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Liliesleaf refuses to lose its memory

JUST when you enter the premises, you know that it is no ordinary museum. It is a living heritage site, a place of activity, dialogue and engagement.
The cutting-edge technology of the exhibits will take you on an interactive journey of epic proportions. There is a unique Interactive Table that allows you to engage with information on topics such as the Police Raid and the Rivonia Trial, the captivating Cabinet of Curiosity that contains humorous anecdotes of personal experiences, and the Spy Telephones that recount the tales of apparent involvement of foreign intelligence agencies.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes that Liliesleaf was an old house that needed work and no one lived there. He moved there under the pretext that he was a houseboy or caretaker that would occupy the dwelling until his master would take possession.
He had taken the alias David Motsamayi, the name of one of his former clients. At the farm, he wore the simple blue overalls that were the uniform of the black male servant as he evaded the apartheid police.
One of the myths about Liliesleaf is that Mr Mandela buried a semi-automatic Russian-made Makarov pistol on it in 1962, but it has never been found. There is a reward for anyone who will be able to find it.
The Liliesleaf farm obviously looks much different from the way it did in the 1960s, but its significance in the history of South Africa remains the same.
Tucked away in the leafy suburb of Rivonia, Johannesburg, it is one of South Africa’s foremost and award-winning heritage sites. But away from that, it was once the nerve centre of the liberation movement and a place of refuge for its leaders.
Although the bustling suburb of Rivonia has since grown around the old Liliesleaf farm house, in the early 1960s, it was an isolated farm location, and proved perfect for a time for banned members of the African National Congress (ANC) to hide from the ubiquitous and highly efficient police and security services.
LiIiesleaf was also a meeting place for most of the luminaries of the struggle, and many of the defining policies that ultimately saw the overthrow of apartheid were devised on the farm.
It was purchased in 1961, at a time when the apartheid state started to clamp down more forcibly on the liberation movement, using funds from the Soviet Union by a front company of the Communist Party, Navian (Pty) Ltd.
The purchase of Liliesleaf coincided with the shift away from passive resistance to armed struggle and became the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of ANC, with its first commander-in-chief being Mandela.
It was at Liliesleaf that Umkhonto we Sizwe first launched its military attacks on December 16, 1961, thus announcing its arrival.
From there, it became the centre of underground liberation activities; a meeting place for the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Congress Alliance, the Secretariat, the Working Committee, the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Military Intelligence and Logistics and other structures.
Today, Liliesleaf is more than just a national heritage site; it is also a site of memory that keeps the South African history alive and real, particularly the famous Rivonia trial.
Yes, the Rivonia trial.
On the afternoon of Thursday July 11, 1963, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel “Rusty” Beinstein, Raymond Mhlaba and Bob Hepple were meeting in the thatched cottage at Liliesleaf debating Operation Mayibuye, a proposed military plan and strategy to overthrow the apartheid state.
In the lounge of the Manor House was Denis Goldberg, reading a banned book by Robert Jungk titled Brighter than a Thousand Suns, a personal history of the atomic scientists.
The police were acting on a tip-off that Walter Sisulu was hiding on the farm, but what they inadvertently stumbled upon was a meeting of members of the top leadership of the liberation movement.
They had hit the jackpot.
Around the world, Rivonia became synonymous with the crushing of the internal liberation movement and resistance to apartheid.
One of the popular mysteries that has yet to be conclusively solved is whether Liliesleaf was under surveillance or not, and if so, by who?
The fact that so many people associated with Liliesleaf were being closely monitored by apartheid security forces, or had been interrogated while in police custody, may suggest that apartheid security forces may have had some knowledge of the estate, but not necessarily its location.
But according to the guides at Liliesleaf, the Rivonia Caravan Park on Rietfonten Road, opposite the entrance to Liliesleaf offered a perfect cover for surveillance.
One of the Caravan Park residents was an avid bird watcher and was often found pursuing her hobby armed with a camera and binoculars. But it happened that birds were not the only thing she saw through her binoculars.
The Rivonia Trial was essentially a mechanism through which the apartheid government could hurt or mute the ANC.
Its leaders, including Mr Mandela, who was already in Johannesburg`s Fort Prison serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike and leaving the country illegally, were prosecuted, found guilty and imprisoned.
Liliesleaf tells that story.