In the early 1960s, the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), planned to bring into South Africa 7 000 men and arms to fight the apartheid government, via air and sea. But instead, a much smaller operation took place: it brought in arms via a tourist truck, making 40 trips in all.
The Africa Hinterland Camping Safaris truck has been recovered and is now parked at its final destination: Liliesleaf in Rivonia, which had been the headquarters of MK for two years. This is where the security police swooped in and netted the top echelons of the ANC in July 1963. The result was the Rivonia Trial, in which eight men were sentenced to life imprisonment, including Nelson Mandela.
They also found Operation Mayibuye, the blueprint for armed resistance in the country. The eight-page document was lying on the table when the police drove up the driveway. Govan Mbeki gathered up the plan, and together with other papers, stuffed them up the chimney of the small stove in the room.
But the police retrieved this document and hundreds of others, which were used as proof that MK – which means “spear of the nation” – was planning sabotage. The Rivonia trialists were charged with this crime.
A massive onslaught
Page three of the document reads: “In the initial period when for a short while the military advantage will be ours, the plan envisages a massive onslaught on pre-selected targets which will create maximum havoc and confusion in the enemy camp and which will inject into the masses of the people and other friendly forces a feeling of confidence that here at last is an army of liberation equipped and capable of leading them to victory.”
The 7 000 men would be brought in by ship or air, “armed and properly equipped in such a way as to be self-sufficient in every respect for at least a month”. The Transkei in the Eastern Cape would receive 2 000 men, as would Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal and the north-eastern Transvaal, now called Mpumalanga. Some 1 000 men would be deployed to the north-western Cape.
Departments were to be established, with the function of studying and submitting detailed reports and plans, among which would be points along the coast where men and supplies could be landed; the location of airstrips and airfields; the location of everything from police stations to power stations; and the population distribution; as well as the main crops in areas around the country.
Africa Hinterland truck
But of course it never happened. The high command of MK was jailed and the ANC took a huge knock. Instead, almost 20 years later a Bedford truck was re-fashioned to become the Africa Hinterland truck. It took up to nine months to create secret spaces beneath its long passenger benches to be used to store weapons.
It was used between 1986 and 1993 to transport weapons to MK units inside the country. The operation fooled the security police who never for a moment suspected that the truck they were waving through the border, contained a ton of weapons each time. Trips were made from Nairobi in Kenya to Johannesburg and Cape Town, giving tourists an overland safari experience. In 1990, the operation moved to Johannesburg, making the trip to the Okavango Swamp in Botswana, through to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, where the weapons were loaded, and back down to Joburg.
In all, some 40 tons of weaponry were brought into the country by this means over seven years. The weapons were used for sabotaging selected spots across the country.
Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table.”
In fact, the strategy began in the early 1960s and lasted until the Rivonia arrests in mid-1963. It was taken up again in the mid-1980s, and lasted until the release of Mandela in 1990.
Man of ideas
The man behind the idea was draughtsman and exile Rodney Wilkinson, who suggested that hidden compartments be constructed beneath the seats of the overland tourist trucks. Enterprising South African Communist Party (SACP) member Mannie Brown, a banned South African exiled in England and a friend of Joe Slovo, took up the idea with enthusiasm and established a company in London called Africa Hinterland.
Once the weapons reached South Africa, they were distributed across the country and buried, sometimes for quite a long time, says David Brown, son of Mannie. The caches gave the ANC a sense of strength when going into negotiations with the apartheid government in the early 1990s, he adds.
David has made a documentary of the travels of Africa Hinterland, entitled The Secret Safari, which can be seen while sitting in the truck at Liliesleaf. It recounts the impressions of different drivers over the years, and tourists who took the tours.
One of those drivers was 19-year-old Stuart Round from Nuneaton, Warwickshire in England.
Round told The Guardian in 2001 that he learned how to work the truck’s secret compartments, and he got training in counter surveillance, for instance, how to raise the alarm if he was being followed. Then he got his driving licence. He says in the movie that he was “very, very apprehensive” at the thought of carrying the weapons, which included AK47s and ammunition, Makarov pistols, grenades and limpet mines, and TNT.
But he was good at the job – he made eight trips altogether, and by 1991 Africa Hinterland was one of the best safari companies around. The vehicle was never stopped and searched. It closed shop in 1992 when Mannie Brown established Rainbow Tours, a tour company. He died in 2003.
Round went back home, and only told his parents in 2001 that he had been a gun runner for the ANC. They were pleased to hear it. “While I was driving, it had 100% of my effort. I’ll never put as much into anything again, and nothing will demand it of me. I’ve done nothing since in terms of political activity. I’ve done my bit,” he told The Guardian.
Loading the weapons
Loading the weapons into the secret compartments was the hardest part of the job – they had to be wrapped and stashed carefully. Once in South Africa, drivers had to find a remote place, dig a hole and bury the weapons, then mark the spot in some way, either with a nail in a tree, or paint a nearby rock.
Interestingly, the Bedford on display at Liliesleaf Farm was taken to Truck Farm, a truck workshop north of Pretoria, in the late 1980s to be lengthened for use as a tourist truck. The owner of Truck Farm was Witold Walus, the brother of Janus Walus, who later killed SACP leader Chris Hani. Walus is serving a life sentence for the murder.
In 2001, the truck was sent to the South African Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Joburg, where it remained until 2005. It was returned to David Brown, who offered it to Liliesleaf.