In 1964, Denis Goldberg and other ANC comrades were on trial for their lives at what became known as the Rivonia trial. Against expectations the judge did not impose death but gave them several concurrent life sentences instead. The young man shouted out jubilantly to his mother, ‘It’s life! Life is wonderful!’
Denis was born of Jewish immigrant parents, both communists. After involvement in local racially unsegregated civil rights movements in the 1950s, he joined the communist party. He was arrested and imprisoned for four months together with his mother following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. They had been supporting strikers in black townships in the aftermath of the massacre.
The violence of the state pushed the previously nonviolent ANC to adopt armed struggle and Denis was appointed to uMkhonto we Sizwe [Spear of the Nation, or MK]. He happened to be at Liliesleaf farmhouse when the South African police raided and thus became one of the accused alongside Nelson Mandela and other members of the leadership.
At 31, Goldberg was by far the youngest of those sentenced, and the only white man. The others were sent to Robben Island but being white he was instead sent to Pretoria Central Prison. Here, he lived for 22 years in isolation, deprived of news and human contact. To keep his mind active he took up studying and used his legal knowledge to bring a case against the prison authorities for blocking access to newspapers. The prisoners won.
In 1979 he helped three other political prisoners escape. He distracted the prison guard while the three escapees managed to make their way out to neighbouring countries and freedom. He stayed in prison until 1985; his release coming from an unexpected quarter.
His daughter, who lived in Israel, helped negotiate her father’s release from prison. Goldberg had to promise not to engage in armed struggle but retained his freedom to continue the political struggle against the apartheid regime.
He was flown to Israel but despite the Israeli intervention to procure his freedom he was outspoken in his criticism of the state and soon flew to London with his wife and son. In his autobiography, The Mission, he declared: ‘Having lived through apartheid in South Africa, there is no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state. I cannot allow, in my name, the same kind of oppression to go on against the Palestinians. I have to speak out against it… The pro-Israeli lobby, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the SA Zionist Federation say that [the Palestinian-Israeli issue] is not a simple matter… It’s not complicated. It’s very simple. The simplicity is that a dominant group excludes the indigenous Palestinian people from equal rights.’
The ANC celebrated his arrival in London, and he served with unbounded energy and devotion. He became one of its most active speakers for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Europe and the US, as well as being involved in the Woodcraft Folk!
After the end of apartheid in 1994 Goldberg decided to stay in London with his family and was active in founding charitable organisations to help living and educational standards in the newly founded republic of SA.
He returned home in 2002 following the death of his wife Esme and was appointed special advisor to Ronnie Kasrils, the then minister of water and forestry. He remained in the ANC to the end, but was critical of its corruption and welcomed the downfall of Jacob Zuma. He continued to speak internationally and supported the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
He never failed to emphasise how disappointed he was with Israeli and SA Jews who ‘are silent in the face of Israeli state racism and the denial of justice’. ‘Silence in the face of injustice… makes people complicit in that injustice,’ he said. The answer has to be a social and economic system under the rule of law that develops an inclusive and democratic society. Therefore, we believe the hunger strike by political prisoners is justified and we say: ‘end administrative detention NOW! Release all political prisoners NOW!’
Finally, he turned his energies to a project to bring music, art and culture to deprived children of the area where he lived, the Denis Goldberg House of Hope in Cape Town. Its purpose was to overcome the divisions in society because young people need ‘to sing together, dance together, make poetry together’.
His meaningful and wonderful journey ended in April 2020. He is remembered by his friends and comrades with love and gratitude for his life in the struggle.
George Paizis remembers the South African freedom fighter who spent 22 years in jail for his part in opposing the apartheid regime, and was to become a leading defender of Palestinian rights.
(See the feature film, Escape from Pretoria, the documentary, Life is Wonderful, and read the autobiography, The Mission.)