Warrior for an independent Israel and a free South Africa

Arthur Goldriech

The ‘legacy of linkage’ between South Africa and Israel is colourfully illustrated in the life of Arthur Goldreich who passed away in Israel in 2011.

Goldreich’s role in the ANC underground was sensational if fleeting. Most of his life, following his dramatic escape from a downtown Johannesburg police station in 1963, was spent in Israel.

Described by Mandela as “flamboyant”, Goldreich was also a master of deception. In the early 1960’s, he masqueraded as a farm owner in Rivonia, then on the outskirts of Johannesburg. One of his ‘black workers’ was Nelson Mandela – alias ‘David Motsamayi’ – who was frequently seen in his blue overalls selling produce on the street outside the farmstead, ‘Liliesleaf’. Beneath this polished veneer of a typical apartheid ‘master-servant’ farm, lay the secret headquarters of Umkhonto We Sizwe, (Spear of the Nation), the military arm of the ANC.

Mandela, in his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, praises Goldreich for not only providing “…us with a safe cover for our activities”, but also for his expertise acquired fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. “He was knowledgeable about guerrilla warfare and helped fill in many gaps in my understanding.” Goldreich, together with fellow ANC stalwart, Harold Wolpe, helped locate sabotage sites for Umkhonto we Sizwe, and draft a disciplinary code for its recruits.

A leading planner and operative, Goldreich secretly traveled to the Soviet Union and East Germany, seeking military aid and information on making weapons. However, it was his mission to Mao’s China in the early 1960s that “proved most instructive.” This he revealed at a public meeting in Herzliya in 1995. “Revolutions are made not at mass meetings but in private living rooms. If you want to reach the maximum number of people, you don’t do what I am doing now; you address your potential recruits in their homes. In this way, you create cells that will replicate the length and breadth of the country, energizing and activating far more people than at mass rallies! It worked in China; I saw it could work in South Africa.”

Back in Rivonia however, the charade was nearing its finale. On the 11th July 1963, a baker’s van, and a dry cleaner’s, drove up the long driveway to the farmhouse. Out leaped the police with vicious dogs. A short while later, the vans screeched off with Goldreich and sixteen others – including Wolpe – under arrest.

Described in the press as “the largest fish netted”, Goldreich did not remain “netted” for too long.

In a daring escape, Goldreich, together with Wolpe and two other detainees, fled from their cells at the Marshall Square police station after bribing a guard. Fleeing South Africa via Swaziland – sometimes hiding in the boots of cars –  the soon to be future resident of Israel, disguised himself as a priest.

And so, in the country he had fought for fifteen years earlier in its War of Independence, Goldreich returned to Israel, qualified as an architect and emerged as a leading figure at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. In 1966, he was appointed the Academy’s Industrial and Environmental Design Department head, which he transformed into an internationally recognized center for design.

In the 1990s, when South Africans living in Israel became actively involved in a project at Beit Berl of running courses to train emerging community and civic leaders for the emerging “new South Africa”, Goldreich was a frequent figure at the activities and events held at Beit Berl.

There is a poignant anecdote in Mandela’s autobiography on the Goldreich family, which raises a question of what impact a minor incident – and a young minor – may have had on shaping the destiny of one man and his nation:

 “Winnie brought me an old rifle that I had in Orlando and Arthur [Goldreich] and I would use it for target practice,” writes Mandela. “One day, I aimed the gun at a sparrow perched on a tree. Hazel, (Arthur’s first wife), was watching me and jokingly remarked that I would never hit my target. But she had hardly finished the sentence, when the sparrow fell to the ground. I turned to her and was about to boast, when the Goldreich son Paul, then about five years old, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘David, why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad.” My mood immediately shifted from one of pride to one of shame; I felt that this small boy had far more humanity than I had.”

It was a poignant moment for this ‘man in overalls’ who would later emerge as the founder of a democratic South Africa and one of the most monumental figures of the 20th century.