Search for Mandela’s gun By Rowan Philp
The hunt for Nelson Mandela’s legendary lost gun has turned into a desperate plan to buy a suburban home which is “sure” to have it – before opportunists can buy it and hold the historic treasure “to ransom”.
And the man leading the epic search says Mandela’s fervent wish was that the buried pistol – whose commercial value has been estimated at R22-million – be found, as a personal heirloom and key artefact of the liberation struggle.
However, negotiations to buy and demolish the house are stalled by a lack of cash. A South African pop singer known as JMaxx is the person living contentedly above the treasure.
In late July 1962, Mandela dug a deep “pit” on Liliesleaf farm – the Rivonia property where he often hid, posing as a labourer – where he buried 200 bullets and a Makarov pistol, which had been given to him by his military tutor in Ethiopia.
Nicholas Wolpe, chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust, revealed that Mandela had led his friend Arthur Goldreich to a remote part of the farm and proudly showed off his gun – before “slapping his wrist” when Goldreich tried to touch it, saying “this is mine!”
Having once tried to pace out the directions from his mental treasure map, Mandela has twice indicated that the pistol now lies beneath one of the private properties which have since been built on the farm.
Wolpe said the search had already seen two gardens dug up, a property bought and a suburban house demolished since Mandela first confirmed the story of the gun to him in 2003, saying “I hope you find it”.
He said he believed the gun had “real personal significance” for Madiba, who wrapped it in a bundle of plastic, foil and an army uniform, and placed it beneath a tin plate.
Once, they found a man who was precisely Mandela’s height and build and asked him to walk 50 paces in all directions “from the kitchen”, which the struggle icon had recalled as his guiding directions. He said emphasis was placed on former “non-white” sectors of the farm, where a black man pacing would not have drawn attention in 1962. However, Wolpe said a second kitchen in an outbuilding on the farm had since been identified, which had deepened the mystery further. And in yet another wrinkle, veteran journalist Allister Sparks said on Friday that Mandela’s remark to him was that the gun was buried 20 paces – not 50 – from the kitchen. Recalling a spontaneous visit to the farm soon after Mandela’s release, Sparks said: “Looking to go 20 paces, he walked 10 and then bumped into the wall to a neighbour’s house. It was essentially ceremonial, but, to my knowledge, that may have been (Umkhonto we Sizwe’s) first weapon.”
Having excavated the property at 7 George Avenue without success, Wolpe said he was confident that the weapon was on another private property adjoining the farm, 5 George Avenue, which is owned by 77-year-old pensioner Al Leenstra.
Wolpe alleged that some homeowners had sought to exploit the heritage of the potential find with “an element of profiteering”, but that Leenstra “understands the historical significance”, and had agreed, in principle, to sell his home to the trust for a fair price.
Leenstra confirmed to the Sunday Times that he planned to visit Wolpe soon to discuss a possible sale to the Trust.
“There is no point in being unrealistic just because the gun could be worth millions – we simply would look for market value plus something, as has happened with other properties around Liliesleaf,” he said.
Leenstra added that Wolpe “is not the easiest man to deal with” on the issue due to his zeal to find the gun. Wolpe admitted: “He says there’s been a misunderstanding between me and him, and I think he’s right – I’m very protective of Liliesleaf, and . . . I can fly off the handle. In fact, he does have an appreciation of the history here.”