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.