This story was first published in the September 2012 issue of SA Country Life.
🕒 8-minute read
South African history took a major turn when police unexpectedly netted most of the top planners of violent resistance against white minority rule. And visitors to Liliesleaf can watch a hi-tech reconstruction of the drama right where it occurred, says Leon Marshall.
Liliesleaf Farm does not have that air of desolation of old battlefields. Nobody died there. But it was the site of a big collision between opposing forces that left it with a deep sense of history.
It can be seen as the spot where the markers were put down for the settlement of the racial issue that had been at the root of this country’s problems ever since white and black met up here more than three centuries earlier.
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Place of Destiny
The paradoxes are striking. The actions that were supposed to suppress revolt served at the time to actually highlight the South African conflict internationally, as well as identify for society at large who the anti-apartheid rebellion’s active leaders were. Moreover, what amounted at first to a resounding victory for one side and a devastating defeat for the other, eventually came to work the other way round, as the defeated who were sent to jail were elevated to the status of heroes.
‘Heritage Site’ signs along the streets of Sandton’s leafy Rivonia suburb guide me to the place. Just about everything is different from when the homestead and its outbuildings, set in what was then a smallholding area, came to be at the epicentre of the racially charged shockwaves that began to rock South Africa more than half a century ago.
The old farmstead has been pristinely restored. The gardens are nothing like they would have been at the time. Vegetable beds and footpaths have made way for manicured lawns and paved walkways. At the entrance stands a rectangular, red-brick office block that also contains a library and archives. A walkway named the Liberation Path, lined with inscriptions, leads past the farmhouse to the similarly rectangular but glass-fronted Liberation Centre that houses the booking office, a coffee shop and an auditorium.
Thoughts rush through my head as I set foot on the grounds. It all seems so serene compared with the dramatic events that played out there and the consequences they held for the individuals involved and, ultimately, for the country.
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The Last Meeting
The design of the new buildings is so austere it seems to counteract the overall effect. But it was purposely done this way so they don’t detract from the old buildings and their part in the scenario that unfolded on 11 July 1963, when a dry-cleaning van drove up the dirt road leading to the house.
The arrival of the van was peculiar. Nobody on the premises had ordered laundry services. It was the last thing a group huddled around a table in a thatched cottage on the grounds had in mind. They were plotting a sabotage campaign dubbed Operation Mayibuye, to undo white minority rule.
Ironically, they intended it to be their last meeting at Liliesleaf as they feared the place might no longer be safe for conducting their clandestine activities.
Neither, however, were the occupants of the van interested in laundry. When its doors swung open, it was policemen with guns and a dog who poured out. They were acting on information that Walter Sisulu, secretary-general of the banned African National Congress (ANC), was hiding out there.
They ended up netting almost the entire top leadership of the newly formed Umkhonto we Sizwe military wing of the ANC and the long-outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP).
Sisulu was there, as were Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein, Bob Hepple and Denis Goldberg. Nelson Mandela was not among them. He was serving a prison sentence for sedition and for having left the country illegally. But a diary of his found hidden in the farmstead’s coal bunker contained such incriminating evidence that, as commander of the military movement, he came to be listed as Accused Number One in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.
The SACP had two years before bought the house under the name of a company. Mandela was the first of the conspirators to use it as a hideout, pretending to be a worker named David Motsamayi. He even wore blue overalls.
The house was rented by Arthur Goldreich, a Communist Party member who masqueraded as its white owner. It was he who hid Mandela’s diary in the coal bunker. The police grabbed him as he drove in while their raid was in progress.
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A Lucky Invitation
The acquisition of the property and its development into a heritage site arose from a Rivonia trialists’ reunion on the grounds in 2001 when it was decided to establish a trust for this purpose.
The CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust is Nicholas Wolpe, an affable man with a clean-shaven head. He is the son of Harold Wolpe, who did the purchase and transfer of the farm for the SACP in 1961.
Nicholas was three months old at the time of the raid. His father tried to flee the country when he heard about the events at the farm, but got caught and was held at what was then known as Marshall Square police headquarters in Johannesburg. He managed to escape by bribing a prison guard and took his family into exile.
Chatting over cappuccinos at a table under a tree outside the coffee shop, Nicholas tells me about the coincidences that led to Liliesleaf ’s preservation as a heritage site. It was still a guest house when he was invited to a fancy-dress party there in 2001. He arrived dressed in a Superman costume, as a ‘Super Communist’. Though an easy talker, he seems curiously uncertain when I ask him how he felt on seeing the place for the first time. “It was dark,” he remarks. “I don’t know, but I had a sense . . .” Later he uses the word ‘surreal’. Whatever, he had much to do with the ANC leadership deciding to set up a trust to buy the properties and restore the buildings.
Nicholas asks tour guide Tracey Rapelego to show me around. First she takes me to the auditorium to see a short film giving the background to the events. Then she leads me to the front door of the farmstead where she formally introduces herself and welcomes me to Liliesleaf.
The contrast between the brutalities of that bygone era and the sophistication of the modern equipment used to depict it is staggering. Pull a drawer from a wall panel, as from an old-style filing cabinet, and the subject matter chosen is smartly presented on screen. Touch a spot on a luminous table in what would have been the old house’s lounge, and it tells you all about what happened there. They call it ‘interactive’ and ‘experiential’ technology.
We get to the kitchen where an old-type radio stands on a table before an illuminated picture of Chief Albert Luthuli on the wall. It is where Mandela listened to the announcement of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the then ANC leader. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika plays over the radio and, standing respectfully still, Tracey sings along softly.
Outside, she shows me the coal bunker where Mandela’s writings were found. Further on, at the servants’ quarters, there is a table, a bed and a large picture of him in the room he used. Behind the buildings stands the Bedford truck the revolutionaries used, under the pretext of it being a safari vehicle, to smuggle weapons into the country.
The thatched outhouse where the conspirators were trapped seems so small and unremarkable it is hard to associate it with the drama that once played out inside its walls.
Looking from the Liberation Centre’s roof garden, where once again there is an experiential device explaining the layout, it is hard to get my mind around the distance we have come since that laundry van’s arrival on that crisp winter’s day, now nearly half a century ago.
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Words Leon Marshall
Photography Leon Marshall and Supplied