South Africa’s Best Kept Secret
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – When Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress comrades were plotting to overthrow the White minority-rule apartheid regime in South Africa, Lilies Farm in Rivonia, just north of Johannesburg, served as their secret hideout.
Today, 19 years after South Africa made a bloodless transition to a democracy with the election of Mandela as its first Black president, the picturesque land, now called Liliesleaf, is South Africa’s best kept secret.
Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe bought the farm in 1961 to serve as headquarters for the underground Communist Party and as a safe house for political refugees, including Mandela and Govan Mbeki, the father of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president.
Goldreich and his wife, Hazel, served as the public face of the sprawling residence. To the outside world, they were living a life of affluence with plenty of Black handy men around to make their life easier. But the carefully crafted public perception masked plans to end minority rule by violence. The farm gave birth to MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe – the Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress.
“From its headquarters the National High Command had planned its campaign of guerrilla warfare, sabotage and violence, Joel Joffe wrote in The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial that Changed South Africa. “It has installed a radio transmitter, known as Radio Liberation, and had made a study of armaments and explosives and produced plans for large-scale production of grenades, time-bombs and other explosives”
On the carefully manicured land was a large manor house for the owners, with several outbuildings that housed revolutionaries posing as workers.
“I moved in under the pretext that I was the houseboy or caretaker who would look after the place until my master took possession,” Mandela, an attorney, wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “I had taken the alias David Motsamayi, the name of one of my former clients. At the farm, I wore the simple blue overalls that were the uniform of the black male servant.”
The groundwork for converting the farm into a museum began in 2002. The restoration project preserved the farm’s original character; approximately 60 percent of the infrastructure uses the original bricks.
A tour of the museum includes a stop in a room with a 3-D presentation that incorporates video, and photographic images of the ANC leaders and their surroundings. Using two aluminum “navigators,” visitors can look back at various aspects of apartheid. In an adjoining room, an old radio plays the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by ANC President Albert Luthuli, who was honored for leading a non-violent struggle against apartheid.
Across the lawn, in a row of living units, is Mandela’s old apartment. Inscribed on a rectangular window outside are the words: “Room 12 Nelson Mandela’s Room.”
Before stepping inside, I took a deep breath, realizing I was about to walk into history.