October 27, 2020

Goodbye to Denis Goldberg, who walked in Mandela’s footsteps

Denis Goldberg was one of Nelson Mandela’s two surviving co-defendants from the 1963-64 Rivonia trial, arguably the most important trial in South Africa’s history. He indicated to NICK STADLEN that the Rivonia trial was the defining moment of his life.

Mandela’s defiant speech from the dock, in which he declared that the ideal of a democratic and free society was one for which, if needs be, he was prepared to die, was widely reported and made him a household name throughout the world.

Less widely reported was that Mandela did not act alone and the eight defendants who were convicted and sentenced to life without parole all approved his speech, knowing that it made it more likely they would hang. The strategy was to put apartheid in the dock of international opinion. By not exposing Mandela to cross-examination, they deliberately courted conviction.

For him, ending apartheid was personal as well as political. He wanted his children and grandchildren to be free to pick their friends irrespective of colour.

Goldberg, the youngest defendant, went further. He offered to pretend that, in attempting to buy grenade casings, he had exceeded his mandate – thereby effectively signing his own death warrant – if that would save the lives of the black ANC leaders. His offer was refused.

Instead he served 22 years at Pretoria Central. As a white man, Goldberg was denied the comfort of serving his sentence on Robben Island with his comrades

Goldberg’s courage flowed from a commitment to achieving racial and economic equality and the belief that change comes from the bottom up. His parents were lifelong communists who had emigrated to Cape Town, where he was born in 1933. Aged 11, he asked them why his history book said South Africa was a democracy when black people couldn’t vote. They explained the nature of apartheid and, as he later said, “once you tear away the veil of lies around a society, you can’t put it back together unless you lie to yourself every day”.

It was the start of a lifetime of political activism. For him, ending apartheid was personal as well as political. He wanted his children and grandchildren to be free to pick their friends irrespective of colour.

He lived to see his dream of a non-racial South Africa realised. But it came at a heavy price.

At the University of Cape Town, where he studied engineering, he was ostracised for his political beliefs and was later sacked from jobs at the instigation of the security police. Through the non-racial Modern Youth Society, he met Esme Bodenstein, another activist. They married in 1954 and spent their honeymoon running a holiday camp. By 1957, Goldberg had joined the Communist party and the Congress of Democrats, an affiliate of the ANC for white opponents of apartheid.

After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he was detained without trial for four months. He was then recruited by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, took part in its campaign of sabotage against installations and rose to run its first military training camp.

In May 1963, when the regime passed a law allowing 90 days’ detention without trial or access to lawyers, the MK ordered Goldberg to leave the country for military training. But he was persuaded by Joe Slovo to delay his departure to secure munitions for the armed struggle. That is how he came to be in the Lilliesleaf safe house in the suburb of Rivonia on the day of the raid.

Goldberg’s life after he emerged from prison in 1985 was characterised by the same integrity and commitment. Based in London and reunited with Esme, he worked tirelessly for the ANC on a pittance. When Mandela was elected president, he agreed to stay in London for the sake of their children, but two years after Esme’s death in 2000, he married Edelgard Nkobi, a

Not for Goldberg the spoils of victory. He lived modestly. Dinner chez Goldberg might be a slab of fatty mince from the freezer, the onions burned while he read a framed poem by a Scottish trade unionist. He fought against corruption but for years only within the ANC. The struggle and prison years had taught him discipline and loyalty. Eventually, on a visit to London in 2016 to receive the freedom of the City of London, he publicly called on the Zuma government to resign.

His last campaign was to create the House of Hope, an arts and educational centre in Hout Bay for deprived children, to which he left his collection of vibrant African art.

This article has been adapted from the Guardian

Sir Nicholas Stadlen is a former high court judge and producer and director of Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes

Last modified on Friday, 22 May 2020 16:03

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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