spent three months in solitary confinement.

Charged with sabotage

Other arrests had been made. In October everyone appeared in the Supreme Court, charged with sabotage. Accused No 1 was Mandela, Hepple was Accused No 11. Hepple had been Mandela’s legal counsel when he was sentenced to five years on Robben Island in 1962.

In an unexpected move, all charges against Hepple were withdrawn, and he was to be called as a witness for the state. He was released from prison. “I had no intention of testifying against the accused, whom I admired and respected,” he writes.

He made plans to escape across the border into Botswana with his wife, on his way to Dar es Salaam, and on to London. “On Saturday, November 25th, as the news of Kennedy’s assassination broke, Shirley and I left our children and our parents, our home and friends, and the country we loved.”

His children later joined him in London, where he still lives. He wrote his account a year later, just as the Rivonia trialists were sentenced to life imprisonment, on 12 June 1964.

He went on to have a long and distinguished legal career. He is an international expert and activist in labour law, equality and human rights; Emeritus Master of Clare College and emeritus professor of law at the University of Cambridge in England; and has received several awards and honours, including a knighthood in 2004.

Hepple launched a new book this week in Johannesburg, titled Young man with a Red Tie: a memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution 1960-1963. It recounts his escape to avoid testifying against the Rivonia trialists.

Liliesleaf today

The Liliesleaf farmhouse and outbuildings have been sensitively restored, and a new building housing a museum has been built on the site.

“It is a site of immense significance,” says Nicholas Wolpe, CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust.

Through the establishment of the Liliesleaf Trust and Legacy Project, the site has been developed into one of South Africa’s most prominent liberation landmarks.

About 60% of the building infrastructure consists of original brickwork. During the excavation process, more than seven different types of brickface were uncovered and any post-1963 brick was discarded.

This brickwork was used in the restoration of the historical buildings and structures, which today constitute the museum component of Liliesleaf, a project which began in mid-2004.

Interactive museum experience

A visit to Liliesleaf is much more than a dry history lesson. The interactive displays and beautifully restored buildings tell the story of commitment, dedication and selfless sacrifice of many people who fought for freedom from an oppressive apartheid government.

A key component of the Liliesleaf Legacy Project has been the interviewing of numerous individuals linked to Liliesleaf, to build-up a comprehensive audiovisual archive of the farm’s history.

The interactive tour takes visitors on a journey, retracing the footsteps of prominent anti-apartheid activists who spent time on the farm.

At each point in the tour, visitors have an opportunity to experience a first-hand account of the events and circumstances leading up to the raid of the Rivonia farm, through interviews with struggle veterans.

In the farmhouse, a large 3D interactive table allows visitors to pull up videos, images, audio and text about the farm’s history, using two aluminium navigator orbs. Tour guide Zein Khumalo says the table is the only one of its kind in the world.

The electronically-controlled cabinet of curiosity holds an account of each event that culminated in the Rivonia trial. As each cabinet is pulled out, the accounts are automatically read out.

A telephone rings in the corner of one of the manor house’s rooms – it’s one of those old bulky black phones with a dial, and on picking up the receiver, the telephone plays recorded stories of spy agents, terrorists and infiltrators.

The award-winning touch screen technology, telephone stories, sparse furnishings and dark rooms convey the sense of secrecy, fear and tension that the struggle leaders must have lived with every day.

In search of a historical artefact

According to Wolpe, the vision for Liliesleaf Farm took root after a Rivonia trialists’ reunion on the site in 2001. This led to the farm being re-purchased and its original structures were uncovered by archaeological diggings.

But after all the excavations, one important item is still missing – the search for Mandela’s highly prized Russian Makarov pistol is still on.

Although it was reportedly only buried about 20 paces from the farmhouse kitchen, an extensive search still hasn’t delivered the artefact, now valued at about R22-million (US$3-million).

The semi-automatic pistol is believed to be the first weapon of the war against apartheid. It was given to the young Nelson Mandela in 1962 by Colonel Biru Tadesse of the Ethiopian Riot Battalion in Addis Ababa, when Mandela was on a trip to seek military assistance.

Mandela hid the pistol, and 200 rounds of ammunition, in a pit deep enough so that a plough could not uncover it, near an oak tree on the farm. At the time he hoped to retrieve it soon, but he never got the chance. A few weeks after he buried the firearm he was arrested and imprisoned.

Celebrating South Africa’s journey to freedom

As the search for the valuable firearm continues – and Wolpe thinks that renewed efforts will be successful – the Liliesleaf museum remains an important part of South Africa’s history.

“Liliesleaf is our connection to South Africa’s past, a link to the present and a bridge to the future,” he says.

What makes a visit to Liliesleaf worthwhile is that the individual memories of the struggle are conveyed by people who were actually there.

It represents the beliefs, inspiration and aspirations of a fearless group of leaders who were committed to bringing about socio-political transformation based on democratic principles.

“It is important that the memory and legacy of South Africa’s struggle for freedom is preserved in the hearts and minds of all South Africans,” he says.