It’s “the smell of the place” that Tracey Rapelego misses, also the small rituals of work and even her colleagues’ bad jokes. Most of all she misses sharing the story of the farmhouse that helped change her mind and became her second chance.
Rapelego is a tour guide and “the place” is her beloved Liliesleaf Farm. Now with over 10 months of Covid-19 disruptions, she hasn’t been able to set foot on the farm.
Even as the country’s second wave retreats, it appears the museum section of Liliesleaf Farm will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Cash flow problems have become a cash flow crisis leaving the internationally renowned historical site saddled with R5.5-million debt.
Liliesleaf Farm, in the suburb of Rivonia, is best known as the secret 1960s headquarters of the ANC, SACP, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Congress Alliance.
It was the site of the infamous raid on 11 July 1963 that would lead to the arrests of struggle leaders. The Rivonia Trial would follow putting Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein, Raymond Mhlaba, James Kantor, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni on the stand and forever enmeshing them into the South African story.
Before the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, Rapelego was, on most days, the first person to arrive at the heritage site to get the museum and exhibition space ready for visitors.
“I loved opening up, turning on the lights and putting out the brochures every morning,” says Rapelego.
And when the visitors arrived she’d be ready for the deep dive into relating the story of Liliesleaf. It would include retelling the drama as Denis Goldberg tried to flush secret documents down the toilet before being hauled off as police swooped. She might have drawn visitors’ attention to one of the rare original copies of The Freedom Charter on display and maybe she’d remind them to keep an eye out for the mystery Mandela pistol believed to still be buried somewhere on the grounds.
“I love the smell of the living room in the farmhouse and I think of all the meetings that would have taken place there. I get goosebumps thinking about how the people in the house had so much to lose but to the outside world it looked like just another house where white people lived,” says Rapelego.
But Rapelego sometimes shares another story too. It’s about how she started at Liliesleaf as a cleaner.
“I was coming out of a mess in my life in 2008. My first daughter was just a baby at that time and I had to move back in with my parents. I had to work so I took the cleaning job at Liliesleaf.
“One day while I was cleaning at the historical centre I picked up a book – A Long Way Home. What I read in that book showed me that I didn’t know anything, I was clueless. I had grown up with people telling me that all whites hate blacks but here was this book about white people who stood up to fight against apartheid, I knew I had a lot to learn.
“One day Nic [Nicholas Wolpe], CEO of Liliesleaf Farm found me reading this book. It was actually written by his mother, AnnMarie Wolpe (the book is about Harold Wolpe’s escape from the Marshall Square Prison in Johannesburg when he was arrested in subsequent police operations following the Liliesleaf arrests).
“Nic asked me if I was interested in history. I did have matric so he arranged that I go to the Wits Origin Centre where I trained to become a tour guide. I’ve been a guide now for over 10 years.
“For me, Liliesleaf is about memory; it’s about understanding our history and knowing the truth so that we can have hope.
“I always say there are three people in this world who gave me a second chance: my dad and mom, and Nic,” says Rapelego.
But Rapelego and about 30 colleagues now stand to lose their jobs because Liliesleaf won’t be able to pay salaries beyond February. It needs about R1-million to cover monthly operational costs.
“I won’t lie; I’m really stressed and depressed and if the museum doesn’t open again I don’t know what I’ll do,” she says.
Wolpe says before Covid-19 Liliesleaf was on track to meet a target of 18,000 visitors in 2020 after reaching 15,000 in 2019.
“I’m really devastated. Walking around the site now after months of no basic maintenance, seeing all the weeds and knowing the people who will be affected is heartbreaking,” says Wolpe He spent 20 years working to realise the impossible dream of turning the three separate structures at the site into today’s Liliesleaf.
He’s proud that Liliesleaf gets the tourist thumbs-up. He’s as proud that they’ve been able to account for every cent of funders’ money and to attract partnerships with international collaborators.
But the books are still not balancing. Staff, who did not want to be named, say Liliesleaf’s trustees are dropping the ball. The board of trustees includes some heavyweights with big struggle cred. But they’ve had a seemingly light footprint, staff say, when it’s come to keeping up their fiduciary duties.
Wolpe acknowledges that as CEO he does need the board to be more involved in building a solid fundraising strategy and to have direct oversight and management of budgets and financial planning.
“The bottom line is we need to be able to work together to keep Liliesleaf solvent in the long run,” he says.
The numbers and the situation are a damning wake-up call. It’s a personal blow for Rapelego and Wolpe. It’s also a loss for heritage and history for the city and the country’s people, says Brett McDougall of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.
McDougall says: “These institutions like Liliesleaf are the custodians of our cultural memory and our cultural artefacts. They make culture tangible – not just what you find in a book.
“Heritage has a part to play from a tourism and a skills perspective. It can help create a robust, sustainable economy that can help mop up especially after Covid-19.”
McDougall calls out political interference and inept bureaucrats and tourism authorities who “beat a political drum but don’t understand the basics of tourism or the value of heritage”.
“It’s happening at Liliesleaf and other institutions like the city’s galleries and cultural sites. We need servant-leadership and competent people in charge who get it and are accountable, otherwise, we will stay stuck in this malaise,” McDougall says. DM