In the early 1960s, following the sharpeville massacre and the state of emergency, there were more than 100 sabotage attacks across the country. The government, in response, introduced two savage new security laws, the 90-Day Law and the Sabotage Act. The new laws did away with the previous provision in our criminal law that an accused be considered innocent until proved guilty. Henceforth, in a case of sabotage, the prosecution needed to show only that the accused might be guilty, leaving the onus of proof of innocence on the accused. Proving innocence is much more difficult and the state was clearly determined to give the police and the prosecutors the advantage. On a finding of “guilty” a court had now to impose a minimum sentence of five years imprisonment and could impose the death penalty. The 90-day law enabled the security police to detain a person for 90 days without bringing them before a court of law. The purpose was to compel detainees to answer questions to the satisfaction of the police where previously, an arrested person had to be brought before a court within 48 hours after arrest. The South African equivalent of habeas corpus was now also excluded: detainees would have no right of access to lawyers or families or friends. This was clearly a licence to torture, with the possibility that confessions and evidence extracted under such duress would result in almost automatic conviction because of the virtual impossibility of proving innocence. The Minister of Justice and Police, the infamous BJ Vorster, later the President of apartheid South Africa, promised that people could be held in prison to “this side of eternity,” by repeated periods of detention.
We held a protest near Parliament when the 90-day law was being passed. The protest centred round a mock gallows with three hanging figures, each with a slogan: “I gave out a leaflet”, “I spoke against apartheid”, “One person one vote” – illustrating that the draft bill provided for the death penalty: not only for sabotage but even for democratic protests, such as those we depicted. On top of the gallows were two large cardboard vultures, one with the face of Prime Minister Verwoerd, the other of BJ Vorster, the Minister responsible for the new legislation. The detention law was set to come into effect on 8 May 1963. My contact in the Communist Party, Brian Bunting, and my contact in Umkhonto, Fred Carneson, both insisted that I leave the country because it was considered a certainty that I would be arrested immediately. They were sure that even if I did not break under 90-day detention and probably torture, others would. They also argued that I would be tried and sentenced – and they thought I would get at least 10 years in prison. I could not argue against their assessment of the possibilities and had to decide what to do. I wanted to go underground in Cape Town but my home town was difficult because it was about 80 kilometres long and only a few kilometres wide. To avoid arrest you needed safe houses all over the place and I couldn’t find enough of them. The intention was that I would leave the country, get training in sabotage and as an underground activist - and acquire a new personality so that I could later return in a different guise. We had a rule that nobody could leave without clearance from the next higher level. I would therefore need to pass through Johannesburg to get clearance from our High Command. For a few days before leaving I stayed in hiding with Reverend Ian Eve, an Anglican priest, and his wife Shirley, so that I could leave without being trailed by the security police who were often staked out in front of my home. I slipped into our house through a hole in the back fence to say goodbye to Esmé, to Hilly and David, and my Mum. Both children were asleep when I kissed them but Hilly half woke and embraced me.
It wasn’t easy leaving, but by going away I did have a chance of not ending up in prison. I had told Esmé that I was leaving the country but did not tell her by what route. I said I would find a way of getting her to join me in Europe. I disliked not being completely open with her but, for her safety and mine, it was better that she could honestly say that she did not know where I was going. While this was all happening I needed our car to get to meetings and just said without explanation that I needed it on a certain evening. I did not say whom I was meeting or for what purpose. “What you do not know you cannot talk about.” That had to be our joint understanding because Esmé was not always sure about my activities and it would have been a betrayal for us to have used the necessary secrecy to cover up for an affaire. The stress and the excitement of underground activity certainly created a sexual tension and the opportunities. To bolster the fictions, we even invented a blonde girlfriend for me in Camps Bay, which was a long way from where we lived.
So, leaving was difficult because there was no knowing when we would be together again, yet there was considerable excitement about the adventurousness of it all. Where would I go? Who would I become? All I knew was that I was on the brink of becoming a professional revolutionary. On the night I was to leave – 7 May 1963, by train to Johannesburg – Jack Leibowitz met me in secret under a tree in a churchyard in Claremont to take me to Bellville by car so that I did not have to board the train at the main railway station in the centre of the city. In the same way, nearing Johannesburg, I got off at Krugersdorp, a town some 30 kilometres outside Johannesburg, took a local train and just disappeared into the city. A day or two later Joe Slovo met me at the Skyline Hotel in Hillbrow, quite a fashionable place in 1963. Joe asked me to stay to investigate the manufacture of the weapons we would need. Since I had left Cape Town because I could no longer function politically I immediately agreed to stay. I was relatively unknown in Johannesburg and we thought I would be able to function effectively. I stayed at the Skyline for a few days. Then I stayed sometimes at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a northern suburb, and other times at a place in Mountain View, a small suburb not far from the centre of Johannesburg that belonged to comrades called Leon and Maureen Kreel of the same family as Sadie Forman, the widow of the late Lionel Forman. They were brave unassuming people who knowingly put themselves in harm’s way to help the cause of freedom in South Africa. Maureen’s sister Minnie and her husband Ralph Sepel cared for Walter Sisulu when he went underground. She would drive him wherever he needed to go and sometimes dodged police road blocks to keep Walter safe. Maureen and Leon were arrested after it was discovered that Arthur and Harold Wolpe had been hidden in their garden cottage after they escaped from detention.
They were able to convince the court that we had imposed ourselves on them and whoever had used the garden cottage had done so without further reference to them. I am happy that they were acquitted. Even though I was relatively unknown in Johannesburg it quickly became clear that things are never simple. For instance, having moved to the Kreel’s garden cottage, I had to buy household goods so that I could be self-sufficient. One morning, as I emerged from the OK Bazaars, a large department store in Eloff Street, then the busiest shopping street in South Africa, I was carrying boxes of goods that hid most of me from view. A car swerved towards me and stopped in front. My dear friend and old comrade Basil Jaffe who lived in Cape Town leaned over from the driver’s seat and greeted me by name. He had known me since my childhood and saw through my disguise in a moment. Of course he knew I had left home because he had lent me the money to pay for the train fare. Before I became deeply involved in MK in Johannesburg I had Sunday lunch at Doney’s Restaurant in Hillbrow, quite a swish place with hostesses who led one to a table and took the orders. I settled for a platter of rock lobster tails with salads, beautifully presented on a large silver platter. As the waiter set it down in front of me a family of four, two adults and their young children, stood up to watch this feast arrive. I felt very conspicuous and that memorably luxurious meal stayed in my mind for all the years of imprisonment and for years thereafter - and even now, 46 years later, I can see it still in my mind’s eye and savour the taste.
It really was as exciting as I imagined it would be. I was a full-time revolutionary. I felt invincible: on the brink of something great. There was a constant rush of adrenalin. In the midst of it all, there was time to buy the materials to set up the antenna for Walter Sisulu’s June 26 radio broadcast. Lionel Gay, a Witwatersrand University physics lecturer, had built our radio transmitter and Walter was to make the first broadcast of the ANC “from somewhere in South Africa.” He had been convicted of furthering the aims of the illegal ANC and was out on bail. In the face of continuing arrests under the new laws there was a need to tell the people that the ANC was still in action and that Walter Sisulu, the General Secretary of the ANC, though banned and unable to attend public meetings, was still inside the country and organising against apartheid. The speech was inspiring and brave, a defiant call to unity in the face of tremendous oppression by the apartheid state. It spoke of the need to fight state violence with violence and explained that the ANC leadership had gone underground to keep the organisation going. It was a call to sacrifice: “We call upon all our people, of whatever shade of opinion. We say: the hour has come for us to stand together. This is the only way to freedom. Nothing short of unity will bring the people their freedom. We warn the Government that drastic laws will not stop our struggle for liberation. Throughout the ages men have sacrificed – they have given their lives for their ideals. And we are also determined to surrender our lives for our freedom.”
The broadcast also showed that we could use modern technology to reach our people. It created a stir throughout the country and was widely reported. We had quite a discussion about the how the broadcast was to be done. We insisted that Walter make a tape recording of his speech so we could avoid the risk of taking him to the transmitter in a house in Johannesburg. I was to operate the transmitter and I thought that the speech - written by Walter, Govan Mbeki and Kathrada and others - was much too long. At 45 minutes it would give the police too long a time to find the transmitter, and me! During the Second World War, for example, counter-espionage units, on all sides, monitored radio frequencies and were able to locate an enemy transmitter within a few minutes. In our case we would have to inform our comrades all over the country about the time and frequency of the broadcast, so it was highly likely that the security police would also know about it in advance. Therefore the speech needed to be much shorter, but as the police were, I hoped, as inexperienced as we were and would not know in advance in what part of the country the transmitter was located, I reckoned a 10-minute speech would be safe. Some of the comrades were unimpressed with my argument, even though it was based on real technical knowledge – they wanted at least double the time. Walter, always reasonable, said that I was the expert and he agreed with me - but could he have 15 minutes? That too was agreed .
The aluminium poles for the antenna were painted black so that they would not reflect stray light when pulled upright for the duration of the broadcast. Everything was laid out ready at the Parktown home of Fuzzy and Archie Levitan. They had long dropped out of open political activity and in their cellar Harold Wolpe had installed his intelligence headquarters with light tables. Ruth Finkelstein prepared detailed studies from topographical maps of where state broadcasting facilities, power stations and distribution sub-stations were located and, of course, the location of various institutions of apartheid administration, such as pass offices and “Native Administration” offices which were the obvious signs of apartheid rule.
Ivan Schermbrucker and Cyril Jones, two old soldier comrades, were my sentries for the night of the broadcast. They were armed only with one pair of walkie-talkie radios and a torch to flash me a signal to warn me if police were nosing around. Everything went well that night, 26 June, and as soon as the broadcast was done I shut everything down, took down the antenna and went off to the cinema. I was much too wound up and needed to be distracted. Because I was underground I could not seek out friends: I had to stay away from people who knew me. I needed to be distracted and on my own. By chance the film was “Square of Violence” about a Second World War reprisal by the Gestapo who massacred every tenth man in a French village in retaliation for the killing of one German soldier. I kept the ticket I had bought and it was still in my pocket at the time of the Rivonia raid. Though the ticket was not of great importance, it did seemingly provide me with an alibi for the evening, though the police luckily did not ask me about the early part of the movie because I arrived there only at the interval.
We needed new places to stay for MK and ANC and I was asked to find a small- holding of a few hectares outside Johannesburg. In those days even a few kilometres outside the city was mostly undeveloped rural land and I found what we needed on the border between Johannesburg and Krugersdorp. It would let us set up the manufacture of explosives and the casings for hand-grenades and landmines, camouflaged by a small chicken farm with a house suitable for five or six people. That meant we also needed a new vehicle so that I could move our leaders like Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Wilton Mkwayi. I bought a Volkswagen minibus, which raised a new set of problems that gangsters seem to ignore but I felt we had to overcome. Vehicles have to be licensed. If you are involved in an accident you do not want the police coming to where you are living underground. Who knows what they might find? The same applies to traffic offences. I took a room in a boarding house and told the landlady that I travelled a lot and would only occasionally come in to sleep. Little did I know that she had an eagle eye and knew exactly when I came and went and if I had really slept in my bed or merely ruffled the sheets. She was later a witness at our trial.
I got a shock when, trying to find somewhere unobtrusive to get our hand-grenade casings professionally made, I went to a rather dilapidated old foundry, trying to disguise the purpose. The foundry man took one look at my sketch and immediately said he could produce the 210 000 we required within the stipulated six weeks. After a pause, he added that he had produced 15 000 hand-grenades a day during the Second World War. Because we were not yet ready and because we were trying to find out if we could produce them ourselves, we did not get around to placing that order. I also inquired at a wood-box factory about the planks we would need to make up the 48 thousand landmines we wanted to distribute around the country. I needed to give an address for the quotation and the owner implied I was involved in commercial espionage. He needed to know that I was a genuine buyer. I gave him my false name of Charles Barnard and the address of Esmé’s old school friend, Nana Wynberg. Away from my own family I needed to share normal family life and I visited Nana a few times, especially for her daughter Rebecca’s fifth birthday party. The factory boss later gave the police Nana’s address and became a witness in the trial. Nana was also brought to court to give evidence. She was very embarrassed, which I think was as much the prosecutor’s intention as was his need to complete a chain of evidence. Walter Sisulu urged me to greet her with a smile to show that her giving that little bit of evidence was not an awful thing to do. She seemed almost to faint with relief and gave a broad smile in return. We never did make the hand-grenades and landmines.