CityLife Arts

Allowing closure of LiliesLeaf Farm museum amounts to shutting out people from history of freedom struggle

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Somewhere in deep northern suburbia Johannesburg, in Rivonia specifically, exists a national heritage site and monument of historical importance, especially in the context of the NAC’s struggle for freedom. It is here where the brightest brains of the liberation struggle, both black and white, about 60 years ago, put their heads together and planned to execute the struggle.

It will be important to remember that those planners and executers of the struggle, lest we forgot, comprised of some of the bravest and sharpest brains from both white and black communities of South Africa. These men and am sure women also played an important role behind the scenes as wives, mothers, girlfriends, sisters and aunts of these brave men, were united by one common goal. That goal was to see South Africa free from racial discrimination, oppression and other unethical and immoral practices of apartheid.

That place, to outsiders, was simply known as a farm where white owners of the farm would from time to time, visit to check whether their  ‘farm boys’ were doing a proper job, for which they were hired. There is one problem though.  LiliesLeaf Farm was no ordinary farm, and the garden boys that would be seen by neighhbours from time to time doing gardening work, were no ordinary gardeners either. In fact one of them became the first President of democratic South Africa.

That form was also the place where the conceptualisation, of part of the MK strategy of armed resistance was planned. Robust debates were held, agreements and agreements were part of that debate that eventually resulted in the execution of the armed Struggle by the MK High Command led by Mandela. Its leaders had resolved after a bruising debate that  earlier on at a secret meeting in Durban violence was not only necessary at that stage to free the country, but was going to be a feature of the broad struggle for freedom. They were ready to kill in order to free the country from an oppressive system. MK was to operate as an independent organisation from the ANC, just to avoid repercussions from the apartheid system, even though it was very much in reality part of the ANC’s strategy

It is also at LiliesLeaf Farm where the mass arrest of the secret planners of the struggle the High Comand, after a still mysterious tip off by someone who must have been privy to the purpose, nature and architecture of the farm, happened. This is the arrest that defined a new, highly hostile relationship between the apartheid regime and those who fought the struggle the ANC. From there onwards, it was war everywhere and anywhere in the courts, in the townships within South Africa and everywhere else in the world where the exiled ANC leaders went to, in exile.

Nelson Mandela who had disguised himself as a ‘farm boy’ on several occasions on the farm and yet he was in fact the commander In Chief  of MK, was not there on that day  when the mass arrests of the others happened.

Those arrested included Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein and Bob Hepple. Nelson Mandela, the commander-in-chief of MK, was not arrested at the time as he was serving a five-year prison sentence for leaving the country illegally in 1962. The farm was privately owned by Arthur Goldreich, but bought with funds from the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).

This mass arrest is what led into the infamous Rivonia Trial of 1963/64. It is this trial that defined the struggle for freedom from there onwards as many freedom fighters left the country, to take up arms and some like Oliver Tambo to plan the struggle and execute it from exile in London. It is this trial that produced the now famous speech made by Mandela while he was in the dock in 1964 at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. It is there where he and the rest of the plotters were found guilty of treason and given life sentences.

I personally came to understand the role of many races, not only in the planning of the struggle for freedom, including the formation of MK, to say enough is enough and now we will spill blood, If that is what it will take to rid the country of apartheid when the Rivonia Trial became my research project while studying journalism at Wits University, post 1994. I was amazed by the unity that was forged by people from different cultural and race backgrounds, for a common cause at the height of apartheid. That insight into the minds of these complex individuals is humbling, I concluded I I pored through written records in magazines and newspapers of the time as well as books.

For many years, I have always told myself that one day, I will take time to go to LiliesLeaf Farm, a place that featured a lot in my research about the Rivonia Trial of 1963/1964. I wanted to go there and have a feel of the place, walk where these brave men walked, and generally experience my research live.

Unfortunately that dream of mine, may not happen. LiliesLeaf Farm closed its doors to the public this week. It is the latest victim of the effects of the pandemic, that has seen numbers of tourists dwindle. A large portion of its income to cover its day to day operations came from visitors to the place. With its shutting its doors, a whole chunk of an important part of this country’s journey from the struggle to freedom, has also been shut from the public. How sad.

Nicholas Wolpe the CEO of LiliesLeaf Farm on Tuesday told Sowetan that his plea to funders, both corporate and government, specifically Gauteng provincial Government and the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture fell on deaf ears.

LiliesLeaf Farm was therefore left with no choice, but shut its doors to this national heritage. However Wolpe confirmed that the projects division of the museum, which involves the digitisation of the museum’s archives, would remain open.

He told Sowetan that  it was sad that the operational division of the museum closed down in a year when the heritage site was supposed to commemorate three important anniversaries. 

“On August 23 it was the 60th anniversary of the purchase of Liliesleaf Farm. In October it is the 60th anniversary of when Nelson Mandela came to the farm as David Motsamai. In December it is the 60th anniversary of the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe at the farm,” he said.

Will someone please save this museum from closing its doors, and with that prospect, shutting the public out of a very important part of this country’s history from which generations after us will learn a lot about what happened to get the country out of apartheid to become a free and democratic country?

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