Taking on the struggle to save Liliesleaf, an anti-apartheid heritage site – Nic Wolpe

Located in Rivonia, Liliesleaf farm was bought as a safe house for anti-Apartheid activists in the 1960s. It served as the secret headquarters of not only the ANC, but the SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe too. Nelson Mandela, posing as a domestic worker, used it as a hideout. Now almost 60 years later, despite efforts to secure funding, the site that was turned into a museum is in danger. CEO of Liliesleaf, Nic Wolpe – whose father was involved in the original sale of the site – is taking on the struggle of saving this heritage site with a funding campaign. This comes amid reports that several other sites linked to the anti-Apartheid movement – including some of the homes Nelson Mandela occupied – are falling into disrepair. Wolpe told BizNews about his campaign to raise R10m to save Liliesleaf in the short term. – Linda van Tilburg

Nic Wolpe on preserving Liliesleaf as a heritage site:

I think within the broader context, it is important that wherever we come from, whichever country we are living in, we must preserve our history. History, ultimately, is the collective knowledge of our experiences. With particular reference to South Africa, we have a rich history that goes back to the Khoisan people. But in many respects, the most important aspect of our existence has been, firstly, the 300 years of colonial rule.

It has left its imprint on our society – most of which, unfortunately, is negative – and in particular, the Apartheid era, which was very defining. Living under Apartheid was a very defining period in our historical evolution. It framed a lot about who we are today, good and bad, preferably bad from the point of view of the subjugation of the majority of our population, purely because of the colour of their skin.

But the good part was our struggle, the uniqueness of our struggle and those unique individuals that drove our struggle. In its totality or universalism, history is fundamental. It’s important that we preserve history, because we then will have much more of an appreciation of why it’s important to preserve historical sites – particularly a site like Liliesleaf – which played such a crucial role in our struggle for freedom, democracy and equality.

On the role of Liliesleaf in Apartheid:

1960 was a defining moment in our struggle. It redefined our struggle. It pushed the liberation movement away from passive resistance to armed struggle. In that transition, Liliesleaf was purchased in 1961 as a meeting place for the Communist Party. But it evolved into not only the high command of the newly formed military wing, but the headquarters of the ANC and the Congress alike.

It became the nerve centre of our liberation struggle. It became the heartbeat of our struggle. It was from there that the plans to overthrow the Apartheid state operation was discussed. It became the place where they engaged about how to overthrow this insidious political system. And Nelson [Mandela] – who had his last visit to Liliesleaf in 2005 – actually said what made Liliesleaf unique was that it was a place of intellectual, ideological, strategic military discourse and engagement.

The raid on Liliesleaf on the 11th of July, 1963 – which led to the Rivonia trial – pushed the struggle down a new trajectory. In fact, the existence of Liliesleaf redefined and repositioned the struggle. The raid and the subsequent Rivonia trial put us on the trajectory to our first democratic elections in 1994. Despite the hammer blow setback that was suffered by the liberation movement internally following the raid on Liliesleaf, its ultimate consequence, in effect, was to push us on the road to democracy.

On raising funds to rescue Liliesleaf:

Like so many historical sites and institutions within the field of arts and culture, we’ve always struggled to survive. Liliesleaf has really lived from a hand-to-mouth existence, because it needs something that has been extremely difficult to secure – core operational funding. We need additional support because the money that we generate is never going to be sufficient to meet, completely, our operational expenses and overheads.

Here you have a situation where a department says, unless you’re owned by the state, you are not entitled to receive funding. That’s part of the problem. It’s very pervasive within corporate South Africa, unfortunately, partly because the hands are tied because of how the wording of the ICT charter and the BEE charter is structured. We can’t even get project funding. The doors to funding, effectively, in South Africa are closed to independent institutions – particularly if they don’t comply with the ICT and BEE charters – and that is a problem.

We have the situation of a triple whammy now with Covid. As hard as it is for me to say it, it is the truth. Heritage, arts and culture are marginalised. If you look, for example, at the name of the department, it’s the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture. You don’t see the word ‘heritage’. You don’t see the word ‘history’. For some unbeknownst reason – only the government knows – they merged it with sport. Given that sport is much more high profile – more glamorous – the focus of the department is more sports orientated. On top of that, we got hit by Covid-19.

On a potential solution:

We are running a crowdfunding campaign to raise short-term funding. Ideally, we would like to raise R10m to address our immediate needs and also enable us to go forward for the next year to the end of 2022. Hopefully by then we will have been able to get some more funding to take us through to the end of 2023. Between now and then, we would like to put in place an endowment. If we had R100m, we would generate in a region of R10m a year. That would be more than sufficient to meet our operational costs because we would be supplementing that with income. We are working on the basis – that R100m and the interest – is working on the basis that we would be generating income as a fully operational entity.

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