Nelson Mandela once said that he may have been in prison for 27 years but he was not confined for one day because he could read and that lent his spirit freedom.
It appears that hunger for literacy may have condemned Mandela and his comrades to a life behind bars. On the eve of Mandela Day, July 18 which would have been his 102nd birthday, it is interesting to speculate that this joy of reading may have set in motion of chain of events that led to a life behind bars for his comrades in the underground.
One crisp winter afternoon on July 11 1963 police scooped up almost the entire leadership of the underground as they met in a small cottage the back of Liliesleaf farm, in Rivonia, Johannesburg, in a Trojan horse-style raid, with dogs and officers concealed in a pharmacy van. They arrested a ‘who’s who of the struggle: Govan Mbeki; Ray Mahlaba; Denis Goldberg; Walter Sisulu; Ahmed Kathrada; and Andrew Mlangeni.
“Ons het de jackpot!” said the triumphant arresting officer, as he telephoned the police station to inform his colleagues of the raid. In English, we have hit the jackpot. The police couldn’t believe their luck as they chained who they saw and desperadoes in a circle, on the Liliesleaf lawn,and allowed their dogs to snap at them.
“It is high treason chaps,” said Mbeki as the van was driven away. The captured laughed but they all knew the charges they were to face meant the death sentence. The armed struggle and bombings they had been running for many months had destroyed many key installations.
How the raid on Rivonia, which lent its name to the trial in which all were sentenced to life, came about has been argued over for years. Theories abound from informants, to nosey neighbours, to foreign spies.
There could be another theory connected to Mandela’s love of reading. Mbeki et al used to pretend to be farm workers at Liliesleaf, as part of their cover. They were so good at this that they used to sell the vegetables they grew to the nearby Rivonia police! So the police put food on the table through the hard work of revolutionaries, yet never twigged who grew it.
What could have given the Liliesleaf crew away was their love of reading. Being intellectual revolutionaries they all devoured daily newspapers that aroused suspicion. Surviving fellow farm workers recalled in interviews, in 2012, that they told people they worked with “black men with newspapers” – a rarity in 1960s South Africa.
Another incident, depicted in the painting by Kevin Krapf at the top of this article, involving Nelson Mandela reading a newspaper, heightened that suspicion.
A nearby farmer by the name of Ernest Vickers called in to see Arthur Goldreich, an activist who lived in the farm as a front for the underground. Vickers was shocked to see a black man sitting in the lounge with his feet up on the coffee table reading a newspaper. The man was lawyer Mandela who was pretending to be a domestic worker at the farm and was to become his country’s first democratically elected president.
Unbelievably, in this day and age, Vickers reported what he had seen to the Rivonia police, maybe as it was taking another delivery of vegetables. Years later, Vickers was convinced that it was this report that led to the raid and life imprisonment. He was also worried about the repercussion there could be for his own family.
Maybe ? Maybe not. It could be forever lost in the mist of times that shroud the rich Mandela story.