Liberation Heritage Route
South Africa

Liberation Heritage Route South Africa

The advent of armed struggle: Liliesleaf Farm and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) High Command.

On the 11th of June 1963 South African police raided Liliesleaf Farm, in Rivonia, and arrested 11 members of the African National Congress’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) High Command. Consequently, the head quarters of the MK, which also doubled as the safe house for its leaders, was shattered. Why Liliesleaf Farm? What significant role did it play in the history of the liberation struggle of the country? 

In 1948 the National Party (NP) ascended to power, advocating for increased political, social and economic segregation. The NP’s driving policy became Apartheid. Explaining this policy, Nelson Mandela in his autobiography says, “[It] was a new term but an old idea. It literally means ‘apartness’, and it represented the codification in one oppressive system of all the laws and regulations that ... kept Africans in an inferior position to whites for centuries”.1 Not long after coming to power the NP government introduced a plethora of laws to control Africans. Amongst these was the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Tom Lodge, a leading political historian, correctly noted that this Act “was not directed solely at the [South African] Communist Party and left-wing multiracial trade union groupings; it sanctioned the persecution of any individual group or doctrine intended to bring about any political, industrial, social or economic change .... by the promotion of disturbance or disorder, by unlawful acts or encouragement of feelings of hostility between the European and Non-European races of the Union”.

Although faced with a hostile government, Africans did not sit idling. They, in their different organisations, tried to resist the NP government. However, their resistance was premised on the principle of non-violence. The ANC, for example, formed in 1912 sought to resolve the country’s political crisis through dialogue. Two delegations were sent to Britain in 1914 and 1919 to request Imperial intervention in South Africa ... .3 Even after embarking in the Defiance Campaign in the early 1950s, the ANC still hoped that it could persuade the government to the negotiation table. The NP government, however, always responded with brutal force. For instance, in 1956 police, in a country-wide swoop, arrested 156 high ranking members of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (SACTU), South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the Congress of Democrats (COD), and the South African Coloured People’s Congress (SACPO). These were charged with High Treason for their participation in the adoption of the Freedom Charter in the previous year.    

Individual leaders within the ANC, especially those who were also members of the revived but working underground South African Communist Party (SACP), had begun to question the principle of non-violence. Raymond Mhlaba, the ANC and SACP leader, observed: “By 1958 I was one of those advocating armed struggle”.4 Similarly, Mac Maharaj, member of the SACP and later leader in the MK, recalled that he “later understood that not all of the people in the ANC believed in non-violence as a principle. They were defending it because of the legal space it gave”.5  In fact, as early as 1952 or 1953 Walter Sisulu and Mandela had already begun espousing for the armed struggle.6 It was not long before the decision, albeit, reached reluctantly that non-violence was not yielding any fruits. The solution was armed struggle. This decision was mainly precipitated by the Sharpeville massacre. On 21 March 1960 the police shot and killed people in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, participating in the Pan Africanist Congress’ (PAC) organised anti-pass march. Moreover, the government on the 30th of March declared the first state of emergency in the country and on the 8th of April proscribed both the ANC and PAC.  The ANC responded by calling for a stay-at-home. And expectantly the government reacted with a show of force: cancelling police holidays and stationing military units at the entrances and exists of townships. This as far as Mandela was concerned marked the end of the days of non-violent struggle. He went underground and began consulting with individual members within the ANC within sharing his views and also with members of the SACP.

By this time the SACP had already taken serious steps in its move to armed struggle. It had sent some of its members for military training abroad. Wilton Mkwayi, member of SACTU and later MK, recalled that on his trip in 1960, together with Moses Mabhida, to Czechoslovakia to establish contacts for SACTU, he diverted and went to China to receive military training. “Some of the colleagues who were with me in China for military training were Raymond Mhlaba, Patrick Mthembu and Joe Gqabi. They were also joined by Andrew Mlangeni”, Mkwayi recounted.7 Meanwhile, Mandela was determinedly trying to persuade the leadership of the ANC that the time had come to turn to armed struggle. Finally, after meeting and receiving a go ahead from Chief Albert Luthuli, ANC president-general in Durban, he earnestly started the process of forming an army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). For some time he used different places as hideouts: Wolfie Kodesh’s flat in Berea, Johannesburg; a certain doctor’s house in Johannesburg; he also spent some time in Natal. Immediately he realized that his real identity would be revealed, he left these places as quickly as he had arrived. For the kind of assignment he was involved in he knew that he needed a comparatively safe place. This was to be provided by the SACP. The latter had bought a farm where its members, who were working underground, could meet to discuss policy and strategy. This farm became the headquarters of MK. The farm was an ideal place to hide, because that was the last place the police would suspect as Mandela’s hideout.      

Liliesleaf farm was purchased by Naviah (Pty) Ltd, a front company for the SACP. The Party had received funding to purchase the farm from the former Soviet Union. True to the country’s discriminately laws blacks were not allowed to own property in the white suburbs. It was for this reason that Mandela had to stay on the farm as a “houseboy or caretaker, looking after the place until his master took possession”.8  While there he used the name David Motsamayi and wore simple blue overalls. Not long Arthur and Hazel Goldreich, and their children, took over the ownership of the house.9 The farm came alive with members of MK and SACP moving and out. Mandela remembers that amongst those who frequented the farm were Mhlaba on his way to China, Joe Slovo, Rusty Bernstein and Michael Harmel. All these were members of the SACP. Slovo and Bernstein, according to Mandela, helped in drafting the constitution of MK.10 In as much as Liliesleaf farm provided seclusion and some sense of privacy, lax in terms of security created suspicions amongst the neighbours. Unknown people visiting the farm on a daily basis resulted in some of the neighbours begin to question the goings-on on the farm. Mkwayi recalled an incident when a neighbour tried to fish information out of him about the activities taking place on the farm and this made him to conclude that the farm was not safe – at least not anymore. Mkwayi observed “They were not security conscious at Rivonia. Arthur Goldreich was employed elsewhere, and woke up each morning to go to work. There was also a horse riding school at the farm. Goldreich’s wife also had a full-time job. Trucks would come during the day to buy farm produce. One of the neighbours – a white farmer owner – said to us (he thought we were farm workers) ‘we always invite your boss to all our social events and he does not invite us to his events. Why? There were always cars parked outside his yard, seven or so, even though he is supposed to be at work together with his wife”.11 Mandela himself indirectly admits that after a while there were security problems. This was especially so when his wife, Winnie, and the children started visiting him. According to him, one day his son, Makgatho, had a heated argument with Nicholas, the Goldreich’s son, about Mandela’s real name. Makgatho pointed out to Nicholas that Mandela was not David Motsamayi and was his father. Nicholas flatly disputed this. To resolve the impasse they asked Hazel and she confirmed that ‘It was indeed David’.12 Notwithstanding, Mandela, the senior Godlreich’s, and members of the high command knew that there was a security problem. It was for this reason that another headquarter for MK was purchased at Travellyn, not far from Rivonia.  

In 1962 Mandela left the country, unlawfully, leading the ANC delegation to a conference for the Pan-African Freedom for East, Central and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA) in Ethiopia. He also travelled to other African states, soliciting assistance for MK and also underwent military training in Algeria. He returned from his trip on the 20 July 1962 and went to Liliesleaf farm. A meeting of the High Command was called to receive the report back from Mandela. Following this meeting, Mandela travelled to Durban to brief Chief Luthuli about his trip. On his way back, he was arrested at a roadblock in Howick on August 5. He was finally sentenced to five years imprisonment for inciting the workers to strike and leaving the country unlawfully. On 11 July 1963 the High Command of MK met for the last time at Liliesleaf farm. Although the meeting was apparently important, because the High Command was to discuss Operation Mayibuye, some of the leaders were reluctant to attend. Bernstein observed “I don’t even know who convened the meeting. I know I didn’t want to go. I was afraid of the place. It was Hepple who persuaded me”.13 Mkwayi, suspecting that something was amiss “because he saw two [unfamiliar] dogs [in the yard], he decided to miss the meeting and went to Alexandra.14 Hardly fifteen minutes into their meeting the police, using a dry-cleaning delivery van, entered the farm and arrested all the 11 members of the High Command. After a thorough search of the farm, the police found some of the documents in Mandela’s handwriting. They were hidden outside in the coal shed. Mandela was brought back from Robben Island to stand trial with his comrades. Their charge was treason, punishable by death. After a long trial of the 11 accused eight received life term prison sentences, two escaped, one was acquitted.15 Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe managed to escape before going to trial. Following the arrests and imprisonment of some of the members of the High Command, Liliesleaf farm seemed to have been eroded from the people’s memories. It was to resurface again in 1989 when Veda and Helmut Schneider bought the farm.

The Schneider moved into the farm unaware of the historical importance this place held. Not long they learned from newspaper reports. Veda Schneider recalled that it was for the first time they got to know about what they had bought after reading in Sunday Times. Over the next several years they were overwhelmed by the visitors from overseas, asking to look around the house. When the house next to Liliesleaf became available for renting, the Schneider decided to renovate the farm house and built a guest house. In 2001 Liliesleaf opened as a three-suite luxury guest house and conference centre. In December of the same year, a reunion of the Rivonia trialists was held, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the formation of MK. At this function President Thabo Mbeki announced the formation of the Liliesleaf Trust. Its first chairman was Mendi Msimang, the former treasurer of the ANC. The objective of the Trust [was] to return the house and the outbuildings where the trialists lived, to their original state, and create a museum to record this history.16


The advent of armed struggle: Liliesleaf Farm and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) High Command.


    Source: N. Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (MacDonald Purnell Book, 1994) , p.104

    Source: Lodge, T. Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (Ravan Press, 1983), p.33

    Source: Ibid., p.3

    Source: Magubane, B. et al. ‘Turn to armed struggle’, in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 1 (1960-1970) South African Democracy Education Trust (Zebra Press, 2004), p.56

    Source: O’Malley, P. Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa (Penguin Group Book, 2007), p.73

    Source: See, for example, Magubane, ‘The Road’, p.54; Mandela Long Walk, p.258

    Source: ‘Wilton Mkwayi’, in The Road to democracy: South African telling their stories, Volume 1, 1950-1970. South African Education Democracy Trust (Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust, 2008), pp.268-9

    Source: Mandela Long Walk, p.268

    Source: Downloaded in February 22, 2010

    Source: Mandela Long Walk, p.269

    Source: Wilton Mkwayi, p.275

    Source: Mandela Long Walk, p.276

    Source: Magubane The turn, p.143

    Source: Wilton Mkwayi’, p.276

    Source: Lucille Davie ‘The last meeting at Liliesleaf farm’, in Downloaded February 22, 2010