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'Life is wonderful': What Denis Goldberg told the 'Sunday Times' in 2018 on the eve of his 85th birthday

Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni at Liliesleaf in 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial.
Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni at Liliesleaf in 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial.
Image: Sowetan/Veli Nhlapo

“Oh s**t,” thought Denis Goldberg as security police burst through the doors of Liliesleaf Farm, the ANC’s underground HQ in Rivonia.

Goldberg leapt up and grabbed his notebook that contained incriminating information about making hand grenades and landmines.

“I rushed for the toilet to flush the stuff away and, bugger, there was a cop standing at the door,” Goldberg recalls.

“You go to the toilet often enough, someone is eventually going to catch you with your pants down.”

Denis Goldberg shortly after his 22-year imprisonment ended in 1985.
Denis Goldberg shortly after his 22-year imprisonment ended in 1985.
Image: Arena Holdings archive

For years, Goldberg, accused No 3 in the Rivonia Trial, fought apartheid, but he’s got a new foe now — one he can’t make peace with at the negotiating table. His enemy is the cancer that has invaded his body.

Goldberg was on a speaking tour in Germany in July when he collapsed. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, which, he was told, was inoperable and incurable.

The doctors expected him to go home and die, but Goldberg doesn’t do what’s expected of him. He returned to SA and, after intensive chemotherapy, the tumour shrank.

Goldberg had another scan on March 19. “The cancer is back again ... with a vengeance. The tumours are even bigger than before. But new treatment will start. There’s still life in me,” he says.

“And life,” as he told his mother 54 years ago when he learnt that he had somehow escaped the hangman’s noose, “is wonderful.”

Then the 31-year-old Umkhonto weSizwe soldier was told he would spend the rest of his days in jail for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government.

On April 11, the Rivonia Trial’s “baby” turns 85. One by one, the triallists are, as Goldberg puts it, shuffling off to Buffalo. Ahmed Kathrada died last year, leaving Goldberg and 91-year-old Andrew Mlangeni the only surviving convicted trialists.

Goldberg may be frail and unsteady on his legs, but his eyes still twinkle — especially when he talks about his latest mission, to build the House of Hope, an arts and culture centre in Hout Bay, where he lives.

Denis Goldberg, pictured at home in 2010, plays 'Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika' on the penny whistle he was given while in Pretoria Central Prison. He used to play the song the night before comrades who had received the death sentence were taken to the gallows.
Denis Goldberg, pictured at home in 2010, plays 'Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika' on the penny whistle he was given while in Pretoria Central Prison. He used to play the song the night before comrades who had received the death sentence were taken to the gallows.
Image: Weekend Post/Ivor Markman

Goldberg’s home is crammed with African artwork that bursts with bright colours. It’s as if he’s making up for more than two decades of drab prison life.

Goldberg’s journey from Cape Town’s working-class suburb of Observatory in the 1930s to struggle hero is extraordinary, but it’s one that is not well known.

Goldberg is one of the least famous Rivonia triallists. While some like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu are household names, others, like Goldberg, have drifted into the background. But he doesn’t mind. He’s one for the shadows, not the spotlight.

“I am prepared to face reality. If Nelson Mandela was sentenced to death there could have been an uprising. If I was sentenced to death, my comrades would have mourned for me, but there wouldn’t have been an uprising. I accept it. Oliver Tambo led us to freedom but he’s not praised in the same way as Mandela. ‘OR’ would have shrugged and said: ‘So what?’ And that’s my answer too: ‘So what?’

“He’s also not one for blue lights. In 2010 he arrived at the launch of his memoir, The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa, in a minibus taxi, carrying his jersey in a Checkers packet.

The launch took place in Rondebosch, Goldberg’s stomping ground seven decades earlier. His parents, Sam and Annie, had emigrated from England and settled in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. They were communists who found racial segregation abhorrent and taught their son to respect people because they were people.

President Jacob Zuma gives Denis Goldberg an award in 2011.
President Jacob Zuma gives Denis Goldberg an award in 2011.
Image: The Times/Daniel Born

He grew up during the Nazi years and remembers Mr Oswald, the neighbourhood butcher who combed his hair over one eye in the style of Adolf Hitler and had a small brush moustache, running after him with a meat cleaver, threatening to get the Jew boy.

“I’m only a bit Jewish,” he jokes.

He says that however tough he had it, he knew it was much tougher for black South Africans.

He went to the University of Cape Town when he was 16 to play rugby and study civil engineering. He was dismayed that he was expected to build just for whites, but he became politically active only after he qualified. And it was all because of Esme Bodenstein.

“Esme, a physiotherapist, massaged my shoulder I’d hurt playing rugby. I thanked her with a kiss. I then nursed her through an illness. She fell in love with her nurse; I fell in love with my patient.”

Esme was active in the left-wing Modern Youth Society, and Goldberg attended meetings with her. They got married and had children, Hilary and David, and Goldberg threw himself headfirst into the anti-apartheid movement, getting involved in the Congress of Democrats and the Communist Party.

Rivonia triallists Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg in 2015.
Rivonia triallists Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg in 2015.
Image: Sowetan/Antonio Muchave

After the Sharpeville massacre on March 21 1960, the government started smashing the opposition, outlawing political organisations and rounding up activists, including Goldberg and his mom.

“It’s very cold when you’re arrested,” Goldberg says. “The security policeman showed me a warrant. I insisted on reading it even though my knees were shaking.”

He spent four months in detention, and though it was a terrible experience, he learnt that he could survive in prison — if he had to.

Meanwhile, the ANC started to discuss taking up arms against apartheid. When Goldberg was asked to join MK, he agreed. It was the closing words of the Freedom Charter, “these freedoms we will fight for side by side”, that sealed the deal for him.

He was MK’s Western Cape technical officer and his task was to find targets where simple technology could be used to damage railways, power lines and phone lines.

Soon his comrades urged him to go to Johannesburg. “My children were sleeping. I kissed them goodbye. I suspected I would be sent out of the country for training and would be able to take my family with me.”

It didn’t work that way. The high command asked him to stay and be the weapons maker for Operation Mayibuye — MK’s resistance plan.

`And that’s how Goldberg ended up at Liliesleaf Farm when the cops burst through the door on July 11 1963.

He was tortured in detention. “It comes back at odd times. I took part in a seminar on torture and in the midst of delivering a paper, 40 years after the event, I broke down. It lies in wait at the back of your head. It does permanent damage ... I can’t talk about it.”

Nelson Mandela with Namibia’s Andimba Toivo ja Toivo and Denis Goldberg in 2010.
Nelson Mandela with Namibia’s Andimba Toivo ja Toivo and Denis Goldberg in 2010.
Image: Arena Holdings archive

Mandela, who was in prison when the Rivonia raid took place, was brought to the Palace of Justice in Pretoria to stand trial with the others.

“Mandela was in short pants and sandals — they tried to humiliate him, but he was absolutely in control,” recalls Goldberg.

“He told us: ‘We are not going to apologise. We are going to put apartheid on trial.’”

The court was transformed into a struggle site, and Mandela made his “I am prepared to die” speech.

“What a moment to be sitting there when Mandela said those words, daring the judge to hang us. I felt pride. There was no fear at all. I made the decision when I joined Umkhonto that I was prepared to die for the struggle. I made the decision because freedom is that important, and now that my life was on the line there was no point in saying: ‘Oy vey, why me?’”

Whenever evidence was brought up implicating Goldberg, a security policeman would taunt him by making a cut-throat gesture.

“I had to decide whether to give him one finger or two. I gave him one ... it was more economical. It wasn’t very dignified, but I wasn’t prepared to be intimidated.”

The eight accused who were found guilty expected to be sent to the gallows, but they got life instead. Goldberg’s mother, who couldn’t hear very well, was in court and when the judge handed down the sentence, she shouted: “Denis, Denis, what is it?” (Goldberg was still his mother’s little boy.)

And he called out: “It’s life — and life is wonderful.”

His mother said she was proud of him. His father, a romantic optimist, told him he wouldn’t serve out his sentence. Goldberg believed him. He was convinced apartheid was living on borrowed time.

Esme and the children had left SA on an exit permit — a one-way ticket. Goldberg wrote to her to tell her she must live her life to the full.

“I told her she should feel free, not because I don’t love her, but because I do.”

Esme was allowed back to visit Goldberg in 1967 for five 30-minute visits, then allowed back only four years later, for three visits. That was the last time the authorities would let her see her husband. The next time he saw her was when he was released. He didn’t see his children for many years.

“I can’t answer how one deals with it. You simply do. If you succumb, you’ve given up. And I wasn’t prepared to give up.”

Goldberg’s home was bars, bare walls and windows without glass. For years his toilet was a stinking bucket. Breakfast was a bowl of porridge. He spent up to 18 hours a day alone in his cell and when he went outside it was to sew mailbags.

Prison was monotonous, and emotionally and physically draining. He lived in his mind and in his memories; he had a lot of time to think, study, read and get skills he probably wouldn’t have picked up outside prison.

“I’m a qualified joiner. I have a certificate to prove I can join wood together,” he grins.

White political prisoners came and went as Goldberg got older and creakier. In 1966, celebrated lawyer and SACP leader Bram Fischer, who had represented Goldberg and his comrades in the Rivonia Trial, became a fellow inmate. Fischer was diagnosed with cancer, which spread quickly, and Goldberg moved into his cell to nurse him.

Shortly after Fischer’s death, Annie came to visit her son. They weren’t allowed contact, but at the end of the visit one of the guards allowed her to climb up on a stool and kiss him through a tiny gap in the window.

“I thought, do I kiss her in this humiliating way or do I make an issue? In the end it was more important to kiss her.”

It was the last time Goldberg saw his mother. She died soon afterwards.

For a long time his only visitor was his father. “One day [in 1979] I could see the bones of his skull pushing through his skin like a death mask ... that was his last visit. I didn’t ask to go to his funeral. I wasn’t going to give them the pleasure of refusing me.”

Meanwhile, resistance against apartheid from numerous quarters was beginning to bear fruit, forcing prime minister PW Botha into a corner.

In February 1985 Botha announced that he was prepared to free Mandela and other political prisoners, including Goldberg. His offer came with strings attached, such as abandoning the armed struggle.

Goldberg had to decide whether he would accept a conditional release. After 22 years he was tired of prison. He wanted to be out in the world; he wanted to live again.

“I reckoned I had been in prison long enough and I knew there were negotiations.”

Mandela and the others turned Die Groot Krokodil down, but Goldberg signed the document.

On February 28, he was released from prison and put on a plane bound for Israel, where he was reunited with Esme. Their reunion was difficult. They had seen each other for only five hours during the 22 years he was incarcerated.

“We embraced, but we were both tentative. All the dreams of how one would celebrate sexually don’t work because your body doesn’t function. It took a long time to overcome that.”

Goldberg moved to London with Esme and threw himself headfirst into the struggle, travelling the world and drumming up support for the ANC.

After South Africa gained its freedom, Goldberg’s life was punctuated by loss. Esme died in 2000 and two years later his daughter died. Then Edelgard, his second wife, died.

“I’m going to save you asking the question I know you’re going to ask: was it worth it? Absolutely! We changed a country.”

He does have mixed feelings about South Africa in 2018, though. “We have come a long way but we should have come a lot further. I’m appalled by the corruption and the cronyism. It’s unacceptable. I’ve made my voice loud about it. I feared doing it, but I did it.”

He has received awards for his life of struggle, service and sacrifice: the Freedom of Sedibeng, the Freedom of London, the Gandhi prize for peace (“Ironic for someone who was jailed for violence,” he grins); a class two military service medal; and the Order of Luthuli (silver).

“The awards are heartening and being recognised is sweet, but that’s not what you do it for. You do it for the end goal — and I mean that absolutely seriously.”

I notice, though, that his name is misspelt on a statue awarded to him by the government for his contribution to democracy — a symbol perhaps of a forgotten revolutionary?

He may not be revered like Mandela, but the government he helped put in power could at least have spelled his name correctly.

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