When tourists walk through Liliesleaf; big, small, young, old, they all want to see the tiny brick room at the back. This is the room where thinker, revolutionary and idealist, Nelson Mandela, laid his head on a hard bed in the zenith of his political activism. His body sheltering, amid drudgery; his mind in the stars.
“He stayed for so long in such a tiny room? He must have been a hero!” a few of them say.
Liliesleaf is now an historical site, managed by a trust, dedicated to the memory of the activists who hid out, talked, worked and debated as they dreamed of a new South Africa. These were the dark days of apartheid, where political dissent met with brutal opposition; where secret police tailed and tormented anyone who dared to be different.
In the early 1960s, Liliesleaf was a poke in the eye for the apartheid authorities. The farm, bought by the South African Communist Party, was set up in the so called ‘white’ suburb of Rivonia in Johannesburg, as a front for the underground movement. The idea was that white activists, Arthur and Hazel Goldreich, would play the role of flamboyant, horse-riding, landed gentry. Behind the front, disguised as workers in blue overalls, were the leaders of the underground including: Govan Mbeki; Ray Mhlaba; Walter Sisulu and Andew Mlangeni.
Among them was qualified lawyer and son of a chief, Mandela, who pretended to be a domestic servant called David Motsamayi—a name he had borrowed from one of his legal clients. Translated, from Setswana, it means a person who comes and goes. Mandela’s wry wit rarely failed him.
It was a humble existence for a leader on the run from the police. Mandela had to serve tea to his fellow workers and look after the Goldreich children to keep up the pretence and protect his identity.
Paul Goldreich, who was six years old, when Mandela worked at Liliesleaf, said: “I remember walks with him; going down to the river to shoot snakes with him… We did a lot of shooting. You think about it, what is this guy who is not supposed to be Madiba doing walking around with these kids shooting things—it is a bizarre idea!”
The farm sold vegetables as part of the pretence. Their biggest customer was the nearby Rivonia Police Station.
Every Monday, in the tiny thatched cottage behind the main house, the finest minds of the liberation movement debated policy and drew up plans for guerrilla warfare. In this room was born Operation Mayibuye: a grandiose, but unworkable, plan to overthrow South Africa by parachuting in small groups of guerrilla fighters. The leadership also planned the armed struggle here, which began with a string of explosions across the country on December 16, 1961. The attacks were planned to disrupt what was then known as Dingaan’s Day—a celebration of the Afrikaner victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River.
Mandela, who was no soldier, ran from Liliesleaf, Umkhonto We Sizwe—the spear of the nation—the military wing of the ANC. His days on the run ended when police caught him at a roadblock in Howick, in KwaZulu-Natal, at the end of 1962; after which he was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally.
His comrades continued with the Monday meetings, which, along with lax security and a twist of fate, was to prove the downfall of the underground movement of the 1960s.
For months many of the activists at Liliesleaf were concerned about the casual comings-and-goings by family and friends. The informers had taken note. Because of these security concerns, the underground movement had secured a new farm called Trevallyn, in nearby Krugersdorp. They agreed on a final meeting at Liliesleaf and that proved fatal.
The swoop came on a cold winter’s afternoon on July 11, 1963—a week before Mandela spent his 45th birthday doing hard labor on Robben Island—as the meeting was in full swing. Activist Ahmed Kathrada looked out of the window and saw a white delivery van pull up outside. This was not unusual, but Kathrada’s eyes widened in horror as uniformed policemen with dogs jumped out with batons drawn.
“It was a feeling of shock in one word,” he says.
“Sisulu and I, instinctively, without thinking much—we didn’t have time to think—jumped out of the window and we couldn’t go a few meters and the police were there armed with dogs, there was no point in our running forward and we were arrested.”
The high command of the underground movement was shackled in a circle outside the thatched cottage where the police taunted them by encouraging their dogs to snap at them. They were then loaded into the back of a police van on their way to the prison in the Johannesburg Fort.
“It is high treason chaps!” quipped Mbeki as the van doors closed.
In 1964, the activists were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in one of the trials of the century. The judge decided the accused were merely planning to overthrow the country, not engaged in it.
It saw Mandela and his co-accused painted by the world’s press as the freedom fighting Benjamin Franklins of Africa. Mandela made a six hour speech in which he uttered the immortal line that he was prepared to die for his ideals of freedom.
Denis Goldberg, now nearly 80, who was arrested at Liliesleaf on the fateful day, happened to be there by accident. He was supposed to be out procuring equipment to make hand grenades.
“If I had gone maybe I wouldn’t have been arrested. I know with my luck I would have come back with all of the equipment and the judge would have said you weren’t just planning you were doing and so off with your head,” he chuckles nearly half a century on.
“It is true that history turned at Liliesleaf. Before the raid Nelson phoned Arthur to hide away a huge pile of his papers. Arthur hid them in the coal bunker and that is the first place the police looked. If it hadn’t been for that evidence, Nelson may not have made that speech in court and been imprisoned for life… history could have been very different.”