Located in the suburb of Rivonia, a neighbourhood in northern Johannesburg, Liliesleaf is an award-winning heritage site which played a vital role in the struggle against apartheid. At this excellent museum, visitors can learn about the formation of the armed struggle against apartheid and about the famous Rivonia Trial, which led Nelson Mandela and his comrades to be sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island.
In the early 1960s, the leafy, affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg still consisted mostly of farmland and under the Group Areas Act the farmlands of Rivonia were reserved for white people only. Arthur Goldreich – a member of the South African Communist Party – moved to Liliesleaf Farm, a semi-rural smallholding in Rivonia, in December 1961 with his family, who presented themselves as a typical wealthy white family. However, this was subterfuge and the farm was in fact being used as a secret hideout for Nelson Mandela, dubbed the “Black Pimpernel” by the apartheid state, and other key anti-apartheid activists who were on the run from the state's vicious police forces.
Mandela and other key leaders of the struggle against apartheid including Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, Walter Sisulu, Bob Hepple, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, worked from the farm for two years as they prepared to launch the armed struggle against apartheid, to be led by the ANC's new armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe (which means “the Spear of the Nation”, also known as MK) in cooperation with the South African Commuist Party. Mandela, who was to be commander of the MK, assumed the alias David Motsamayi, a supposed gardener, cook and chauffeur at Liliesleaf, and to avoid suspicion lived in the farm's tiny servants’ quarters during this time.
Those hiding out at Liliesleaf Farm did not want to engage in violence but had come to the conclusion that there was no other way to force an end to apartheid in South Africa. The MK's plan, codenamed Operation Mayibuye, was to use guerilla warfare to overthrow the racist Nationalist Party. The first attacks against government installations were carried out on December 16, 1961, and these subsequently led to the ANC being banned and classified as a terrorist organisation by the apartheid government.
On July 11, 1963 Lilliesleaf was raided by dozens of armed policemen who arrested the masterminds of MK and everybody who they found on the farm. Mandela was not present during the raid as he was already serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike and for leaving the country without a passport.
Implicated by documents found at the farm which clearly showed their plans for an armed struggle, Mandela and his comrades were charged with sabotage and faced the death sentence. Arthur Goldreich eventually managed to escape from the authorities and left South Africa disguised as a priest. The subsequent trial in 1964 of those caught at Liliesleaf came to be known as the Rivonia Trial. Seven of the men were sentenced to life in prison Robben Island for acts of sabotage designed to “ferment violent revolution”. Most of them served between 22 and 27 years and, in February 1990, Nelson Mandela was the last of the Rivonia trialists to be released.
When Mandela went to visit Liliesleaf Farm some 18 months after he had been freed from prison, he struggled to find the house because the area had changed so radically during his time in prison. The Schneider family bought the house at Liliesleaf Farm in 1989 and unaware of its historical significance two years later they turned it into a guest house and conference centre.
Monday – Friday: 8.30am – 5pm
Saturday, Sunday and public holidays: 9am – 4pm
Closed: 24, 25, 26 December and 1 January