A Jo'burg activists' farm turned museum

Monday April 17 2017

A picture of Nelson Mandela at the Liliesleaf

A picture of Nelson Mandela at the Liliesleaf Farm in Johannesburg. PHOTO|MARYANNE GICOBI 


On my recent visit to South Africa, I was looking for new places to explore.

I visited a number of places, and the one I enjoyed most was the Liliesleaf Farm, in the suburb of Rivonia in northern Johannesburg.

The farm was secretly used by South African activists in the 1960s — members of the African National Congress who were planning to overthrow the apartheid government.

The museum showcases the struggle that went into liberating the country.

On paying an entry fee of $11, one is led into a room to watch a 12-minute film showing the mistreatment of Africans by the apartheid government, which led to the need to fight the oppressors.

After watching the film, we went to see various rooms.

In the living room, one of the ANC member was arrested as he was running to the toilet to flush documents that had details of the plans to overthrow the government.

The rooms also have pictures of the ANC leaders and some notable quotes of people who were arrested that day . The kitchen, store room and bathroom have been well preserved.

A picture of Nelson Mandela at the Liliesleaf

A picture of Nelson Mandela at the Liliesleaf Farm in Johannesburg. PHOTO|MARYANNE GICOBI

On 11 July 1963, security police raided the farm and captured 19 members of the main underground movement and charged them with sabotage.

The arrest was dramatic as the police came in a vehicle disguised as a laundry van. Before the ANC members could escape, the police let chase dogs loose on the activists and arrested all of them.

For 18 months they had been holed up at the farm which had been bought to serve as the headquarters of the underground community party.

It was a safe place for political fugitives like Nelson Mandela to operate from.

A white couple who projected an acceptable white middle-class family facade posed as the owners, while the thatched cottage and outbuildings concealed covert liberation activities.

Nelson Mandela posed as their caretaker, working in blue overalls, under the name David Motsamayi.

Senior leaders of the liberation movement attended strategy meetings and sought shelter here.

In addition to Mandela, they included Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, Bob Hepple, Harold Wolpe, and Denis Goldberg.

“On the day of the raid, the National High Command were holding their ‘last and final’ meeting at Liliesleaf. Operatives were concerned that the safety of Liliesleaf had been compromised, so that it had been decided that future meetings would be held elsewhere,” reads one of the posters in the rooms.

There is also a room with an old lorry that the activists used to smuggle weapons into South Africa from Lusaka.

The weapons had to be sealed in special foil packaging that would hide the smell of glycerine from sniffer dogs at government road blocks. In the same room as the lorry is a suitcase that was used to smuggle leaflets used to spread the message of the liberation movement.

A coal debunker just outside the main house kitchen was used to hide documents.

Documents found in the coal shed led to Mandela being sentenced to 22 years in jail even though he was not arrested in the raid that day.

The papers provided evidence of Mandela’s link to Liliesleaf, and the details of his travels abroad to build support for the ANC.

A the time, Mandela was already in jail serving a five-year term at Robben Island for using a fake passport.

The experience was educative, and I advise anyone visiting Sandton to allocate at least three hours of their time to see the farm.