It was just a farm, but what went on there was extraordinary: Nelson Mandela, disguised in blue overalls, plotting with other anti-apartheid leaders against South Africa’s racist regime.
“It was exciting and very busy because we were going to overthrow a government,” said Dennis Goldberg, who was arrested along with other resistance leaders when apartheid-era police raided Liliesleaf Farm in 1963.
Beginning on Monday, the site that was once the location of so much clandestine activity will open its doors widely to the public as a museum.
Mandela lived secretly at the farm from October 1961 to January 1962, taking up a fake identity and dressing in overalls, before leaving to raise funds abroad.
The future Nobel peace prize winner worked to organise the African National Congress’s armed wing there. He had been jailed a year before the raid at the farm and given a five-year sentence.
But the trial that resulted from the raid — the Rivonia trial, named for the area outside Johannesburg where Liliesleaf is located — gave him an important platform. Documents found at the farm allowed authorities to try him as well.
It was at the Rivonia trial where Mandela gave his famous “I am prepared to die” speech. In it, he said he was prepared to die for the ideal of a democratic and free society.
Most of those on trial, including Mandela, were given life sentences, but the proceedings gained international attention for their cause. Mandela was not freed until 1990.
“[Mandela] read books about war, peace, political theory, Marxism, capitalism, social democracy, because he was safe there,” Goldberg, now 75, said of the farm. “Then he and others develop this concept of armed struggle as part of political campaign for freedom.”
In the face of growing repression by the apartheid regime, anti-apartheid leaders gradually became convinced of the necessity of armed struggle.
Police opening fire on a protest in 1960, killing 70, and convinced those who still had doubts.
Goldberg said, however, that “we were not professional revolutionaries. We made mistakes.” He was supposed to be the weapons-maker, he said, and spent much of his time planning to make explosives.
“Govan Mbeki [father of current South African President Thabo Mbeki], Walter Sisulu and the others had been living at Liliesleaf, and outsiders would come to meetings and perhaps the police got to understand in this way where we were,” he said.
One last meeting was to be held at the farm before relocating to another one because ANC leaders were worried they had been found out.
Their concern was not misplaced. On July 11 1963, officers showed up in vans and raided the place.
“We went to Liliesleaf one more time for one last meeting and got caught,” said Goldberg. “That’s the reality.”
The officers knew exactly where things were located inside the house, said Jacqueline Otukile, a guide in the new museum. Documents found there were used against those arrested.
“When I was taken to the prison … I had a good look around at the night sky, knowing I would not see it again for many many years and perhaps I might never see it again,” said Goldberg.
Mandela had previously asked the others to destroy his notes, but Ruth First and Arthur Goldreich were convinced of their historical importance and hid them in a coal bunker at the farm.
Police found those, too, allowing them to put Mandela on trial with the others.
Four years after he was finally released from prison, South Africa held its first multiracial elections that resulted in Mandela becoming president.
“This is a place of commitment, of courage, of people dedicated to freedom,” Goldberg said of the farm.
“Freedom comes from struggle … That is the legacy of Liliesleaf.” – AFP