LONDON — Unless you understand the history, it’s impossible to track the future. And in this absorbing interview, Nic Wolpe shares the story of how Liliesleaf Farm became the incubator from which the new South Africa was born. This is a fascinating account of a 28 acre plot which was the birthplace of uMkhonto we Sizwe; the sanctuary of its CIC Nelson Mandela (and intelligence head Harold Wolpe); and scene of the police raid that set the scene for the famous Rivonia Trial. Told by the man who has dedicated his life to the iconic part of South African history. – Alec Hogg
Well, here’s a special edition of the CEO Sleepout update. We’re going to be talking with Nic Wolpe. He is the Chief Executive of where it all happens – the Liliesleaf Farm. Nic, it’s really good to be connecting with you today. It’s all happening on the 11th of July, a date that has been extremely carefully selected.
The reason why it’s on the 11th of July is that it was on that day in 1963, that Liliesleaf Farm was raided, which effectively changed the complete trajectory and dynamics of the Liberation Struggle and the focus. The raid on the 11th of July 1963 effectively crushed the internal Liberation Movement and forced the ANC and its alliance partners to conduct the struggle outside of the borders of South Africa. Amongst those arrested were children, the farm, labourers, Hazel Goldreich, Arthur Goldreich, those in the thatched cottage and Dennis Goldberg. So, of the ten Rivonia trialists, six were arrested at Liliesleaf.
Help us through how Liliesleaf came into being such an important part of the struggle and how it came to the point that you are back there now.
The fifties saw the ANC moving away from being a Gentleman’s club to being a mass organisation and the fifties was a defining moment in redefining the role of the ANC. In 1959, the ANC decided that they would undertake a pass-burning campaign – that they would mobilise the population to burn their passbooks which, I’m sure you know, was the identity document – the existence of a black South African. It was there being. It defined who they were.
The hated ‘dompas’ as it was called.
Yes, and they couldn’t move around the country freely unless they were given permission to live in certain areas, which that passbook articulated and informed the authorities that that’s where they could stay. The PAC stole a march on the ANC and decided to hold a campaign earlier than the ANC and there was a gathering outside of the Sharpeville Police Station. The police responded by opening fire on the demonstrators and killed 68/69 people – most shot in the back – with most of them women and children, which sent outrage across the world. Condemnation. There were uprisings and the police and apartheid authorities responded with a clampdown and subsequently, banned the ANC, the PAC, and other formations. The relevance of this is because in 1950, the Communist Party had been banned and they had started to use safe houses to meet for the Politburo, the Central Committee, and other senior structures of the communist party. Because of the banning of the ANC in 1960, it became increasingly difficult for the Communist Party to meet and as a result, they needed to find an alternative venue. Braam Fischer, who was the Chairman of the Communist Party, instructed Michael Harmel and Ahmed Kathrada to go and locate a place where they could meet. Michael Harmel, we believe, identified and discovered Liliesleaf, so Liliesleaf was purchased in 1961 through a front company called Navi Pty Ltd and the purpose of the purchase of the Liliesleaf Farm was to be meeting place of the central committee, the Politburo, and other senior structures of the Communist Party. Now, to tell an anecdotal story as you mentioned about my involvement: when I put on the Rivonia Reunion in 2001, someone came up to me and said, “Are you aware of something” and for a few minutes, he kept repeating that. Eventually, I said, “Please put me out of my misery. What am I supposed to be aware of?” and he said, “I can’t believe you’re not aware of this but in 1961, your father did the legal purchase to buy Liliesleaf and 40 years later, you’re beginning to buy it back.”
So your father was the one doing the fronting for the front company.
Basically, yes so, he did the legal purchase for Navi Pty Ltd, he was acting as the lawyer for the front company.
So how did the ANC then get involved given that it was a Communist Party underground venue?
Well, what basically happened was that following the purchase in August 1961, they offered Nelson the Liliesleaf as a place where he could go and live and hide underground. So, he moved onto Liliesleaf in October 1961, posing as the gardener in the blue overall under the alias of David Motsamayi, and as Ahmed Kathrada described Liliesleaf, through a process of osmosis it evolved. So, from being the headquarters of the Communist Party it morphed into being the headquarters of the newly formed military wing, which was a direct response, one could argue, to the outrage of Sharpeville and the consequences of Sharpeville because what was going on with the ANC in the 50s was a debate as to whether the ANC should move away solely from passive resistance to a combination of armed struggle and passive resistance. The consequence of Sharpeville was the turning point, the defining moment, where the ANC finally recognised that the only way forward from there onwards was to move to a form of armed struggle. So, that’s what began to happen, Liliesleaf, which started out as the High Command of uMkhonto weSizwe morphed into not only being that but it morphed into the birthplace of uMkhonto weSizwe. In fact, at the ANC conferences of 2002, the ANC declared that Liliesleaf was the birth of MK. Liliesleaf having morphed into the High Command also, of MK, it continued to amorph and became what I like to refer to as the inverted diaspora of the Liberation Struggle Movement. It became the heartbeat, the soul of the Movement. It became the essence of the struggle. In fact, on his last visit to Liliesleaf in 2005, Nelson described what made Liliesleaf so unique and significant. He said, ‘Liliesleaf was unique and significant because it was a place of intellectual, ideological, strategic military discourse and engagement.’ It was the words, ‘discourse and engagement,’ which jumped out at us because one of the essences and defining features of the ANC was that it was an organisation that engaged in dialogue and debate, the ‘Battle of Ideas’ which went to the core of why the ANC was able to remain so relevant.
So, in 1963, the members of MK were together and the apartheid police came in, arrested, as you said earlier, many of them. Was it ever discovered how they knew that Liliesleaf was that relevant?
There have been many different theories, and the debates still rage on today. As Liliesleaf was doing its research we began to uncover several different theories. Some of those theories, those who were arrested at Liliesleaf were sceptical. They were not sure whether those theories were valid or correct. The one initial theory that was held by the Rivonia Trialist was that ‘Mister X – Bruno Ntolo’ was an informer and informed the apartheid state of the existence and presence of Liliesleaf. Before going onto articulate some of the other possible theories. The reason why Liliesleaf has discounted that theory and does not believe it is accurate or valid are for the following reasons. In 2011, we interviewed the last surviving member of Special Branch from that period and the longest serving member of Special Branch – Hennie Patu, who was involved in the arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962.
Again, I would like to dispel a myth that Nelson was arrested at Liliesleaf. He wasn’t. He was arrested a year earlier and was serving a 5-year sentence. The reason that he was brought to the Rivonia Trial was they found his papers and documents at Liliesleaf. But going back to Hennie Patu – he was involved in the arrest of Nelson in 62 and the raid on Liliesleaf. In the interview he describes that there is a night watchman guard, a farm labourer. They asked him, ‘is anyone there?’ The farm labourer says no and then started to reverse, he says. Then one of the offices turns to the Head of the team, Lieutenant van Wyk, and says, ‘what should we do?’ His response is sort of, okay, we’re here now – let’s raid. During interviews with Dennis Goldberg and Ahmed Kathrada they recall hearing the police officers say, ‘we’ve hit the jackpot.’
Now, if you go to the dictionary and look up the definition/meaning of jackpot – it means surprise and that we were not expecting it so how could it be there was an informer and the story that is told by the police officer doesn’t tally with this notion of Bruno Ntolo as Mister X the informer so that’s one of the reasons we’ve dispelled that. Now, coming back there’s people who’ve possibly speculated it. That it was the dentist. People have speculated it that it was the local family called the Vickers, who were one of the local residents. There is the theory of the radio operator, who came to Liliesleaf to fix the radio, and then the possible involvement of an intelligence service, in particularly the CIA. So, these are the other theories that exist. Liliesleaf, errs on the side that we believe that it was the CIA, who informed the apartheid state of the location and whereabouts of Walter Sisulu, who had been hiding out at Liliesleaf because after the arrest of Nelson, in 62, Sisulu became ‘public enemy number 1’.
At some point they thought, the authorities, the apartheid state thought that Walter Sisulu had left the country but when he delivered the first broadcast of Radio Freedom it alerted them to the fact that he was still in SA so they started a manhunt for him, and we suspect that they were tipped off that Walter had been staying or was staying at Liliesleaf. However, he had in fact, moved from Liliesleaf to another farm that they had purchased called Trevelyan. So, we suspect that was how they uncovered Liliesleaf.
That’s a fascinating story and certainly does dispel a number of myths. I hope that the family of Bruno Ntolo feel a little more vindicated by that. Getting back to the Wolpe family, getting back to your parents. What happened to your dad then after he was arrested?
One of the reasons that the apartheid state were able to link my father to Liliesleaf was they uncovered a document in his handwriting at the farm, and that was the ‘Code of Conduct in Guerrilla Warfare,’ which I think for your listeners it should be quite interesting because it kind of dispels that myth that they were a terrorist organisation, because we use the word ‘terrorism’ very loosely. It has now become something that we have projected back into the 60s. As if the ANC and the MK was a terrorist organisation. The fact that they wrote a Code of Conduct highlights that they were far from a terrorist organisation. They were an organisation that recognised that arms struggle had to be conducted within a particular context, within a particular framework, under particular rules. So, that’s how they linked him. Then following the raid, he went up to the border but was arrested.
He was then brought back to Pretoria Central and from Pretoria Central he was taken down to Marshall Square and was held at Marshall Square, along with a lot of others who were being held there, like Arthur Goldreich, Mossie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat and others. Now, the four of them, Mossie Moolla, Arthur Goldreich, Abdulhay Jassat, and my father bribed a policeman and that is how they escaped. So they actually escaped from prison or the holding cells, and it became known as the ‘Great Escape.’ At the time, the biggest manhunt was launched for their recapture. The four of them, through various ingenuities managed to get out of the country. The four of them separated. Arthur Goldreich and my father headed to Hillbrow.
In fact, on their way to Hillbrow they actually bumped into the person, who’s house or flat they were heading to, and that was Barney Simon. I’m sure you know who Barney Simon was – he founded the Market Theatre so, to some degree, it reads like a keystone cob, series of events. Hollywood couldn’t have written a more disastrous movie if they tried – it really is a comedy of errors, in many cases. So, that’s how they escaped and eventually got out of the country, spending 16 hours in the trunk of a car, Arthur Goldreich and my father. These two nice, Jewish boys dressed up as priests, as the priest in Swaziland and that sort of thing. When they got to Francistown, for their safety of irony they were put back into prison to be protected. They had just escaped from prison and landed themselves back in prison but this time because the District Commissioner felt it was the safest place to put them.
The first plane though, they were going to try and fly out on from Francistown was blown up. It took 3 other attempts before a plane was able to get them, pick them up, and fly them out. Eventually, they landed up in the UK.
All of this time you were a baby, back in SA?
That’s correct. So, when my father had been arrested I was actually critically ill and my mother had actually been given a bell to ring when I did something. So, the doctors, effectively, had given me up for dead. So, she had to deal with not only my father on the run. She had to deal with a very sick child in hospital, and with her two daughters as well. Following my father’s escape, she was subsequently arrested, put into solitary confinement, and eventually the authorities gave her 24 hours in which to get out of the country. Should she fail to meet that deadline she was going to be rearrested. So, in September 1963, she left SA. A couple of weeks later, my two sisters followed her to the UK. However, at the time, I was not well enough to be moved. I only joined up with my parents in February 1964.
Coming back to SA though, in 1991, it must have been an extraordinary experience.
You know what? It wasn’t. In fact, it was more like I had come home. It was more that I had returned back to the land of my birth. To a country that I felt very strong connections to, even though I had left as a baby. I suppose one of the reasons being is that SA was extremely prevalent and present in our household every single day of my life, while I was growing up in the UK. It was the centre of our world, to some degree. That was what my father focussed on. He was committed to the struggle. He was dedicated to the struggle. He aspired to the principles that all those, like those great leaders, like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilson McQuaid, and Joe Slovo – that selfless commitment and dedication of ridding SA, this beautiful land of ours of this abhorrent, disgusting, ideology, and system called apartheid.
So, when you got back in 1991, did you come as a family?
I joined my parents who had returned in 1991. My two sisters returned between 1995 and 1998. So, by the end of 1998 the entire family had returned to SA.
Then Liliesleaf became front and centre in your mind again?
It did. It’s actually very interesting. I remember a couple of years ago and being interviewed by someone, and you know how you are talking and suddenly, out of the blue, I started to talk about my uncles’ book, A Healthy Grave, because he, in fact, became the eighth co-accused at the Rivonia Trial because they inflicted the sins on the brother-in-law, and he was charged with sabotage for feeding the chickens at Liliesleaf. I remember, as a little boy, very vividly flicking through his book that he had written of his experience of being arrested, charged with sabotage, and being put on trial. Of the picture of Liliesleaf – there’s an iconic picture of the main house and I used to sit there looking at it wondering what happened there? What took place? Why was this place so significant? Why was it so central to the Liberation Struggle? I would never have thought that as an 8 or 9-year-old that some 30-odd years later I would be given the honour and the privilege to be involved in buying back Liliesleaf and to restoring it, and to creating a site of memory that is a beacon on our landscape. Not only for SA but I believe the world, in general, for what it symbolises and represents.
You say, ‘buying back.’ So, clearly it had become something different?
After the raid it was sold. Then it was sold again in 1967 and systematically sub-divided into dwellings. So, there are about 160 dwellings on what was the original 28-acre farm. I started to buy back, first the three properties on which the historical structures were located on and are situated on and then started to buy back additional properties. In total, we have bought back eight properties, which is almost over 4-acres of the original farm.
But the critical part of it, no doubt?
Yes, the critical element being the manor house, the thatched cottage and the outhouse buildings, which we uncovered during an archaeological process where we slowly chipped away at the Spanish-style hussy and the house to reveal the three outhouse buildings, and we were very fortunate that we sat with about, of the three outhouse buildings, we sat with about, I would say, between 45% to 50% of the original structures still standing.
Before we go onto the Liliesleaf Trust and your involvement in it. David Motsamai, or Nelson Mandela, was there any significance in the name?
No, David Motsamai was a client of Nelson Mandela’s. He had actually setup a football league and was caught embezzling the funds from the football league, and he went on trial and was found guilty. But he paid someone to stand-in for him during his prison sentence so, he switched. The police eventually discovered this, rearrested him, removed the guy that he had paid to stand, and take his jail sentence and put him back into prison. I just think it’s a lovely story. It could only happen in SA, I’m sure you’d agree.
It could only be, but why did Nelson Mandela take his name then?
Well you see, he was referred to as ‘The Black Pimpernel,’ which I think they took from the Scarlet Pimpernel and, as you know, that was the myth around the highway bandit, ‘now you see him, now you don’t.’ In the vernacular, Motsamai means – to be on the move or to be on the run. So, I don’t know whether he chose that as, ‘okay, you’ve called me The Black Pimpernel’ I am now taking the name that comes to describing the characterisation of how you’ve characterised me.’
The place that he stayed at, while he was at Liliesleaf, is that still identifiable?
Very much so. The room is still there. The outhouse building room, where he slept is very visible. We were actually able to rebuild it using original brickwork and it’s a relatively small room and people comment on how the size of the room almost mirrors the size of the room of his prison cell. It was where he slept, it was there where he did his readings and his writings. It’s there and you walk into it and actually, in his room, we have some lovely pictures of him but also, we’ve hung up all the messages left by children following his death in 2013. But we also have a bit of his famous ‘I am Prepared to Die For,’ speech playing because it talks specifically about Liliesleaf. What I find very interesting about this extract, which I believe gets very much overlooked, is that he describes how, at Liliesleaf, even though he was underground and he was the Commander in Chief of the newly formed military wing, MK, he was able to live a normal life, insofar as his family were able to come and see him, and they talk about it. All of the children talk about how, while he was at Liliesleaf, they were able to engage with him as if it was a normal family interaction, which I think is a very interesting, what I like to call, ‘sidebar story,’ which seems to get overlooked.
A lot of what you have been talking to us about today does get overlooked but what won’t be is on the 11th July, 55 years to the day, from the infamous raid. There is going to be the CEO SleepOut at Liliesleaf. How did you get involved in that? Where did that idea of having this event at Liliesleaf come from?
Well, for years, I’d wanted to link up with the CEO SleepOut. One of the Trustees, Peggy Sue Khumalo, who’s brilliant, who is fantastic and really helps and asses where she can. She introduced me to Alli Gregg, who runs the CEO SleepOut, and out of that we have landed up where we are today, where they’re going to hold the CEO SleepOut this year, which not only do you know will mark the 55th Anniversary but will also mark the 100th Anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, which is 7-days later. The raid happened on the 11th, and his birthday is on the 18th July.
Madiba’s spirit will no doubt be there on the 11th. How cold is it for those who are also going to be creating some empathy for the homeless who sleep like this every night? How cold is it likely to be that evening?
I don’t know, but all I can tell you is that in the early morning from when I get there, sometimes I go to the side where the Liberation Centre is and it is freezing. I believe it’s one of the coldest parts of Johannesburg. It is unbelievably cold in the winter, in the early hours of the morning there, from about 7h00 to about 9h00 to 10h00 in the morning. So, I have no idea what the temperature will be like during the course of the evening. I can only imagine.
So, the CEOs are going to get a full dose of the Johannesburg winter. But, Nic, from your perspective, the Liliesleaf Trust. You’ve dedicated, certainly your career to it. What exactly is it?
Firstly, I’d like to say, the last 16 years, since I setup the Trust in 2002, has been a very rewarding, enlightening on the one level, cathartic experience. It’s been a journey of discovery. A journey of wonderment but more importantly, beyond that, Liliesleaf is an important and integral component and aspect of what our Liberation Struggle was about. It symbolises, (and I made reference to that earlier), the essence of what we were struggling for and what we were trying to achieve. I believe there is one exhibit at Liliesleaf, which personifies and articulates that very essence that brings alive the Freedom Charter. That brings alive the essence and meaning of what this unique document symbolised and represented, and still represents today. In particular, the preamble, which says, ‘We, the people of SA, declare for SA and the world to know that SA belongs to all who live in it, black and white.’ And that came alive at Liliesleaf.
The exhibit that highlights that is about the 10-year-old snitch. He was playing at the farm one day, with the Goldreich children and he noticed something, which he thought was highly unusual. White men and black men shaking hands and engaging with one another. Now, why is that symbolic and important? Because it also goes to the heart of what Martin Luther King said in his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ when he said, ‘I have a dream that one day, my small children will live in a land where they will be judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ And that’s what was taking place at Liliesleaf. They were judging each other not by the colour of their skin but by the content of each other’s character – the very essence of what we wanted to achieve in this country. Where we didn’t look at each other purely on the basis of the colour of our skin but on the basis of the content of our characters – who we were as individuals, as people, and that is what Liliesleaf represents and that is the basis of why Liliesleaf is such a significant and important site.
In particular, over the last nine years under a government or a leadership that was systematically trying to undermine the very essence of what our struggle was about. And about the dedication of those individuals that so personified the struggle about commitment, selfless sacrifice, dedication and a desire to bring about a new SA for all.
So, I take it you feel that we’re not delivering on that promise, on the belief that the Liliesleaf occupant of 55 years ago would have wanted?
We are and we’re not. I think it’s not as simple to say, we’re not delivering. We have delivered in some areas and we haven’t delivered in others. We have fallen short in some areas and we have achieved in certain areas. But I think overall, we haven’t yet fulfilled the wishes, dreams, and aspirations of that leadership that is personified, and articulated, and represented by Nelson. He’s the person whose held up as the beacon of that struggle, as the face of that struggle, as the figurehead of that struggle, and we fell short of it. You know, you lived through what was going on under the rule of the previous president. How the notion of service and service to the people had been usurped and taken over by something more sinister and more corrupt, which undermined our struggle.
Nic, when these CEOs leave on the morning of the 12th July, what do you hope that they go with, when they depart from Liliesleaf?
I hope that they depart with, (1) An understanding of what Liliesleaf symbolises and represents, both historically and within the current context of our socio-political narrative. (2) They walk away with an appreciation of what we were trying to achieve. (3) That they walk away with a desire and aspiration to continue to convey the messages that Liliesleaf symbolises and represents. That we are able to translate it and put it into the corporate environment where they become the messenger of that message that Liliesleaf encapsulates and is held within the structures of Liliesleaf. Furthermore, highlight it and promote Liliesleaf. Build awareness, encourage South Africans, as well as their international guests, to come and visit Liliesleaf. To learn about what this unique struggle was about, which was a struggle that captured the imagination of the world.
It was a struggle that built sound international friendships because one of the things that we’re also focussing on at Liliesleaf is international solidarity – the role of the international community and the support that the international community gave to our struggle, to our fight to rid our country of apartheid.
Part of that support was recognised by the King of Sweden, who made Nic Wolpe a ‘Sir’ so, I guess I’m being a little disrespectful but I’m sure he won’t mind, by calling him by his first name. A unique opportunity exists, as you’ve heard from Nic Wolpe, in this discussion, for CEOs to get to Liliesleaf on the 11th July, for this year’s edition of the Nelson Mandela (yes, it’s named after him), CEO SleepOut. Well, until the next time, cheerio.