Memory of the struggle to live on in Liliesleaf Museum

Posted On Wednesday, 10 July 2002 02:00 Published by
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R70m development of the complex includes a hotel and conference centre

IT IS 39 years since that winter's day of July 11 1963 when police raided an isolated farmhouse named Liliesleaf on a dusty road in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. They arrested some of the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), who were using the property as a safe house and secret MK headquarters.

Those arrests, and the trial that followed, known as the Rivonia Trial, became one of the most famous events in apartheid SA. Though Nelson Mandela was not at Liliesleaf during the raid he had been arrested the previous year and was already serving a five-year sentence he was tried with the others. His statement from the dock on being prepared to die for his beliefs reverberated round the world.

Today, the elegantly renovated house and manicured garden are a far cry from the dusty smallholding of the 1960s, but in the house framed photographs, taken from police files, are a reminder of the way it was.

Liliesleaf has had a chequered history. Originally located on 28 acres, it was purchased in 1961 by Harold Wolpe for the SA Communist Party. By the 1980s much of the land had been sold off for suburban development and the house belonged to former journalist, publisher and war correspondent Al J Venter. In 1989 Helmut and Veda Schneider bought Liliesleaf and later converted it into a five-star guest house and conference centre.

On July 1 this year ownership passed to the Liliesleaf Trust, which will develop the historical property into a museum and conference centre. It will be a legacy project together with Robben Island and other landmarks on Mandela's 'long walk to freedom'.

The trust is a public/private partnership working closely with the arts and culture department. Its involvement has so far been advisory rather than financial, looking into the historical, educational and tourist aspects of the development.

Nicholas Wolpe, Harold Wolpe's son, is the current administrator of the trust. He emphasised that the trust wanted to preserve the history of the struggle in SA, and the spirit of that time, and at the same time provide affordable public access to the museum.

It also needed to balance commercial viability and idealism, said Wolpe. 'It is important to generate revenue to have a balanced and sustainable venue.'

Income from the existing and future hotel and conference centre will subsidise the museum, library and archive. Total development is estimated at about R70m and is planned as a two-phase process.

The original three buildings the farmhouse, thatched cottage and former outbuildings have already been bought by an anonymous UK donor. The outbuildings are to revert to their original form, and the complex is intended to become a learning environment with a museum, library and archive. Tenders for the renovation are expected to be issued in August, and building should start in February next year.

The second phase will involve the purchase of two additional, adjacent properties for a hotel and conference centre. The trust hopes these will be used for international negotiations aimed at reconciliation, along the lines of Camp David. No sponsor has come forward to buy these properties, although an SA donor has expressed interest.

The museum is to be interactive a living archive rather than a repository of artefacts, says Wolpe. Though details have yet to be finalised, the trust hopes to recreate the atmosphere of 1963. One idea is to retrieve the original radio from police archives, and place it in the thatched cottage where Radio Freedom operated in the 1960s. Visitors will be able to push a button and hear facsimile broadcasts of the struggle years.

The history of Liliesleaf is a tale burnished in the telling. Nelson Mandela described Liliesleaf as 'a bubble of tranquility', and a place that reminded him of his childhood. His family could visit him at the farm, and it is this atmosphere that the trust wants to cherish.

Publisher: Business Day
Source: Heather Mackie

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