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Johannesburg - Last week, the Liliesleaf Trust hosted a 50th anniversary function for the three surviving members of the Rivonia Trial defence team. Only two local journalists turned up.
Trust chief executive Nic Wolpe is incensed. He’s also exasperated though because he knows he can’t just blame Oscar Pistorius for this. It’s a worrying South African trend. Those who should remember are starting to forget and the new generation just doesn’t care enough to learn.
“Americans know their Declaration of Independence, they know about (Abraham) Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. How many people know about the Freedom Charter?” he asks.
“We have a Bill of Rights and a constitution predicated on what? The Freedom Charter.”
For Wolpe, the Freedom Charter is as important as the US Declaration of Independence and Britain’s Magna Carta. “They’re all frameworks for the constitutions that emerged,” he says.
There are believed to be between six and seven copies of the Freedom Charter signed by Chief Albert Luthuli, among others, that emerged out of the famous Congress of the People held in Kliptown in 1955. The trust arranged for one of them – which went on auction in 2011 – to be bought and placed in the national archives.
Now there’s a second that it is busy securing which, if successful, will be displayed at Liliesleaf.
Wolpe is passionate about both. A tenacious and gregarious 50-year-old father of three, he had just been born when his father Harold was arrested.
Harold Wolpe would have been one of the Rivonia Trialists, but he escaped from police custody at Joburg’s Marshall Square and made it into exile in Britain. His wife AnnMarie wasn’t as fortunate. She was arrested, placed in solitary confinement and interrogated before being released and allowed to leave South Africa on a single-use non-return passport. Nic Wolpe’s two older sisters followed several weeks later, but he was too ill to travel.
An infant, he’d made medical history by being the first person of that age to be put on a ventilator. It would only be in February 1964 that he would be well enough to leave.
Oliver Tambo had left South Africa on March 29, 1960 to set up the ANC’s external operations in the face of mounting state repression. Twenty-four hours later the apartheid government declared a state of emergency and a fortnight later banned the ANC and PAC.
On December 16, 1961, the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe came into being. For the next 18 months, its members would carry out no less than 200 sabotage operations.
Nelson Mandela was named as the new liberation army’s commander in chief, and secretly left South Africa in January 1962 to get military training, meet with Tambo and travel though newly independent Africa to London. On his return he was arrested and jailed for five years for leaving the country illegally and inciting workers.
Liliesleaf had been bought by an SACP front company in 1961 as a secret meeting place for its leadership. A farm in Rivonia, north of Joburg, it was nominally occupied by the Goldreich family, with Mandela masquerading as a labourer and hiding out in the outside cottages while on the run from the security police.
The farm also housed MK’s printing presses to make underground pamphlets.
When the police raided the farm, they found a treasure trove of evidence; among other things Wolpe’s notes and Mandela’s diary detailing MK’s Operation Mayibuye, the military plan to overthrow the apartheid government.
Denis Goldberg, Rusty Goldstein, Bob Hepple, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Billy Nair, Walter Sisulu, Harold Wolpe and James Kantor were among those arrested.
Nine of them would be tried with Mandela in what became the celebrated Rivonia Trial.
Wolpe, MK’s first chief of intelligence, would escape from police custody with Arthur Goldreich. Wolpe’s brother-in-law Kantor, who was arrested and charged just for being related to him, would later be acquitted and go into exile too.
Liliesleaf Farm didn’t just provide the evidence for the Rivonia Trial prosecution; it was also the birthplace of MK. Enter Nic Wolpe.
Unlike children of other ANC exiles, he did return to South Africa – with his parents – in 1991. The man – who describes himself as a loud mouth, aggressive and non-conformist – has always been best suited to getting on and getting the job done with little or no respect for either office politics or red tape. It was precisely because of this that the then treasurer-general of the ANC Mendi Msimang sought him out to organise MK’s 40th anniversary in December 2001.
At that time, Liliesleaf had been split up into eight separate properties in what had become a very upmarket residential suburb.
Wolpe urged the ANC to buy the property back because of its historical significance. The original 28-acre farm had been urbanised and sub-divided into residential dwellings. The historical properties were situated on three residential sites, which the trust originally purchased in 2002. A couple of years later they purchased an additional four properties and then in 2005 the eighth property.
The day before the reunion in 2001, Wolpe signed documents with the three people who owned properties where the original historical structures stood. That was in early December. He had until the end of March to find the money to purchase the properties or the options would lapse.
Wolpe found donors and secured the properties. The real work, though, was only beginning.
“I thought all there was to Liliesleaf was the July 11 raid 50 years ago, but when we started in earnest in 2004 (restoring the original buildings and interviewing survivors), we realised how important Liliesleaf actually was to the liberation struggle.
“It wasn’t about what it was, but what it came to represent.”
In 1983, on the 20th anniversary, Harold Wolpe believed the raid had been a hammer blow. Writing in Sechaba, the ANC’s magazine, Wolpe wrote: “The arrest by the security police of many of our top leaders at the headquarters of our underground organisation… represented a momentous defeat for the national liberation struggle. With one blow the state completed its grip on the political arena by capturing key leaders of the ANC and MK.”
For his son, the raid, the trial that followed and his father’s escape from Marshall Square are umbilically linked: “They propelled the atrocities of the apartheid regime to the centre of the international news agenda. The trial made resistance to apartheid a focal point for the world,” he says.
Liliesleaf has been restored, not just as a heritage site but also as a resource centre with a library of historical documents and more than 500 hours of oral history – from everyone involved, including the security police officers who conducted the raid.
“Here we tell the story of everyone involved. We’re not here to judge, it’s for the visitor to do that,” Wolpe says.
“We need to express history, not sanitise it. People say we’re rewriting history,” he laughs. “I say that’s polite and optimistic – to rewrite it you have to write it first. In this country, we’re not doing anything at all, in fact it’s fading away.”
This is Wolpe’s biggest worry.
“We’re 19 years into democracy and people are turning off. Why has our history become a noose around our neck?” he asks.
“In the US, everyone celebrates July 4, centuries after independence was achieved; in Cuba the people still celebrate their revolution, but here people roll their eyes.
“Even my seven-year-old daughter and I fight over Heritage Day. She says: ‘No, daddy, it’s braai day.’”
It’s not just public apathy. There’s the perennial fight for funding, given that the Liliesleaf Trust does not receive operational support or funding from the government, though it has received some from it in the past.
“My job is to reinvigorate the history of the Struggle, to try to get people to appreciate that it transcended ideologies and was about fundamental principles.
“It was an era of selflessness and sacrifice which to a large extent the world has lost today. We may not forget this history or any other history. It is history, good or bad, that moulds us.
“We can’t define or prescribe the experiences we are exposed to, but we can choose how they impact on us as individuals.”
Rivonia by numbers
50: The number of years since the security police raided Liliesleaf Farm on June 11, 1963.
27: The number of years Nelson Mandela spent in jail, the longest period of all the Rivonia Trialists.
26: The number of years Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada spent in jail.
24: The number of years Govan Mbeki spent in jail.
22: The number of years Denis Goldberg spent in jail.
18: The number of people arrested in the raid.
10: The number of people who were tried for treason.
8: The number of life sentences handed down at the Rivonia Trial.
4: The number of people who escaped from police detention in Joburg and successfully fled into exile.
2: The number of people who were acquitted.
1: The number of people who turned State witness.
* Kevin Ritchie is deputy editor at The Star.