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Fifty years ago today, police raided a small farm near Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was already in prison, but police seized other top leaders of the African National Congress’ military wing.
They also found evidence that eventually led to a life sentence for Mandela. Of course, Mandela was eventually released and became president of his country.
Now, as Mandela remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital, the BBC’s Mike Wooldridge reports on what happened on July 11, 1963.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. As we continue to watch the health of former South African President Nelson Mandela, we're also remembering a key moment from his life. On July 11, 1963, police raided a farm near Johannesburg and arrested leaders of the African National Congress. Mandela was already in prison, but evidence police seized in that raid led to his life sentence. The BBC's Mike Wooldridge reports.
MIKE WOOLDRIDGE: It was on a crisp winter's afternoon here 50 years ago that a dry-cleaning van drove into the gates of Liliesleaf. What happened next had a profound impact on the course of events in South Africa since then. The police used a dry-cleaning van as cover to carry out their raid in which they seized the top layer of the leadership of the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK, and dealt a severe blow to those in the movement who were aiming to overthrow the apartheid state by force.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
WOOLDRIDGE: Today, visitors to the restored Liliesleaf Farm can hear the only surviving police officer from the elite squad that staged the raid, described it as an event that changed the course of South African history. When the police burst into this thatch-roofed room, three of the ANC leaders attempted to jump out of a window, but they were caught. One of them was Ahmed Kathrada.
AHMED KATHRADA: To say it we were surprised is an understatement because we were so comfortable. One of the rules of the underground is you don't return to where you stayed, but because of the shortage of venues it was decided that we must come back for the last time.
WOOLDRIDGE: The police also didn't expect to stumble across the blueprint for Operation Mayibuye. Ruwanda(ph), one of the officers, said we've hit the jackpot. Another of those arrested was Denis Goldberg, a white engineer working in the logistics wing of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
DENIS GOLDBERG: It was an ambitious plan to put 7,000 men in the field. I don't know how we would have fed them and clothed them and nourished them, but it was a concept of how we would begin an uprising against the armed might of the apartheid state.
WOOLDRIDGE: Denis Goldberg had in his pocket notes to remind him where they could buy castings and chemicals to make explosive devices. He ran towards the toilet to try to dispose of the notes, but the police grabbed him before he could do so. Another of the white members of the group was Bob Hepple, a lawyer. He says the impact of the raid was immediately clear.
BOB HEPPLE: It was a turning point because it crushed the nascent liberation movement beginning an armed struggle and crushed it for many years, and it took a long time for them to regroup.
JO BUITENDACH: Everybody knows Mandela was in jail for over 20 years, but people don't realize why he was in jail. And it all leads back to, of course, Liliesleaf, that raid and then the subsequent Rivonia trial.
WOOLDRIDGE: Jo Buitendach conducts tours of Liliesleaf Farm and did a master's degree on its restoration.
BUITENDACH: Think of a space of debates and freedom, you know, and the rest of South Africa you couldn't sit together as different races. And so by having the space where you could all sit in a lounge and actually have a debate and a conversation, a lot of these guys are great thinkers. They were lawyers and they wanted to discuss I'm sure is these theories and thoughts about what South Africa should be.
WOOLDRIDGE: Nelson Mandela was already in prison at the time of the Liliesleaf raid, but the authorities now have the evidence to put him as well as the arrested leaders on trial, facing potential death sentences and, in the end, their long imprisonment behind bars, but their movement not out of sight.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Although in a sense it was a failed revolution at the time, it was the spark that lit the flame.
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CHAKRABARTI: That report from the BBC's Mike Wooldridge in South Africa. There's more to come. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.