A few miles north of Sandton, in the plush northern suburbs of Johannesburg, is Rivonia, itself an upmarket residential area. But 50 years ago, Rivonia was the location of a small farm that was the headquarters of the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Stephen Williams explains a remarkable story
Fifty years ago, the struggle for South Africa’s liberation was heating up. Frustrated at not being able to engage the apartheid government in meaningful negotiations, the African National Congress (ANC) had made a hugely important decision to turn to armed struggle in the face of the state’s determination to smother protest and crush all dissent. The choosing of sabotage of property and infrastructure was simply to inflict the minimum amount of bloodshed. It is important for those who did not experience this era to get a sense of the sheer horror of the apartheid state. Most people know that it was bad, but unless you lived through it, it is difficult to grasp how evil this political “system” really was. It was little wonder that the leadership of the ANC and their allies in the South African Communist Party (SACP) felt that an armed struggle, the last resort, had to be pursued in order to defeat this abomination.
The decision to purchase Liliesleaf Farm was based on the need to help provide security for the movement’s leaders. It was bought by a front company, Navian Ltd, and leased to Arthur Goldreich, an architect and interior designer, who was secretly a dedicated communist. Nelson Mandela himself was the first activist to stay there, going by the alias of David Matsamayi and dressed in a worker’s overalls, masquerading as the farm’s caretaker.
Liliesleaf, 50 years ago, was very different from today; it was almost a rural area about 15 miles from the city of Johannesburg, with hardly a paved road. But Liliesleaf Farm soon became a regular meeting place for the top commanders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.
However, worries began to surface that the farm’s “cover” would inevitably be compromised, so one final meeting was called for 11 July 1963 to discuss moving operations from Liliesleaf to another farm at Travallyn, near Krugersdorp, about 20km away. On the agenda at the 11 July 1963 meeting was an item to discuss and possibly adopt Operation Mayibuye (“Africa, come back”) – a draft proposal to begin guerrilla operations in order to spark a mass, armed uprising.
However, the meeting was raided by the apartheid Special Branch (or security police), under Lieutenant Willem van Wyk, who had been trying to track down those responsible for political sabotage. He led a 14-man team (and an Alasatian police dog called Cheetah) on the raid on the farm after a paid informant had led him to Liliesleaf and promised him the “top men” would be there.
The “top men” were meeting in a small outbuilding, or the African quarters, behind the main house. Rather than arrive in squad cars that might alert the farm’s occupants, van Wyk decided to use a van that was painted as a dry-cleaning delivery vehicle.
Getting to the farm on the afternoon of Thursday 11 July, the police drove down the winding, dusty farm track and stopped just past the main house. The armed police jumped down from the dry-cleaning van and quickly surrounded the property and outbuildings. As they themselves described it, they “had hit the jackpot”.
Inside the African Quarters, they apprehended Walter Sisulu, then the secretary general of the ANC. With him were his fellow liberation activists: Govan Mbeki (the father of the future South African president, Thabo Mbeki), Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein, Raymond Mhlaba and Bob Hepple.
Denis Goldberg, who had been reading in the main house, was caught trying to flush documents down the guest toilet. These seven men were all arrested, interrogated and hauled off to police stations. A number of black farm workers there were also questioned and detained. The police made a thorough search of the property. They seized a huge amount of incriminating evidence (but no weapons), including a six-page outline of Operation Mayibuye, that were used in what became known as the Rivonia Trial, which took place between October 1963 and June 1964. The accused were tried for 221 acts of sabotage. Stacks of pamphlets, letters, and Nelson Mandela’s notebook and his false passport, were uncovered. There were also more than 100 maps pinpointing police stations, army bases, railway lines, and other sabotage targets.
In a tool-shed, the Special Branch found explosives, fuses, duplicating machines and six typewriters. James Kantor, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Harold Wolpe, and Arthur Goldreich were also subsequently arrested and charged with sabotage “designed to ferment violent revolution”, along with Mandela (who was already in jail serving a five-year term for inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally).
Wolpe and Goldreich managed to escape from jail (with the help of a prison warden) and got out of the country, leaving 11 men to face criminal proceedings at the Pretoria Palace of Justice. Bob Hepple turned state witness and then escaped the country, but Bernstein and Kantor were acquitted. The remaining 10 defendants were found guilty, although unexpectedly they avoided the gallows. The judge instead sentenced them to life imprisonment. They were released between 22 and 27 years later.
Mandela, not at the farm at the time of the arrests but one of the ANC leaders, was brought up from Robben Island for the trial. The defendants all expected the death sentence, but remained resolutely defiant and used the court as a means to speak to the world. Mandela addressed the court for five hours, giving his famous “I am prepared to die…” speech.
One of the most interesting aspects of this whole episode is the multiracial character of those arrested. As Glenn Frankel, the 1989 Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist notes in his book Rivonia’s Children:
“It is surely not hard to understand why Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other black activists risked their lives for the liberation of their people. But for whites, no matter how small their number, to join them was a different matter. “The comforts and privileges of middleclass life in South Africa were far above its economic equivalent in the West. Housing was cheap and labour cheaper still, thanks to apartheid. Whites lived well for very little money. To put all that aside, to resist the temptation to join the mainstream, was a remarkably selfless act.”
Today, almost 50 years on, the Liliesleaf Farm is a fine little museum, with interactive displays and an auditorium which screens film from the era, ensuring that a period in South Africa’s recent history is preserved for current and future generations, and also ensuring that society does not forget the struggle, sacrifices, values, ideals, and principles that underpinned the liberation struggle. Surprisingly, the museum is quite poorly marketed – for example, the Gauteng Tourist Information at OR Tambo International Airport had no brochures for Liliesleaf among the many different attractions being displayed at the desk.
Hopefully, as the half-century anniversary of the raid approaches, there will be a concerted effort to better promote the museum as it surely commemorates a strategic and seminal point in South Africa’s history.
Safari to liberation
One of the problems the liberation movement had was in smuggling military equipment into the country. But activist and exile, Rodney Wilkinson, living in the UK, came up with a brilliant idea. He suggested that hidden compartments be constructed beneath the seats of overland tourist trucks.
The idea was accepted and a company established in London called Africa Hinterland which kitted out two large Bedford tourist trucks and used them between 1986 and 1993 to transport weapons to Umkhonto we Sizwe. The theory was that immigration and customs officials at South Africa’s borders would be reluctant to delay white overseas tourists with lengthy searches of the trucks. Initially, overland tours were organised from Kenya to Johannesburg and Cape Town, offering tourists an overland safari “experience of a lifetime”. Only the drivers knew of the secret cargo, not the passenger tourists (mainly from Australasia) who were sitting on enough guns and explosives to blow them sky-high.
In 1990, the operation moved to Johannesburg, with trips to the Okavango in Botswana, through to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, where the weapons were loaded, before being driven back down to Johannesburg.
In total, 40 tons of weaponry entered the country by this means and, although the apartheid security forces knew that military material was entering the country, they never discovered how.
Once the weapons were in South Africa, they were distributed across the country and buried. These weapons caches were to be the ANC’s last resort should negotiations with the apartheid government in the early 1990s break down. Today, one of the Bedford trucks is on display at Liliesleaf, and visitors can climb aboard to watch a short film, The Secret Safari, made by David Brown, about this daring exploit.