A Tribute to Denis Goldberg

by Sir Nick Stadlen

Denis Goldberg changed my life. In December 2013, shortly after taking early retirement as an English High Court judge, I was in Cape Town when Nelson Mandela died.

In the week between the memorial service and the funeral (held in South Africa in reverse order to the English custom) there was wall-to-wall coverage on television and in the papers about the early days of the struggle including in particular the Rivonia Trial. I rang the reporter on the Cape Times who had interviewed Denis Goldberg and asked her for his contact details, not expecting that she would oblige. She did. When he answered the phone I said: “You don’t know me. I’m a recently retired English High Court Judge. Could I talk to you about the Rivonia trial?” Being the Denis I came to know and love, he immediately invited my wife and me to spend the day with him in Hout Bay. It was a life changing experience.

Through Denis I discovered that there were two other surviving co-defendants of Nelson Mandela from the Rivonia trial, Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed (“Kathy”) Kathrada and three of the defence lawyers, George Bizos, Joel Joffe and Dennis Kuny. All were in their 80s, all had razor sharp memories and all had extraordinary tales to tell. To my surprise those stories were largely unknown, not only in the UK but even in South Africa. Yet each had played an important role in the trial and the events leading up to it. Each had displayed great courage. And when apartheid was finally vanquished, each continued to devote his life to making the world a better place. At a time of growing disillusionment with corruption and cronyism, I thought that young South Africans have the right to know about these unsung heroes and I resolved to record their stories.

Of the 11 original defendants on the indictment, four were white and one was Indian. Of the eight convicted and sentenced to life in prison one, Kathy Kathrada, was Indian and one, Denis, was white. All but Denis were sent to Robben Island, where they had the comfort of camaraderie and mutual support. The twisted and cruel logic of apartheid, whose tentacles permeated even the prison system, rejected Denis’s application to join his comrades and he had to cope for 22 years with the isolation of being the only convicted Rivonia Trialist in a white prison in Pretoria. Although as a white prisoner Denis had better rations, his comrades later acknowledged that he had the worst of it.

“Once you tear away the veil of lies, you can never put it back unless you lie to yourself every day.”
Denis Goldberg

Both Denis’s parents were communist immigrants from England. He was politicised at the age of six when he helped them to take food to striking black workers. When he was 11 he asked his parents why his school history book said that South Africa was a democracy when black people could not vote. They explained the nature of apartheid and as he later said: “Once you tear away the veil of lies, you can never put it back unless you lie to yourself every day.”  It was the start of a life of political activism which continued until his death. 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.

The life he chose was exciting and 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 by his fellow students for his political beliefs and later he was sacked from jobs at the instigation of the security police. He turned his back on the easy life of a white professional and chose to become a full time revolutionary. Through the non racial Modern Youth Society, he met his wife Esmé Bodenstein, another activist and they spent an idyllic honeymoon running a holiday camp. By 1957 they had two young children Hilary and David and he had also 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, for some of the time with his mother. He was then recruited by Umkhontho we Sizwe (MK), took part in its campaign of sabotage against installations and rose to run its first camp for military training.

In May 1963 when the regime passed a law allowing 90 days detention without trial or access to lawyers he was himself ordered to leave the country for military training. (His friend and deputy Looksmart Ngudle was less fortunate. He was captured and tortured, his beard and half his face ripped off, and was found hanging in his cell, the first of many to die in police custody under apartheid). But in Johannesburg Denis was persuaded by Joe Slovo to delay his departure to secure munitions for the armed struggle which was being debated but had not been approved by the MK High Command. That is how he came to be in the Liliesleaf safe house in the suburb of Rivonia on the day of the raid when most of the leaders of MK and the ANC were arrested. Using his engineering skills to open his cell lock (he refused to tell me how, for fear of educating less political prisoners than him) he escaped but was immediately re-captured. He was tortured and interrogated by the notorious Captain Swannepoel, who held a loaded revolver throughout, but betrayed no-one.

The Rivonia Trial was the defining moment of Denis Goldberg’s life. “When you’ve faced the gallows together it creates a bond which can never be broken -only by death. It’s stronger than marriage I’m afraid.” It was the most important trial in the history of South Africa and led 30 years later to a relatively peaceful transition to a non-racial democracy. 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.

All the other defendants approved the speech, knowing that it made it more likely that they would hang. They had all approved Mandela’s strategy to turn the trial into a political one in which they would put apartheid in the dock of international opinion. By not denying their role in the campaign of sabotage (which took care to avoid human casualties) and by deciding not to expose Mandela to cross-examination, they deliberately courted conviction. Denis, 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 leaders of the ANC. His offer was refused.

His readiness to sacrifice his life for his beliefs and to save his comrades, along with that of a handful of other white and Indian activists, was instrumental in persuading Mandela to abandon narrow Africanism in favour of non racialism and thus played an important part in the eventual creation of the Rainbow State.

Everyone expected death sentences. When the judge exercised leniency, Denis’ mother Annie could not hear what he said. “Denis, what is it?” she shouted. He turned to her, and said: “It’s life and life is wonderful.”  Decades later Denis was presented with a work of art proclaiming Life Is Wonderful by a calligrapher who had been so moved by his response to his life sentence that he fled abroad until the end of apartheid.

Denis served 22 years in Pretoria Central prison, nine of them with Bram Fischer, the brilliant Afrikaner QC and acting chairman of the banned Communist Party, who led the Rivonia defence, saved all their lives and 18 months later was himself sentenced to life for his part in the conspiracy. Probably the only case in history of a QC sentenced to life in the same cell block and for the same offence as his client. When Fischer got terminal cancer, which was ignored by the authorities, Denis nursed him and kept a hidden diary of his illness. For much of his 22 years in prison Denis’s isolation was compounded by his wife and children being unable to visit him. Esmé had been detained when he was arrested and the security police had threatened to send their children to separate orphanages. At the trial Fischer had asked Denis to escape again to boost the morale of ANC supporters and prisoners and he only agreed on condition that Bram arranged for Esmé to go with the children into exile in London. His mental survival was in large part due to Hillary Kuny (now Hamburger), the wife of one of the defence advocates, Denis Kuny. Although she had never met him, she visited him every six weeks for over 14 years.

The life Denis led after he emerged from prison in 1985 was characterised by the same integrity and commitment to making the world a better place which had led to his incarceration. Based in London and reunited with Esmé, he worked tirelessly for the ANC on a pittance. When Mandela was elected president, Esmé wanted to stay in London for the sake of their children and grandchildren he agreed. He founded Community Heart, a charity that raised money for health and education self help projects in South Africa. After Esmé died, he married Edelgard Nkobi, a German journalist, and in 2002 after his daughter’s death, returned home. After four years in Pretoria as an adviser to Ronnie Kasrils, then minister of water, he moved to Hout Bay from where, until ill health intervened, he spent a decade travelling the country and the world lecturing and talking about the struggle and donating all his fees to the charities he supported, in particular the Kronendal Music Academy in Hout Bay and the Ububele project in Alexandra Township. To visit either is to hear unqualified praise, and admiration for their patron and chief money raiser.

Although he was a convinced Marxist, Denis, like his hero and comrade Bram Fischer, became a communist because he loved people, wanted to improve the lives of the poor, and could not bear the cruelty and stupidity of racial discrimination. In his speech from the dock (the same dock in which his client Nelson Mandela had made his famous speech) at his own trial 18 months later at which he was sentenced to life in prison for being part of the same conspiracy as the Rivonia trialists, Fischer said he was attracted to the Communist Party because their members rolled their sleeves up when things had to be done. I was reminded of this the morning after Denis spoke late into the night at a fundraising evening for his charities in our house in London. We were due to do an all day filmed interview at 9am. When my wife and I came down to the kitchen we found Denis wearing an apron, with his sleeves literally rolled up washing up the plates and glasses.

Not for Denis the spoils of victory. He lived very modestly, even frugally. 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. The only concession to worldly possessions was a magnificent collection of vibrant paintings by African artists, full of colour, mostly depicting working men and women, which covered every inch of the walls of his flat in Hout Bay. A well deserved contrast to the gray walls and bars he endured for 22 years in jail. He fought against corruption but for years only within the ANC. The struggle and prison years had taught him discipline and loyalty. Even when he was asked by the lawyers if he wanted to appeal he said he would abide by the decision of his comrades on Robben Island. Eventually on a visit to London in 2016 to get the Freedom of the City of London (when he had, a little late it might be thought, to swear to abjure all unlawful conspiracies) he publicly called on the Zuma government to resign. With characteristic chutzpah he also used an invitation to coffee at No. 10 to eschew small talk, inform his host that the terms of trade between South Africa and the UK were unfair and ask what he was going to do about it.

His last campaign, waged with characteristic resilience after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer two and a half years ago, 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 African art.

Denis had a natural joie de vivre and intellectual curiosity. He was a deeply thoughtful and committed Marxist with a huge sense of humour, an infectious laugh, genuine warmth and deep compassion for the oppressed. Together with Kathy Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, now the last surviving Rivonia defendant, he was for years a standard bearer for the values of the Rivonia trialists, who were, in Andrew’s words, a multi racial band of comrades fighting for a non racial society.

At Mandela’s funeral a foreign leader told Cyril Ramaphosa that South Africa was blessed by the most precious natural asset, living heroes. Denis Goldberg’s death depletes that asset but his courage, self-sacrifice, integrity and commitment to freedom and equality will endure as a reminder of the noble ideals that led to the Rainbow Nation. In an online memorial celebration of his life last week President Ramaphosa confirmed the debt of gratitude owed by South Africa and the ANC to this bravest and most steadfast of heroes. He quoted from the classics: “When a great man dies the light they leave behind them lies upon the paths of humanity.”

Sir Nick Stadlen

In 2018 Sir Nick’s film, Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes, which tells the stories of Nelson Mandela’s co-defendants and lawyers at the Rivonia Trial, won the award for best international film at the Encounters South African Documentary Film Festival.

Any profits from the film will be donated to the UK charity Life Is Wonderful, which was set up by Lord Joel Joffe, John Battersby, Ben Valentin QC and Sir Nick. The Ministry Of Basic Education in Pretoria has agreed to show the film at all 6,500 secondary schools in South Africa as part of the history curriculum and to promote non racialism. The charity is raising money to support that project. If you would like to contribute please send a cheque to Life Is Wonderful, 25 Countess Road, London NW5 2NT, preferably with a gift aid tax declaration which will enable the charity to reclaim basic rate tax.

Further reading:

Denis Goldberg’s obituary in The Guardian, by Nick Stadlen

Denis Goldberg’s Memorial Service.

Sir Nick Stadlen on BBC Radio 4’s Last Word, talking about Denis Goldberg (listen from 13.55).

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