“Life is Wonderful!”

When the verdict was handed down in the Rivonia Trial, the defendants learned that they had escaped a death sentence.  Denis Goldberg’s mother was in the back of the courtroom and couldn’t hear the judge’s sentence.  Denis turned to her and said, “Life!  Life is wonderful!”

Denis Goldberg was arrested in 1963 at Liliesleaf Farm, the headquarters of the African National Congress.  The arrest of Denis and his comrades (as he calls them) led to the Rivonia Trial where he, along with Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life in prison.  As the only white man convicted was sent to Pretoria Central Prison.  Nelson Mandela and the other men were sent to Robben Island.  As a white man, his treatment was probably even harsher than that at Robben Island as he was seen as a traitor.

Unlike our visit to the Apartheid Museum earlier that day, Liliesleaf Farm is where it all happened.  In the Joburg suburb of Rivonia, African National Congress (ANC) sympathizer Arthur Goldreich had purchased Liliesleaf Farm as a safe house that served as the headquarters for the ANC in the early 60’s.  Liliesleaf was the home of Nelson Mandela for a time where he was “hired” as a day laborer under the pseudonym David Morsamayi.  At the time of the raid, the ANC knew that the authorities were closing in on them and were preparing to move to a new location, but they didn’t move soon enough.

Today Liliesleaf Farm is a museum.  You can tour the actual house where the arrests were made, listen to a radio broadcast of Nelson Mandela in the kitchen where he used to eat breakfast and peer into the small room where Mandela lived, hiding in plain site (I wasn’t able to visit Robben Island when I was in Capetown but I imagine this room wasn’t much bigger than his cell).  There is an actual museum building that has been built in the back that houses a small auditorium where we had the unique honor of hearing Denis Goldberg talk about his experiences and how they shaped his life.

Why a 31 year old man with two young children would celebrate a life sentence is a complicated story, one told much better by him in his recently published book, “The Mission, A Life for Freedom in South Africa”.  But what we did get to hear from this 79 year old man, 27 years free, was why he doesn’t regret a single one of his 7,904 days in prison and why if he had it to do all over again, he would do it the same way.

While Goldberg is Jewish, he wasn’t raised a religious man. What he is is a humanitarian.  Since he was a young kid in the Eastern Cape of South Africa he believed that what he saw happening to his fellow citizens was wrong and as a young white man it was wrong to sit back and let it happen.  His activities caused him to miss his own children’s childhoods, something he has suffered some resentment from them for doing.  But for him, it was worth sacrificing for his two children to save the lives of millions of others.

I share those same principles but can’t help but ask myself, if I were in the same situation, would I have the courage?  I’d like to say yes, but I just don’t know.  .

The South African Tourism Board promises “South Africa, and the things you experience here will change the way you see the world and the way you live your life; the you who leaves South Africa won’t be the same as the you who arrived.”  (watch video here) .  Promise kept.


What to know about Liliesleaf Farm:

07 George Avenue, Rivonia, 2128 Johannesburg, South Africa


Plan to spend at least an hour and a half to visit the museum as well as the home and outer buildings.  The exhibits are very interactive which makes it an interesting visit for younger kids.

Making Chakalaca w/Chef David Higgs



Our first morning was spent at the Apartheid Museum.  I will share that in a later post.  But there truly could be no greater contrast that going from the Apartheid Museum to the Saxon Hotel (except perhaps going from lunch to the Irish Famine Memorial in NYC).

We met David Higgs, the Executive Chef at the Saxon Boutique Hotel in Johannesburg.  After spending most of his life in Cape Town he moved to Johannesburg.  Since joining the Saxon Hotel in May, he has worked to raise the quality of the restaurant offerings to the award winning level already enjoyed by the hotel for their service.  The Saxon receives top honors for its service and boasts such notable guests as Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and many others.

Chef Higgs greeted us at the door as if he were welcoming us into his own home.  In fact, The Saxon Hotel was originally designed as the private residence of Douw Steyn, the owner of the Saxon Hotel.  Much like the lord of the manor will, he proudly showed us around.  One of the many reasons the Saxon is popular for celebrities and politicians alike is the privacy.  They have recently built 3 private villas that can be accessed directly from the parking garage so guests can arrive and leave virtually unnoticed.  But trust me, if you are lucky enough to be able to score a villa, you won’t want to leave.  To reach the villas, you first walk down a habitrail like bridge which opens on to a beautiful boardwalk trail that leads you to the private villa.  It is so quiet and remote that you feel as if you’re in the middle of the bush somewhere.

Afterwards he invited us into his kitchen to prepare some traditional South African dishes.  There is no real clear definition of South African cuisine.  There is however, a common palette that favors both the very spicy and the very sweet.  Fittingly, we made a couple of entrée dishes and a few desserts.  I helped out with what he described as the South African version of bangers and mash (see, I knew there was a connection between South Africa and Scotland!) – chakalaca over pap with sausage.  Chakalaca is a spicy relish.  It’s made with onions, peppers, carrots, a tomato base and, oh yeah, A LOT of spice!  He served it over pap, a traditional South African dish that is basically corn mush, cooked to a polenta like consistency.  All served aside sausage.

We also made a traditional South African dessert, cake sisters.  It is fried dough twisted in a braided format and then dipped in more sweetness.  Forget the calories, just enjoy its deliciousness.

I asked Chef Higgs what he most wanted Americans to know about South African cuisine (he may or may not have missed the “cuisine” part) he answered, without hesitation, “that Johannesburg is safe”.  For him, this is one of the main challenges facing Joburg in gaining its place as a culinary hub.  With only about 15% of the city’s population with the means to eat out, tourism is essential to the growth of the restaurant industry.

For him, the excitement of Joburg is the cacophony of cultures.  Africa is home to 11 different cultures that come together, as I’ve said, to form a very similar taste palette, one he defines as a combination of spicy and sweet, everything is either very very spicy, or very very sweet.  And the convergence of those cultures is something he finds unique to Johannesburg. He left Capetown to, in his words, “experience Africa as it should be”.

The first 8000 miles

They say every journey starts with a single step, mine actually started with five queues on three continents.  But since it culminated with an afternoon nap in the courtyard of the Melrose Arch hotel in Johannesburg, it was worth every toe tapping minute spent waiting.

While the airports were a nightmare, the trip itself was actually quite pleasant.  I chose to fly British Airway’s World Traveller Plus class, aka “premium economy”.  As someone who has been flying since I was about 3, I can assure you it is simply what economy class used to be, pre-deregulation.  Without a doubt, premium economy offers travellers the most bang for the buck, don’t get me wrong, business class is a great way to fly, but you still end up in the same place.  The World Traveller Plus seats are slightly wider (emphasis on slightly), the seat pitch is a bit steeper (+7″ v. economy) which means you don’t have someone sitting in your lap the whole flight.

The service is more than acceptable.  You get the hot towel service, which always makes one feel like a VIP.  The food was quite good and the beverage cart came round frequently (sorry, that’s important to me).  I’ve become a big fan of ambien for long flights.  Brilliant, I didn’t wake up till we landed.  (One side note, I picked up an awesome neck pillow at XpressSpa at JFK.  I’ve always found neck pillows silly, but facing a middle seat b/w JFK – HTR I figured I’d give it a shot.  What I love about this one is it actually converts into a regular pillow as well which makes it much more versatile).

So I’m finally in Jo’burg and the adventure begins.  I met my fellow AFAR Experiences travellers at the cocktail party last night.  True to their promise, they have assembled a group of fantastic, curious people with whom I look forward to exploring Jo’burg.

Today’s itinerary includes the Apartheid Museum and Liliesleaf Farm with a cooking class w/David Higgs at the Saxon Hotel.