The great escape

11 August 2013 - 03:38 By Tymon Smith
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Jail BreakFifty years ago, four activists detained by the security police embarrassed the apartheid state by walking out of prison, writes Tymon Smith

Readers of the Rand Daily Mail awoke on Monday August 12 1963 to front-page headlines announcing the escape from Johannesburg's Marshall Square police station of "four 90-day men" in the early hours of the day before. Rivonia accused Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe and Transvaal Indian Congress activists Mosie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat were on the run and the subjects of a nationwide manhunt.

Now, 50 years after their participation in what became known as South Africa's own Great Escape, two of the survivors and Wolpe's widow recalled how they pulled off what was one of the great humiliations of the apartheid state and an important morale booster for the ANC in the wake of the raid on Liliesleaf Farm a month before.

Moolla had been arrested on May 10 1963, becoming one of the first detainees to be held under the new 90-day detention law . The law, introduced by the then minister of justice, BJ Vorster, signalled the beginning of a far more aggressive attempt by the authorities to deal with opposition to the state. It allowed the police to detain suspects for 90 days without access to lawyers, family or news from the outside world. The detention could be extended for another 90 days in an endless cycle, allowing Vorster to keep detainees imprisoned "until eternity" if he wished.

Moolla, who was 29 at the time he was held in the cells at Marshall Square, recalled: " You walk around, you talk to yourself - otherwise you end up going bloody mad. You've got no contact whatsoever. So I was humming, talking to myself, singing."

It was his singing that alerted Jassat, a commercial traveller, activist and saboteur, to his presence. Jassat, who arrived at Marshall Square with fellow activist Isu Chiba, had been tortured by the police's Security Branch.

He and Moolla made friends with a sympathetic 18-year-old warder, Johan Greeff, whose main interests were cars and girls. Jassat remembered: "We became quite friendly, and because of his assistance in bringing food and things like that we sent him to a friend of ours, who had a shop in Market Street, and wrote a note saying 'please give Mr Greeff a pair of Watson shoes'.

"One day he came to us and said: 'I'm being charged for assault and I have to appear in court, but I don't have a suit.' So we wrote another letter in the name of Mosie Moolla to a shopkeeper who sold suits and men's clothing, called Surtees, and we said 'Please give him a suit and put it on Mosie's account', which he did. They gave him a suit and he appeared in court. So that's how we became friendly with him."

Greeff and other warders made it possible for Moolla and Jassat to visit their fellow detainees.

When Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia was raided on July 11 that year, the man in whose name the farm had been bought, artist and activist Goldreich, was arrested and brought to Marshall Square. He was soon joined by Jassat and Moolla's lawyer, fellow activist Wolpe, who had been arrested while trying to cross the border into Botswana.

Jassat learnt of their arrival from one of the African warders who was also a member of the ANC.

"He came in and told us that two other white prisoners had been brought in as part of the Rivonia group ... so we went and met them and spoke to them and they were very agitated."

Wolpe's wife, AnnMarie, recalled: "My strong memory is of my mother coming in on a Saturday, if the arrests were on a Friday, and saying 'My God! Do you know that Arthur and Hazel [Goldreich's wife] have been arrested?' So I knew that was the beginning of the end because there was too much incriminating evidence there against Harold."

Nelson Mandela had been arrested the year before and Wolpe and Joe Slovo had planned his escape. "They had a duplicate key of the cell and something happened and Madiba was moved to another cell. So as soon as Harold got in, the four of them started talking about escape."

After failed ideas, including asking AnnMarie to acquire a gas gun and having her smuggle in hacksaw blades hidden in a French loaf, Wolpe, Goldreich, Moolla and Jassat settled on the idea of "financial inducement". They promised Greeff £2000 to help them escape.

According to Moolla: "I took a chance and I told Greeff to swear on the Bible that what we were asking would be between us and the walls ... There would be a car waiting for us, the boot would be open and the key would be under the carpet. We would drive to a safe house, lie low there for a while and then make our escape to Botswana.

"The plan was that we would leave on the Friday night - but we completely forgot that Friday is the beginning of the weekend and the station becomes very busy and Greeff was on duty. So it was postponed to Saturday.

"Saturday night they came back, left the car there. The whole plan was that Greeff would come to the cell, be knocked out and tied up and we would take the keys and walk out. But he got cold feet and took us out to the exercise yard and the gate to the parking lot and told us he'd tie himself up."

Outside, the car had disappeared and so the four men made their way on foot past the Johannesburg Library. As Jassat tells it: "Harold and Arthur were in front, Mosie and I in the back. We spoke to them and said 'Where are you going?' and they said: 'Look, we're going to Hillbrow'."

The four decided to split up because it would arouse suspicion for non-whites to be seen in a whites-only area at that time of night.

AnnMarie , who had been informed of the date of the escape but had asked not to be given details for fear of interrogation, was later told by her husband what happened next.

"Barney Simon [the playwright and theatre director] had a flat in Hillbrow and the key of the flat was always left on top of the door. Harold knew about that and that's where they were going.

"Barney had been trying to bed his girlfriend but she wouldn't, so he came home from a party and took a side road to relieve himself. Arthur ran up and knocked on the car door and Barney nearly passed out. Anyway, he'd changed the lock of his flat, so they wouldn't have been able to get in."

After spending a night in Hillbrow, the two spent weeks in hiding in the Johannesburg suburb of Mountain View before making their way to Swaziland and then to Botswana. There, an aeroplane chartered by the ANC to fly them to Dar es Salaam was blown up on the runway in suspicious circumstances, but they eventually made it to Tanzania in September, just less than a month after their escape.

Meanwhile, Moolla and Jassat arrived in Fordsburg and - after a series of unanswered knocks and close shaves - were taken by Said Cachalia to a house in Doornfontein in which a niece of Mandela's rented a room. The rest of the rooms were rented to prostitutes.

Moolla and Jassat stayed there for a few days before separating. Jassat went to stay with an aunt on her farm near Vereeniging and Moolla stayed in a house belonging to the mother of a friend in Krugersdorp. He describes this period as "one of the worst of the escape".

"I was living with this family in an old house, portioned with wooden floors. I knew the people next door. The old lady used to leave me in the morning and lock the door. There was a common yard where the toilets were and if I had to go, I had to go either early in the morning or late at night because they would see me next door."

Jassat eventually managed to escape from South Africa, disguised as a woman. He made it to Tanzania in October. He did not return to South Africa permanently until 1993. He developed epilepsy as a result of the electric shocks he was subjected to during interrogation and still has to take medication for the condition.

Moolla also managed to flee the country, also disguised as a woman, and eventually reached Dar es Salaam, the last of the four to make it out. "It was a major thing because two of the chaps were connected to Rivonia," he said.

Warder Greeff was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in helping the escape. After he left the police he became a mechanic. He was not paid his promised £2000 until 1997. He now lives in Postmasburg in the Northern Cape.

Wolpe returned to South Africa in 1991 and died of a heart attack five years later.

Goldreich moved to Israel, occasionally returning to South Africa before his death in 2011. Interviewed upon his arrival in Dar es Salaam in 1963, he told reporters: "If our escape is a victory at all, it is a victory for the organisation in South Africa as a national liberation movement in the country."

After news of the arrival of South Africa' s most wanted outlaws in Tanzania, Rand Daily Mail readers quickly returned to reports of the hunt for the Great Train Robbers in England and advertisements for the latest cinematic attraction at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg - The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and the rest of the bravely doomed gang.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation will host an event commemorating the escape from Marshall Square at the Sci Bono Museum in Newtown from 3pm today

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