10 June 2013 by Andrea Weiss

Rivonia’s Liliesleaf Farm 50 years on

On 11 July 1963, apartheid police raided Liliesleaf Farm and captured the high command of the ANC in South Africa. Today you can walk around the farmstead and relive the events of a day that changed the course of the country’s history.

The old Rivonia farmhouse in Liliesleaf back in the 1960s when it was used as the headquarters for the anti-apartheid movement. Image courtesy of Liliesleaf Farm

As I walk up the path to the ticket office for Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, I notice a familiar figure standing on the steps close to the ticket office. It’s struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, a man closely linked with the history here.

I pay my R110 for a guided tour and the person behind the counter tells me that Hollywood star Danny Glover is about to visit and Kathrada is his guide (Glover was in South Africa as part of a delegation of the United Automobile Workers’ Union of America).

It’s a beautiful Highveld winter’s day, clear and crisp and probably not dissimilar to the fateful afternoon (almost 50 years ago to the day) when South African apartheid police raided this farm in a bid to capture Walter Sisulu, then secretary-general of the banned ANC.

And not only was Sisulu on the premises, but many other members of the ANC leadership too, among them Kathrada, Govan Mbeki (father of Thabo Mbeki) and Raymond Mhlaba.

It’s a beautiful Highveld winter’s day, clear and crisp and probably not dissimilar to the fateful afternoon (almost 50 years ago to the day) when South African apartheid police raided this farm in a bid to capture Walter Sisulu, then secretary-general of the banned ANC.

Former president Nelson Mandela was already in prison serving time for travelling outside South Africa without a passport and inciting strikes, but what the police found at Liliesleaf was to send him to prison for 27 years as the leading defendant in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.

Mandela had also lived underground at Liliesleaf, posing as a 'houseboy' under the name of David Motsamayi, and even selling vegetables to the residents of surrounding Rivonia, an affluent white suburb, ironically even to the wife of Percy Yutar, the prosecutor at the trial.

The Rivonia Trial was to set back the anti-apartheid movement for more than a decade, but it also brought with it sharp international focus on South Africa’s repressive regime.

And Kathrada, standing on the steps there, served 26 years and three months in prison as a result of that raid.

The young Ahmed Kathrada as he looked at the time of his arrest at Liliesleaf in 1963. Image courtesy of Liliesleaf Farm

Like many South Africans, I hadn’t realised until the day before my visit that Liliesleaf Farm has an award-winning interactive display relating the story of the drama that unfolded on that fateful day on 11 July 1963.

The old farmhouse today looks a bit like a film set without its garden setting, but it still has that solid 1950s farmhouse feel about it with its grey, tiled roof, lightning conductors and bay windows. It’s not too hard to re-imagine the past, and guide Zeil Khumalo shows me some of the highlights.

An aerial view of Liliesleaf today shows how the farmstead has been hemmed in by buildings. Image courtesy of Liliesleaf Farm

At the time, the farmhouse was the residence of the Goldreichs, a white family who acted as a cover for the underground activities taking place there (one of the remarkable aspects of the Liliesleaf story is how many white people were involved at the time).

There are also several unanswered questions floating around. Where, for instance, is the Makarov pistol that Mandela buried in the yard? What role did the 10-year-old boy from the caravan park across the road play in feeding the police with information? And who was it that betrayed the comrades meeting around the table in the thatched cottage outside (this was to have been their last gathering at Liliesfield)?

We move through the house, into the kitchen where Nelson Mandela heard the news on the radio that Chief Albert Luthuli, president-general of the ANC, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (you can listen to the actual radio broadcast) in 1961.

Outside the back door is a coal shed where documents relating to Operation Mayibuye, the plan to overthrow the government, written in Mandela’s own hand, were hidden and subsequently uncovered by the police.

Another highlight is Room 12, the outside room occupied by Mandela in his guise as David Motsamayi, small and cell-like, a harbinger of things to come.

The police believed Radio Freedom was being broadcast from Liliesleaf and went to great lengths to search for equipment. Because they couldn’t turn up anything, they indulged in pre-Photoshop photographic manipulation, superimposing an image of a person pointing out Radio Freedom equipment. The image was found to be a fake when it was pointed out that the person crouching in the foreground’s shadow did not match those of the farm labourers standing nearby and that he was pointing away from the scene.

The police image that was clearly doctored in an attempt to prove that Radio Freedom was being broadcast from Liliesleaf. Image courtesy of Liliesleaf Farm

The thatched cottage where the leaders were arrested contains video material in which one of the arresting policeman, Hennie Pitout, recounts the events of the day.

Next door is a tribute to Bram Fischer and the legal team that defended the Rivonia trialists with such skill that they were spared the death sentence (it is almost impossible to imagine what South Africa might have been had Mandela been executed).

Out back, too, is a fascinating backstory of the overland truck operated by Africa Hinterland Safari to smuggle arms into South Africa, literally under the bums of unsuspecting backpackers (the arms were stored under the bench seats). Known as the Secret Safari, this operation went on until 1993 under orders of Umkhonto weSizwe (also known as MK, the the armed wing of the ANC), even though the ANC leadership had renounced the armed struggle by then.

Unsuspecting backpackers were the decoy for an overland truck that smuggled arms into South Africa

It’s here I catch up with the Danny Glover tour led by Kathrada. Like me, they have spent the afternoon and it’s clearly made an impression. As Glover takes his leave, he says to CEO Nicholas Wolpe: 'Let me know if there is anything I can do.'

Nicholas is the son of Harold Wolpe, who was also arrested at Liliesleaf but subsequently made a daring escape from prison. With his team, he has gathered more than 600 hours of footage of interviews and other material.

He worries that South Africans are losing interest in the history of the struggle for liberation. 'To understand, you must start here,' he says. 'Liliesleaf gives articulation to the liberation struggle, the meaning of the Freedom Charter and the Rainbow Nation.'

He’s right. This place brought together a group of brave people of all races who put their lives on the line to bring about the democratic future we enjoy today. 

And my last glimpse of Kathrada is of him getting into an old VW Citi Golf with his assistant, his afternoon’s work done.

Where? In Rivonia off Rivonia Road. Take the turn-off to 12th Avenue and follow the signs to 7 George Avenue. It’s well signposted.
Times? Daily from 9am to 4pm
How much? The standard guided tour is R110. Self-guided costs R60. Pensioners pay R35.
Have a bite to eat. There’s a café with an outdoor seating area that serves meals. The bacon-and-egg sandwich is great!

Breakfast or lunch at Liliesfield is a good way to end your visit
Danny Glover and Ahmed Kathrada at Liliesleaf in June 2013, 50 years on. Check Danny's shoes!

Category: Attractions, Culture & History

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