Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Rivonia Raid – 50 Year Commemoration

In the early 1960s the South African government upped the ante with both physical and psychological oppression of black people and others who challenged the apartheid regime.  At the time two prominent anti-apartheid organizations, the African National Congress and the outlawed South African Communist Party made a joint decision to begin armed resistance – bombing government facilities but making sure that there were no people at the sites that were bombed.  The plan was called Operation Mayibuye and under the auspices of the newly formed MK, led by Nelson Mandela of the ANC and Joe Slovo SACP, there were numerous small scale bombings. The government fought back, of course, with all of its power and the culminating event at the time was the raid on Lilliesleaf Farm – referred to as the Rivonia Raid.

The South African Communist Party bought Lilliesleaf Farm as an operational base to fight the South African apartheid government. Nelson Mandela explained at the time that the decision corresponded to the violent oppression of the apartheid regime in reaction to peaceful dissent.

Listen to Nelson Mandela 1:25-1:52 at

But this was not an easily taken decision and some leaders in both the African National Congress and Communist Party, like Walter Sisulu and Rusty Bernstein, were dissenters. Reflecting on the time, Raymond Suttner, who was imprisoned during apartheid for fighting the South African government, explained the difficulty of the decision.

Listen to Raymond Suttner 2:07-2:48 at

While original actions, as already noted, were attacks on targets like electrical pylons and other unpeopled communication sites, Operation Mayibuye plans were much greater and called for transition from non-violent protest to guerilla warfare. In reality, the South African government, to paraphrase the black panthers, had bigger bombs and bigger guns.  Lilliesleaf Farm had become the center for operationalizing Mayibuye and ANC leaders like Mandela and Sisulu were often underground on the farm while other comrades were in and out.  By the time of the raid in July 1963, Nelson Mandela was already in prison, and key ANC and SACP leaders like Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo were in exile trying to convince newly de-colonized African nations to support the armed struggle.  Struggle leaders continued to meet at Lilliesleaf but they were aware of the fact that the government was closing in.  In fact, Denis Goldberg, who would be arrested in the raid, reflected on the meeting on that fateful day.

Listen to Denis Goldberg 0:00-0.44 at

When the government struck on July 11, 1963 they, in their own words, “stumbled upon the heart of the opposition leadership.” They were expecting to find Walter Sisulu, and that in itself would have been an exceptional victory, but they were elated when they realized that Govan Mbeki, Rusty Bernstein, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and other struggle leaders were also at the house. There had been a tip about Sisulu and there has always been speculation that the CIA was the tipster just as American Empire spies had been in the arrest of Mandela earlier in the year.  Arthur Goldreich, the nominal owner of Lillisleaf, came home during the raid – he recalls the arrest.

Listen to Arthur Goldreich 1:17-1:35 at

Other activists were arrested and along with Mandela and the 8 people at the farm were charged with sabotage.  The trial was called the Rivonia Trial and Glenn Frankel has written a thorough and thoughtful account in his book Rivonia’s Children.  While the trial in itself was a circus with a showboating prosecutor and steadfast, serious, and resolute defendants, both the lawyers for Mandela and his comrades, as well as the defendants themselves, expected the death penalty as the evidence collected at Lilliesleaf Farm clearly showed that they were revolutionaries.  Mandela spoke to the court and while there had been different legal strategies for each of the defendants, they all joined the future President who said:

Listen to Nelson Mandela 3:56-4:14 at

The verdict came on June 11, 1964 and much to everyone’s surprise the sentence was life in prison – not death.  However, government oppression grew even worse and with leaders either imprisoned or in exile, the fledgling struggle, to use a boxing metaphor, was at best on the ropes. Although never dead, opposition really did not ignite again until the mid-seventies and the Soweto Uprising. The armed struggle grew throughout the eighties and as everyone knows Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994.  To talk about the end of apartheid as a miracle and South Africa as a rainbow nation is not incorrect.  But as a nation state, it today acts corporately and non-democratically just as we do in the United States. South Africans, just as everyone else in the world, need to take lessons from the sacrifices of the people who fought to end apartheid.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Red Neck Shop

(This was first published in the Spring 1998 issue of Southern Exposure)

In recent years South Carolina has received national attention for its racial antagonisms, spurred by events such as the flying of the Confederate flag over the statehouse and church burnings.  Another chapter in the state's story of racial division began on March 1, 1996, when the Redneck Shop opened its doors in the town of Laurens.

Laurens is a town of 9,700 situated some 30 minutes southeast of Greenville. The store's proprietor is John Howard, who was an official in the Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But Howard claims to be retired and says that the shop's purpose is to "teach people about the Klan, not spread bigotry."

When you enter the Redneck Shop what you see are Klan robes, photographs, T-shirts and even skulls that clearly spread bigotry. I walked through the shop shortly after it opened, while over 300 people had gathered outside in protest. The spirit inside the Redneck Shop was smug and hateful, while the spirit of those gathered outside, both black and white, was loving and hopeful. Despite the public outrage, however, the store still operates today.

Wearing black and white ribbons, people gathered in March for the rally organized by Rev. David Kennedy, who is the pastor at the New Beginnings Baptist Missionary Church in Laurens.  One of those people was Becky McAllister, who said that "it makes me ashamed to say I was born and raised in South Carolina. I'm ashamed to be white. I want people to know that not all white southerners are racist."

Kennedy became involved because he wanted to stand with African American youth in Laurens who were extremely angry when the Redneck Shop opened its doors. Kennedy, who has photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. on his office walls, wanted to teach the possibilities of non-violent protest - a spirit that ran through the demonstration.

Over the last two years, there have been a number of smaller protests and national figures like Jesse Jackson have visited Laurens, but the Redneck Shop is still in business. Some local people - both black and white - say the shop is not just a museum, but a meeting place and recruiting ground for the Klan.

The two year history of the shop has not been uneventful and the past year's events can be described as peculiar. Howard has claimed that he has been persecuted and sued an African-American city councilman for defamation of character. On two occasions rocks were thrown through the store's window and a Columbia man drove his van through the shop's front door.  John Howard's son was jailed in May 1997 for spraying pepper gas in the faces of African American teenagers outside of the shop and then charged that he was beaten in the city jail. It was in the ealry summer of 1997, however, when events took a strange turn.

The building that housed the Redneck Shop, the old Echo Theater, was owned by Michael Burden, a John Howard protege and young member of the Klan. The store was actually Michael Burden's idea, and he legally gave Howard the right to operate the shop with no rent for as long as he lived. But Burden and Howard had a disagreement that led to Burden being unemployed and homeless. Burden, his new wife and her two children were living in the back of his truck.

Who did Burden end up asking for help? Rev. Kennedy. The minister fed Burden and his family and found them a place to live. A grateful Burden went to the pulpit of Kennedy's congregation and publicly thanked them, while expressing regret to the African American community: "I want to apologize for causing an eyesore on Laurens. At one point, I believed in this. But it was a wrong belief."

In appreciation to Kennedy and the church, Burden decided he wanted the church to have his building. Although Kennedy insisted Burden give it more thought, Burden was persistent and the church bought the old Echo Theater for $1,000 - making the African American church the new landlord of the Redneck Shop.

As if this irony is not enough, Burden is reportedly back at the shop. The story of the Redneck Shop is a peculiar one. But at essence it is about the ongoing battle between institutions of racism and those like Rev. Kennedy who lead us in the continuing fight for unity.