Remembering Rivonia on Madiba’s Day

by | Jul 18, 2013 | Johannesburg, Museums and Buildings, Sandton and Surrounds | 20 comments

“…no one can blame brave just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods; nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony.”

–Chief Albert Luthuli, 12 June 1964 (printed on a placard at the Liliesleaf Visitors’ Centre)

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Last Thursday (11 July) was the 50th anniversary of the raid on Liliesleaf Farm, which eventually led to the historic Rivonia Trial. That would have been the perfect day for me to write a post about the amazing museum at Liliesleaf, which I’ve been meaning to do anyway. But I missed it.

However, today (18 July) is Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. Mandela (whose nickname is Madiba, for the non-South Africans among you) was the central figure in the Rivonia Trial, which led to Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment. So now I have a second chance to write a meaningful post on a meaningful day. I won’t miss it this time.

Liliesleaf 2011

I shot this photo at Liliesleaf more than two years ago in May 2011, when I briefly visited the museum as part of a media tour sponsored by the City of Joburg. At the time, I promised to write a full post about Liliesleaf in the near future. Better late than never.

I recently spent a few hours at Liliesleaf while researching Rivonia (a far-northern Jozi suburb) for a book called SandtonPlaces (read more about the SandtonPlaces endeavor), and was reminded of what a remarkable place Liliesleaf is. If you’re interested in South Africa’s history, Liliesleaf should be just as high on your list of Jozi must-sees as the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill.

Here is an extremely brief description of the significance of Liliesleaf. In 1960, while South Africa was under apartheid rule, the Communist Party purchased the farm secretly as a place to hold meetings with the ANC and other resistance groups. Communist Party member Arthur Goldreich and his family lived anonymously at the farm, integrating into the local community, while leaders of “the Struggle” came and went under cover of darkness.

Nelson Mandela lived at Liliesleaf off and on between 1961 and 1962, posing as a gardener named David Motsamayi. At Liliesleaf, Mandela and other Struggle leaders hatched their plan to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, also called the MK, the military arm of the ANC.

Liliesleaf memorial

One of many lovely memorials at Liliesleaf — a tribute to the armed struggle against apartheid. 

In August 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested while traveling covertly through South Africa’s Natal Province. Liliesleaf continued to serve as the MK headquarters after Mandela’s arrest.

On the night of 11 July 1963, South African police raided Liliesleaf during a meeting about Operation Mayibuye, the resistance’s plan to overthrow the apartheid government. ANC and Communist leaders had already decided that this would be the last meeting at Liliesleaf, fearing the location had been exposed. They were right.

Liliesleaf raid picture

Portion of one of the few photographs shot during the 1963 raid on Liliesleaf. It shows Arthur Goldreich and Detective Warrant Officer Carel Dirker. The photo is now a chilling wall-sized display at Liliesleaf. (Interesting side note: Goldreich was obviously arrested that night but managed to escape from Joburg’s Fort Prison, along with activist Harold Wolpe, a couple of days later. The two made it safely to Swaziland.)

Nineteen members of the resistance were captured that night. The raid gave the South African government the evidence it needed for the 1963-64 Rivonia Trial, when Mandela and seven other men were sentenced to life in prison.

After the raid, Liliesleaf Farm was sold and fell into obscurity. But in 2001 President Thabo Mbeki announced the creation of the Liliesleaf Trust, headed by Nicolas Wolpe. (Nicolas’ father, Harold, was one of the men arrested during the raid.) In 2008, after a painstaking restoration, Liliesleaf opened as a museum.

Liliesleaf sign

Plaques at the Liliesleaf Visitors’ Centre, illustrating the web of historical figures connected to the farm’s history.

The best thing about Liliesleaf, in my opinion, is its peacefulness. In many ways, the historical events that happened there represent violence and repression. And yet today, the farm radiates calm.

Also, the exhibitions at Liliesleaf are phenomenal — sophisticated, interactive, and interesting. I love museums that teach me something without my realizing it. Liliesleaf does that.

Liliesleaf display

Clean, informative, interactive exhibit in Liliesleaf’s Thatched Cottage.

When you visit Liliesleaf, be sure to go around behind the Thatched Cottage and check out the Bedford truck, which was used to ferry arms into South Africa while carrying safari tourists as a cover. It’s one of the most interesting parts of the museum but easy to miss.

Liliesleaf truck

The Bedford truck. You can climb inside and watch a video about secret gun-running under apartheid.

The other best-kept secret at Liliesleaf is the rooftop terrace above the café. Order a cappuccino at the counter and then climb the ramp to the terrace. You can look out over Liliesleaf while listening to several interesting historical recordings.

Liliesleaf outside

View of Liliesleaf from the rooftop terrace.

Liliesleaf is a bit of a hike from downtown Jozi. Trust me though, Liliesleaf is worth fighting traffic for. Go now before the rest of the world discovers it.

Liliesleaf is at 7 George Avenue, Rivonia.

Liliesleaf Thatched Cottage door

Looking out at Liliesleaf from the Thatched Cottage, where the 1963 raid took place.

Oh, and happy birthday, Madiba. July birthdays rock.


    • 2summers

      Thanks for the reblog!

  1. Meruschka

    Liliesleaf is on of Jozi’s best heritage attractions. I agree with you, the peacefulness at the farm is wonderful, reminiscent of the times when Rivonia was just farmland. Also love the story of the Bedford truck!

    • 2summers

      Thanks Meruschka, I’m glad you agree 🙂

  2. das.hennka

    Thank you! Very interesting.
    And happy birthday, Madiba! Best greetings from germany.

    • 2summers

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. catherine

    thanks Heather!

  4. beeseeker

    Thanks very much for posting this, it means so much to me (over here in the middle of the U.K) to have this background. It also connects some of the dots that were added to my understanding of life when I visited Capetown and Robben island. the information there was starkly stunning and the lack of any form of vengeance from Mandela (and others) that we were told about – and observed – says a lot about the future prospects for the world, if the right people hear the messages.
    (Sorry, stepping off the soap box … only meant to say thanks for posting.)

    • 2summers

      Thanks. I hear what you’re saying 🙂

  5. Sine

    Agreed, one of the best kept secrets in Joburg. I also agree the Bedford truck is the best part. The story about it is pretty amazing.
    Oh, and when exactly is your July b-day?:-)

    • 2summers

      Mine is on July 8 🙂

  6. Eugenia A Parrish

    Thanks so much for letting me in on a bit of African history. If I ever get there, I will definitely want to see the farm. Happy birthday, Madiba.

  7. Rebecca

    Thanks for the history lesson! I’ve not heard of this particular place when I visited Jozi – next time!

    • 2summers

      Thanks Rebecca. Not many people know about Liliesleaf — it’s a best-kept secret.


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