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South Africa: The Liliesleaf Farm story

Nestled in a Johannesburg suburb, Liliesleaf Farm was the secret hideout where South Africa’s future changed

South Africa: The Liliesleaf Farm story
Image: David Whitley

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History is full of great what-ifs, and one of the moments those great counterfactuals swing on took place at Liliesleaf Farm. Now consumed by Johannesburg’s wealthy northern sprawl, on June 11th, 1963, it was a quiet countryside-cusp farm run by department store designer Arthur Goldreich.

Before the Goldreich family arrived to take over the tenancy, things were kept ticking over by David Motsamayi, who wore the simple blue overalls of the black servant in apartheid South Africa.

Montsamayi was a fake ID, and by 1963 it had already been rumbled. Nelson Mandela had been recently arrested for travelling under a false passport, and was due to stand trial. Then, with the police raid on Liliesleaf, several of his co-conspirators joined him in the dock.

The farm was where the resistance to apartheid rule met. The South African Communist Party provided the funds via a front company, and key figures of the now-banned African National Congress discussed strategy there. There had recently been a shift from non-violence, with Mandela heading up the uMkhonto we Sizwe armed division and its tactical campaign of bombings. The meeting on June 11th was due to be the last held at Liliesleaf — they feared the secret was out. And they were right.

The Liliesleaf raid and subsequent Rivonia Trial changed the story of the anti-apartheid fight. The capture of so many key members knocked the stuffing out of the ANC, and it wasn’t until the 1976 Soweto Uprising – led by a new generation – that things properly started to kick into gear again. How South Africa’s story – and those of the major players such as Mandela – would have changed without that 13-year body blow is open to debate.

Liliesleaf now is a museum, partly about the events of 1963 but mainly about the struggle against apartheid. And it’s here where it takes unexpected turns, the first of which is a whole room devoted to Sweden.

After the Liliesleaf raid, one of the key planks in the ANC’s strategy was getting international support. It was slow progress, but Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was at the forefront of changing global opinion. Sweden instituted the first official trade boycott of South Africa, poured in huge amounts of funding to the ANC and granted asylum to political refugees.

The operations within Africa are just as absorbing. Displays go through the cat-and-mouse game the South African government played with the resistance, using economic power and military force to turn potentially friendly host countries against the ANC. Tanzania eventually became the main base, with training camps in the USSR, but Dar Es Salaam is a long way from Jo’Burg.

But to me, the single most remarkable exhibit at Liliesleaf is a safari truck belonging to Africa Hinterland, an overland travel company that ran long-distance pan-African trips.

Several companies did this then, and do this now. The difference is that Africa Hinterland was a front for an arms-smuggling operation. Paying guests would be blissfully unaware as weaponry would be loaded on board in Lusaka, then carried over the South African border. And the absurd thing was that it ran as a proper business – taking in all the key sights and trying to give as good a customer experience as possible. Authenticity, it seems, was the best disguise. And perhaps a bit more farming needed to go on at Liliesleaf to stop the secret getting out…

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