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The Great Escape (Part 1)

We left off with the June 21, 1963, departure of Samora Machel and Matias Mboa, from Francistown aboard a chartered East African Airways DC3 bound for Dar-es-Salaam.

By prior arrangement with FRELIMO the ANC, which had chartered the flight, had allowed the two Mozambicans to take their seats amongst “26 South African students” who boarded the flight; along with senior Communist Party leaders, Joe Slovo and Joseph “JB” Marks.

The latter pair had been fortunate in having left South Africa ahead of the July 11, 1963 police raid at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which resulted in the arrest of other senior members of the underground ANC led Congress Alliance.

In wake of the raid, there was a significant surge of ANC members into Botswana. In response, between July and August of 1963, the ANC chartered a number of additional EAA flights from Francistown to evacuate their Freedom Fighters.

But, the EAA freedom flights came to an abrupt halt after one of their planes was blown up on the ground at Francistown airport early in the morning of August 29, 1963 by unknown agent(s). Among the destroyed plane’s intended passengers were two of the Apartheid regime’s then most wanted: Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) founding members Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe.

How the two MK stalwarts arrived in and ultimately left Botswana is one of our region’s great escape stories. The adventure began in the early hours of August 11, 1963 when Goldreich and Wolpe, along with fellow comrades Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat, broke out of central Johannesburg’s Marshall Square Police Station, where they and other political detainees were being held.

Inside the station, the prison population was racially segregated as well as separated from one another. Despite this handicap, Goldreich and Wolpe, who were both of Jewish heritage, had been able to establish contact with fellow MK members Moola, Jassat and Laloo Chiba who were incarcerated in the Asian cells and Abel Patrick Mthembu and Andrew Mashaba in the “Bantu” or black African cells. As their discussions turned to escape plans Mthembu showed disinterest. His reluctance raised apparently justified suspicion. Moola later recalled. ‘’He’d been behaving strangely, he faced many years in prison, and we found this refusal fishy. I went back and told him that the plan was hare-brained and we were calling it off.” In 1978 Mthembu was killed by the MK as a suspected traitor.

At first the detainees tried to saw through their prison bars using 20 hacksaw blades that had been concealed in food brought by Ann-Marie Wolpe, but this proved to be ineffective.

Opportunity then appeared in the form of a friendly and corruptible 18-year old police warden named

Johannes Greeff, whose cooperation was cautiously cultivated. Over the weeks he became increasingly vulnerable as he was progressively bribed with such favours as tobacco, shoes, a suit and even car repairs after he had an accident.

When an aunt of Wolpe passed away, he was allowed to go to the funeral with a security police escort. This allowed Wolpe to secure MK support for a bigger bribe. One evening, Moola and Jassat invited Greeff into Moola’s cell where they asked him to take an oath of secrecy on the bible, before getting him to ultimately agree to a payment of 2,000 pounds to facilitate their escape. The money would allow Greeff to not only settle his debts but also purchase his dream car - a Studebaker Super Lark V8.

Greeff would later recall: “Jassat made the approach. He said they had helped me, now I might like to help them. I can see him trailing his finger on the wall - a pound mark and then a thousand - if I helped them to get out. That was R2,000. I said I couldn’t. It was too dangerous.’ Two days later, the offer was doubled. The Studebaker Lark was irresistible. Yes, it would be done on Saturday night, four days hence.”

By this time Laloo had been released. He would be re-arrested in 1964, leading to eighteen years of imprisonment on Robben Island. In the case of Mashaba, MK as well as Geoff’s reluctance in the face logistical constraints involving the separation of the Bantu ward led to the decision to leave him behind.

Early in the evening of the escape, Ann-Marie Wolpe arrived with her weekly basket of treats to be informed that the escape was on.

A getaway car would thus be waiting outside at midnight. As the evening wore on, the detainees’ fear of possible betrayal grew as midnight passed without any sight of Greeff.

Finally, after 1 am, he arrived, subsequently informing his clients that he had been delayed by a trio of unruly drunks who had been brought into the charge office. He then let the detainees out through the gates linking the exercise yard into the car park.

Finding that their getaway vehicle had gone due to the delay, the four split up on foot, with Goldreich and Wolpe heading for white Hillbrow, while Moola and Jassat made their way to the Indian township of Ferreirasdorp. Each party, however, had the same ultimate destination - get to Botswana! (to be continued)

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