Skip to main content

The raid that saw Mandela jailed for life -- Liliesleaf 50 years on

By Errol Barnett, CNN
updated 5:24 AM EDT, Fri July 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Liliesleaf Farm is located in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, South Africa.
  • It was bought as a safehouse for anti-apartheid activists in the 1960s and is now a museum.
  • Nelson Mandela was among those who spent time there, pretending to be a worker.
  • A July 11, 1963, raid led to 20 activists being arrested. They used their trial as a political tool.

Johannesburg (CNN) -- From inside a small thatched roof cottage, Ahmed Kathrada watched with horror as a laundry van approaching the main house of Liliesleaf Farm exploded with teams of police officers. He and other anti-apartheid activists hiding out at the farm attempted to jump out of a back window. But they were surrounded, their hopes dashed and their plans for an overthrow of South Africa's apartheid government were extinguished.

"The vehicles pulled up that way, and there was nothing I could do," says Kathrada, recalling July 11, 1963, from the same cottage he once called home. Kathrada and close friend Denis Goldberg have returned to Liliesleaf Farm, which has now been turned in to a museum to commemorate 50 years since that fateful day.

Earlier, Nelson Mandela had also used Liliesleaf as a hideout, posing as a domestic worker. But at the time of the raid he was already serving a prison sentence. Mandela had been charged with inciting workers to strike and also leaving the country illegally. He had been to the United Kingdom and more than a dozen African countries trying to shore up financial and material support for the ANC's armed wing, named MK or "Umkhonto we Sizwe," which means the tip of the spear.

Parts of Liliesleaf Farm have been reconstructed.
Parts of Liliesleaf Farm have been reconstructed.

MK was supposed to execute "Operation Mayibuye" a form of guerrilla warfare against the government, taking care not to target civilians. The plan was being discussed just before the police raid. "I tried to flush as many documents as I could down the toilet but it was too late," recounts Goldberg, who was in the main house at the time.

Read more: Mandela's pistol remains a hidden treasure

"Death was in the air there was no doubt. Their hatred was palpable," Goldberg tells CNN, remembering the disdain officials had for them.

Police would use evidence found at Liliesleaf, which included a journal of Mandela's travels, to charge him and 19 people found at the farm with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. But the Rivonia trial, as it would become known, would be used as a tool by these activists to show the world what their aim really was.

How photographers documented apartheid
A Johannesburg township in transition
Incredible legacy of Nelson Mandela
South Africa's 'Born Free' generation

Goldberg tells CNN, "We would show that the apartheid state was inherently based on violence to maintain itself in power and had to be overturned in the name of humanity and democracy." Indeed, Mandela knew the power of speech from within the courts and knew there was international media interest in the trial, so he too wanted to show their driving philosophy.

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela writes: "Right from the start we had made it clear that we intended to use the trial not as a test of the law but as a platform for our beliefs."

Read more: Where to trace Mandela's most significant moments

He famously said from the dock, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Mandela, Kathrada, Goldberg and five others would receive life sentences.

Goldberg would serve 22 years in prison, Kathrada would serve 26 years as the apartheid government became more isolated and weakened economically. Mandela would be released in 1990 and, in 1994, become the nation's first democratically elected president. But on the 50th anniversary of a milestone in the struggle against apartheid, Goldberg worries that already South Africans are forgetting their sacrifices.

"That's why I keep saying about Mandela, it was a whole movement. He was a brilliant leader, but it was a whole movement you know. And we forget about people and we shouldn't."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:28 PM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
Candles are lit under a portrait of Neslon Mandela before the funeral ceremony of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Qunu on December 15, 2013.
As 95 candles glowed in the background, mourners gathered for Nelson Mandela's state funeral Sunday.
updated 6:36 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
One candle burns for each year of Nelson Mandela's life, as family, friends, dignitaries and celebrities gather in his ancestral home, Qunu.
updated 5:36 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
CNN's Robyn Curnow is inside the Mandela family compound in Qunu as the state funeral service is ongoing.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Don't expect the man who fought to end apartheid and then led South Africa as its first black president to spend eternity pushing up just daisies.
updated 10:50 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Not only is Nelson Mandela the former president of South Africa, but he is also a father, grandfather and even a great-grandfather.
updated 11:13 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Nelson Mandela once said his wife, Graca Machel, makes him "bloom like a flower."
updated 3:49 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
South African pays tribute and thanks Nelson Mandela at the former leader's funeral in Qunu.
updated 3:45 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
South African President Jacob Zuma sings at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
updated 2:25 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
Anti-apartheid veteran Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years imprisoned with his close friend and confidant Nelson Mandela.
updated 11:08 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
The coffin carrying Nelson Mandela's body arrived Saturday in his ancestral village of Qunu, where he'll be buried.
updated 4:28 PM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Crowds gather as Nelson Mandela's funeral convoy arrives at Mthatha Airport in South Africa's Eastern Cape.
updated 2:32 PM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
Beloved icon Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest on the farm where he grew up. CNN's Robyn Curnow gives an inside look.
updated 11:44 AM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
It might be timely to put aside out-of-date and ill-informed views of Africa, and see it the way Africans seem to: With a high level of optimism.
updated 11:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Mandela emerged from prison to lead his country out of racist apartheid rule with a message of reconciliation that inspired the world.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
The late South African President reflects on his imprisonment and his fight against apartheid.
updated 9:57 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Nelson Mandela, hailed for leading South Africa out of apartheid, wanted to be remembered as part of a collective and not in isolation.
updated 1:03 PM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
Nelson Mandela
From revolutionary to revered statesman, Nelson Mandela left his inspirational mark on the world.
updated 6:24 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
The only known footage of Nelson Mandela while at Robben Prison shows inside his cell and the former president in 1977.
updated 12:45 PM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
Mandela spent almost three decades in jail. But he had two Indian goddesses and a 17th century playwright for company.
updated 7:52 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
He was loved and admired the world over, profiled in books and movies. But even he has little-known facts buried in his biographies.
updated 6:00 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
A file photo showing South African Nelson Mandela taking the presidential oath on May 10, 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria.
April 27, 1994, was the crowning moment in Nelson Mandela's life -- the day South Africa held its first elections open to citizens of every race.
From a village birth, to political activism, to prison and emergence as a worldwide leader.
updated 6:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
"No one is born hating another person ..." and more from Nelson Mandela in his own words
updated 8:47 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
South African former President Nelson Mandela holds the Jules Rimet World cup, 15 May 2004 at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
"Sport has the power to change the world," Nelson Mandela once said -- and eloquently supported his claim.
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Browse through intimate images of Nelson Mandela, including the earliest known photograph believed to be taken in 1938.
updated 8:26 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
The Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela" became anti-apartheid anthem, and led to Mandela's release from prison after 27 years.
How will you remember Mandela? Send us your stories, memories and photographs.
ADVERTISEMENT