hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein

The Last Meeting At Liliesleaf Farm

This has been reproduced from a blog found here

It was to be the last meeting at the secret headquarters of the banned African National Congress (ANC). The leadership had been worried for some time that police had learned of their hideout on a smallholding in Rivonia, 20 kilometres north of Johannesburg.

On the afternoon of 11 July, 1963, a dry-cleaning van drove up to the door. No-one had ordered dry cleaning. Armed policemen burst out . . . and from that moment, the word "Rivonia" became synonymous around the world with the silencing of black resistance in South Africa.

The headquarters were on a smallholding called Liliesleaf Farm. The key leaders of the armed wing of the banned ANC, including Nelson Mandela himself, had operated from its outhouses for two years. In those days, Rivonia consisted of a rural patchwork of smallholdings, riding schools and farms, with few tarred roads. Today, it has been engulfed by the northern expansion of Johannesburg, to become one of the city's most luxurious suburbs, with property prices in the million-Rand region.

The Liliesleaf building still stands, just one more bungalow-style house in a quiet side street, but the grounds have been sub-divided and sold off. Now there are plans to set up a Liliesleaf Trust, restore the area, and perhaps even turn it into a conference retreat for international negotiations, along the lines of Camp David, the US retreat.

The outbuildings that belonged to the farm are now part of adjacent properties but these will be purchased in the coming months to restore the farm to look as it did when the ANC bought it in 1961 to be an underground base for the newly formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC.

Nelson Mandela moved into the house in October 1961, while evading security police. He masqueraded as the gardener and cook, under the alias of David Motsamayi.

In December 1961, artist and designer Arthur Goldreich and his family moved in as the "legitimate" white owners of the house and as a cover for the covert MK operations. Goldreich was unknown to the security police, but he was one of the first members of MK. While Goldreich lived in the main house, the other ANC members lived in the outbuildings, to allay suspicions concerning blacks living in the "white" house.

The ANC operated from Liliesleaf Farm for two years before the security police found out about the location from police agent Gerard Ludi, who had infiltrated ANC structures.

Mandela describes the swoop on Liliesleaf in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: "On the afternoon of 11 July 1963, a dry cleaner's van entered the long driveway of the farm. No-one at Liliesleaf had ordered a delivery. The vehicle was stopped by a young African guard, but he was overwhelmed when dozens of armed policemen and several police dogs sprang from the vehicle. In the thatched cottage they found a dozen men around a table discussing a document."

That document was the outline of Operation Mayibuye, the MK plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa. The men in the room included Goldreich, Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel Bernstein, Walter Sisulu, Bob Hepple, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg. Mandela himself was absent - he was serving a five-year sentence on Robben Island for inciting workers to strike and for leaving the country without a passport.

In his book, Mandela says: "In one fell swoop, the police had captured the entire high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe."

It is significant that for a "terrorist" group planning sabotage, not one weapon or bomb was found on the property.

Mandela was brought to Pretoria from the island, having served nine months of his five-year sentence, and together with the other top MK members, was charged with sabotage, a crime carrying the death sentence. Says Mandela, "From that moment on we lived in the shadow of the gallows."

On 12 June 1964 sentence was handed down by Judge de Wet. "I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty which in a case like this would usually be the proper penalty for the crime, but consistent with my duty that is the only leniency which I can show. The sentence in the case of all the accused will be one of life imprisonment."

Seven men were taken to Robben Island - Sisulu, Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, Mlangeni and Mandela. Bernstein, although he helped draft the MK constitution, was found not guilty and discharged. Goldberg was the only white sentenced to life imprisonment, for which he was sent to Pretoria Central Prison. Most of the men served between 22 and 27 years; Mandela was the last one released, in February 1990.

The Farm Today

Rivonia is very different these days, thanks to Johannesburg's march northwards. It has changed so much, that when Mandela tried to find Liliesleaf Farm 18 months after his release from prison, accompanied by journalist Allister Sparks, he spent some time searching the suburb before finding the farmhouse - and surprised the present owners, Veda and Helmut Schneider.

When the Schneiders bought the house in 1989 they were unaware of its historic value. But several weeks after they moved in, the Sunday Times published a picture of the house, with a caption reading: "Mystery buyer snaps up plotters' hide-out".

"This was the first time we got to know about what we had bought," says Veda Schneider. Over the next several years overseas visitors knocked on their door and asked to look around the house. Then more local people came to look, as did the Sandton Historical Society, conducting an informal tour of the house, says Schneider.

"By 2000 we had started to talk seriously about turning the house into a guest house, and when the house next door became available for rent, we thought the time was right," says Schneider. The couple moved next door and started renovating the farmhouse.

A year later, in February 2001, Liliesleaf opened as a three-suite luxury guest house and conference centre. It has become a most attractive place: gleaming parquet floors in the entrance foyer welcome the visitor; carefully selected furniture, pictures and mirrors, with converted gas fireplaces, make up the public rooms.

It has recently received its five-star rating and, with a staff of ten, hosts up to three conferences a week.

In December 2001 a reunion of the Rivonia trialists was held, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the formation of MK. Some 150 guests were invited, along with President Thabo Mbeki. Mhlaba, Goldberg, Mlangeni, Bernstein and Goldreich were present; Mandela and Kathrada could not attend; Sisulu was in hospital; Govan Mbeki and Motsoaledi had died.

At this function it was announced that the Liliesleaf Trust had been formed. The task of the trust is to return the house and the outbuildings where the trialists lived, to their original state, and create a museum to record this history.

Three surrounding properties will be purchased, and a hotel and conference centre will be erected, overlooking the original house. "It will be a case of deconstruct and reconstruct," says Nicholas Wolpe, the administrator and co-coordinator of the Liliesleaf Trust. The plotters' confiscated printing press and radio transmitter will be returned to the house.

But it won't simply be a matter of restoring the physical items to their original place - it has a deeper significance, says Wolpe. "We want to capture the symbolic importance of the leadership that gathered at Liliesleaf. It was the best group of leaders this country has ever seen. We want to create an awareness and understanding of what the struggle was about."

Wolpe says it will cost about R50-million to achieve the vision. Consultants have already been commissioned to assist in getting a roadshow together, to start the fundraising. It is expected that the restored Liliesleaf Farm will only be operational in 2004.

When asked how she feels about leaving the house and all that has been built up, Schneider says, "The idea was always to have a trust - it is the right way for it to go. There will be sadness at giving up the guest house, but I am glad we had a part to play. I am delighted the trust has been established."

The trust has a broad vision for the farm. "America has Camp David. England has Chequers. Now South Africa will have a similar retreat, where the government, institutions and the private sector can gather in historic surroundings," say Wolpe.

Liliesleaf Farm is to be part of a tour planned for visitors to the World Summit for Sustainable Development in August 2002.

Where They Went (2005)

Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni are both still prominent in the inner circles of the ANC and are members of Parliament. Both spent a quarter of a century in jail with Nelson Mandela.

Raymond Mhlaba was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1989 and in 1991 he was elected to the ANC national executive and the South African Communist Party central committee, becoming national party chairman in 1995. In 1994 he became premier of the Eastern Cape and served in this role until 1997. He was then appointed High Commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda, retiring in 2001. In 2003 he had a stroke and in 2004 was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died in February 2005. He received the ANC's Isitwalandwe Award in 1992 for his contribution to the liberation struggle, and in 2002 he received the Moses Kotama Award for his contribution to the SACP.

Walter Sisulu, former secretary-general of the ANC, moved back into his small, four-roomed house in Soweto after his release in 1989, at the age of 77. He took up ANC duties but after the democratic elections in 1994 he retired from politics. He moved into the northern suburbs of Johannesburg with his wife, Albertina, because he needed to be closer to his doctors, as his health was failing. In May 2003 he died peacefully in the arms of his wife at his home, at the age of 90.

Denis Goldberg spent 22 years in Pretoria Central Prison, isolated from his fellow Rivonia trialists. In 1985 the government offered to release any political prisoner who renounced armed struggle. Goldberg accepted, and after visiting his daughter briefly in Israel, moved to England, where he lived until 2002. He returned to South Africa and now lives in Cape Town where he is a special adviser to the ministry of water affairs and forestry.

Bob Hepple, who indicated he would turn state witness, was released - and immediately fled to England. He is professor of law at Cambridge University.

Rusty Bernstein was discharged in the Rivonia trial, but arrested again soon after and released on bail. He fled the country and lived in England with his wife, Hilda, and family, working as an architect [he and his wife continued to work for the anti-apartheaid movement and Rusty wrote many articles duirng this period], until his death. After 1994 he made several trips to South Africa but continued to live just outside Oxford in the UK. He died in June 2002 at the age of 82.

Prison warder Constable Greef was given a six-year sentence for his part in the Marshal Square prison escapes. He did not serve the full sentence, nor did he receive the money promised him. In 1994, when the ANC finally came to power, Greef was traced and arrangements were made to pay him the money.

Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat made their way to India after their release, but ended up back in South Africa. Moola served as ambassador in various embassies, and is now based in Johannesburg. He works in the department of foreign affairs. Jassat (who still suffers from epilepsy as a result of his torture) was in exile for 32 years. He is now a businessman in Johannesburg.