Opera North Blog

Hacksaw blades in French bread: remembering the struggle against apartheid


On 11 July 1963, police raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, South Africa and arrested the high command of the ANC’s armed wing. At the resulting Rivonia Trial eight of the 10 accused, including Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life in prison. 

Nicholas Wolpe is the founder of the Liliesleaf Trust and son of prominent anti-apartheid activist Harold Wolpe, who was arrested following the raid on Liliesleaf. On Friday 23 September, Nicholas visits the Howard Assembly Room to offer a powerful insight on South Africa’s turbulent history and the political crisis the country finds itself in today, more than 20 years after the first free elections. Ahead of his visit, he recounts some of the details of his family’s involvement in the struggle against apartheid.

“During the Rivonia Trial Reunion in 2001, one of the guests asked if I was aware of the significance of what I was doing in buying the properties at Liliesleaf. He explained that my father, Harold Wolpe, had administered the purchase of Liliesleaf in 1961, and 40 years later I was buying a portion of it back. The process, he said, had now come full circle.

Harold met Nelson Mandela when the two of them were studying law at the University of the Witwatersrand. He became one of the ANC’s principal lawyers, representing anti-apartheid figures in court and helping plan anti-government actions by the banned South African Communist Party, of which he was a member. Harold was arrested and held for three months without trial following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. He and Joe Slovo even hatched a plan to help Mandela escape from jail following his arrest in 1962.

As a partner in his brother-in-law’s law firm, Harold administered the purchase of Liliesleaf by a front company for the South African Communist Party. Liliesleaf was intended as secret meeting place for the Party leadership, but it quickly evolved into the headquarters of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the newly-formed military wing of the ANC. The farm’s first occupant was Nelson Mandela, now Commander of MK and on the run following the issuing of an arrest warrant.

“Liliesleaf was an old house that needed work and no-one lived there”, wrote Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. “I moved in under the pretext that I was a houseboy or caretaker that would live there until my master took possession. I had taken the alias David Motsamayi, the name of one of my former clients. At the farm, I wore the simple blue overalls that were the uniform of the black male servant.”

Harold headed up MK’s Military Intelligence, which would meet in the dining room of the main house. This meant that he was a frequent visitor to Liliesleaf, and my mother Annmarie Wolpe recalls that whenever my grandmother asked where Harold was, she would reply that he was “out playing bridge”.

Harold was intimately involved with the activities at the Farm, including the repair of the Roneo duplicating machines which produced Liberation leaflets and other printed matter. He also drafted the Code of Conduct for Guerrilla Warfare, which affirmed that the Armed Struggle was reluctantly forced upon the ANC. My mother recalls leaving a luncheon to celebrate the end of Ramadan with Nelson Mandela when he turned to her and said that it was with a heavy heart and heavy hand that a decision had been made to move to armed struggle. At the time she did not realise the full significance of his statement.

The morning after the police raid on Liliesleaf on 11 July 1963, Bram Fischer’s wife Molly came to Harold’s house to warn him of what had happened: it would only be a matter of time before the Security Police uncovered the Code of Conduct, which was in his handwriting.

Harold was caught attempting to escape across the border into Bechuanaland, which at the time was a British Protectorate. He was taken first to Pretoria Central and then on to Marshall Square Police Station in Johannesburg, where fellow Liliesleaf plotter Arthur Goldreich was already being held, together with two members of the Natal Indian Congress Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat.

Segregated according to racial classification, the men started to communicate when sympathetic warders looked the other way, and an escape plan was made. At first they tried to saw through the prison bars using 20 hacksaw blades concealed in food brought in by my mother, but this proved ineffective.

A more nuanced plan involving the befriending and bribing of a young prison guard was put into effect, and what became known as “South Africa’s Great Escape” took place on the night of 11 August 1963. The resulting manhunt – the largest in the history of the apartheid government – demanded even more resourcefulness and creativity from the fugitives, including dressing as clergymen to board a light plane out of Swaziland. The full story is detailed in my mother’s book The Long Way Home.

Our family spent the next 28 years in exile in the UK. Harold left the practice of law and became a sociologist and social theorist, first as a Nuffield Foundation Sociological Scholar at the LSE in 1964-65, and eventually joining the Sociology Department of the University of Essex where he worked until his return to South Africa in 1991. Annmarie Wolpe established herself as a sociologist and feminist, and wrote the groundbreaking book, Feminism and Materialism.”

Nicholas Wolpe presents A Better Life for All? Power, Politics and the Past in South Africa in the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 23 September.

Police search the living room during the raid on Liliesleaf Farm, 11 July 1963.  
Aerial view of Liliesleaf Farm following the raid.

Harold Wolpe, 1963.
During the raid, detectives search for evidence that the ANC's Radio Freedom was being broadcast from Liliesleaf. 
Rand Daily Mail, Saturday 13 July 1963.
Johannesburg Star, Monday 12 August 1963.
Report of Wolpe and Goldreich's escape to Francistown.
Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe in the UK shortly after their escape.

All images and archive material courtesy of the Liliesleaf Trust.

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