A Tribute To Denis Goldberg

I was hoping that I would not have to write this for some time yet.   Denis, however, recognised that his death was inevitable and that is why he worked so hard in his last years to create the House of Hope in Hout Bay as his legacy to his community and to his nation.

Denis Goldberg was born in his beloved Cape Town in 1933.    His grandparents had fled to London to avoid the Tsarist pogroms, and his parents emigrated from there to South Africa.   He is therefore a first generation South African.   He was brought up in a remarkable household where people of all races were welcome.

He trained as an engineer and soon became politically active, campaigning for the liberation of the South African people.   He was an Executive member of the Congress of Democrats, which was a white organisation allied to the African National Congress and part of the Congress Alliance.   It was not legal under South African law for people of all races to be members of the same political organisation, although organisations representing the different races could work together for the same objective.   He also joined the illegal South African Communist Party.

It was through his political activities that he met Esme Bodenstein, whom he married and by whom he had two children, Hilary and David.   

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the subsequent banning of the ANC and other political organisations, Denis became involved in Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC.   Denis was approached because, as a qualified engineer, he had the necessary skills for the prosecution of the armed struggle.   The commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was Nelson Mandela.   It was not long before Denis found himself involved in the command structures of MK in Cape Province, working with people like Looksmart Ngudle and Percy Mda.   Looksmart Ngudle was the first person to die in detention at the hands of the apartheid security police.

On 16th December 1962, MK struck.   There were bomb explosions throughout the country, targeting the symbols of apartheid.   Electricity pylons were blown up.   Johannesburg and Durban both lost all their electrical power.   Nelson Mandela gave a clandestine interview to Robin Day of the BBC, setting out the plans of Umkhonto we Sizwe.   The armed struggle had been launched.

Denis and his mother had both been arrested during the State of Emergency imposed following the Sharpeville Massacre.   They spent four months in prison.   On his release, Denis was dismissed from his job as an engineer with South African Railways because of his political activism.   In 1963, Denis was served with a stringent banning order, confining him to a particular magisterial district of Cape Town and limiting the number of people that he could meet at any one time.   Denis, of course, worked his way round this banning order and continued with his political work,   He took part, as an instructor, in an MK training camp at Camps Bay, near Cape Town.   He also went to a meeting of MK at the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg.   It was here that he was arrested with all the MK High Command, except Nelson Mandela who was already in prison.

Esme was detained and held in solitary confinement under the 90 Day Detention Law.   Upon her release she went into exile, taking Hilary and David with her, and came to London where she set up home.   Denis managed to escape his captors, very briefly, but he was re-arrested.   He became one of the accused in the Rivonia Trial alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.

The Rivonia Trial was one of the seminal events in the struggle for the freedom of South Africa and, indeed, in the worldwide struggle against racism.   It was the trial at which Nelson Mandela made his famous statement from the dock.   The accused were charged with sabotage, which meant that they were facing the death penalty.   That is why Nelson Mandela ended his statement with the words “I am prepared to die”.   The world was electrified.   This was the year in which Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech.   To have two such powerful statements of anti-racism made so close to each other changed the whole dynamic of the struggle.

The trial lasted from June 1963 to October 1964 in the Pretoria Supreme Court.   Denis Goldberg was Accused No 3.   The charges were laid under the Sabotage Act and the Suppression of Communism Act.  The accused were charged with “campaigning to overthrow the Government by violent revolution and for assisting an armed invasion of the country by foreign troops”.   The charge sheet contained 193 acts of sabotage allegedly carried out by MK, and by persons recruited by the accused in their capacity as members of the MK High Command.

All of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.   Denis called out to his mother “Life!   Life is wonderful!”   The others were sent to Robben Island, but Denis was white and there was apartheid in the prisons, so as a white political prisoner Denis was sent to Pretoria Prison.   Denis was imprisoned for 22 years, and was the first of the Rivonia Trialists to be released.    I remember so vividly Denis explaining to an incredulous audience in the UK that there was apartheid in the South African prison system, and that he was not allowed to be in the same prison as his comrades.

The prison years were long and hard.   Denis had to fight for the right to study and to read newspapers.   Denis nursed Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner lawyer who had defended the Rivonia trialists and who was also involved in MK and the South African Communist Party, through his terminal illness.   Denis assisted Tim Jenkin, Steven Lee and Alex Moumbaris in their escape from the prison.   After 22 years, he was offered his freedom by President Botha, and he accepted.   

Denis came to London where he re-joined Esme and his family.    Denis and Esme rebuilt their family life together.   Denis resumed his work for the ANC, setting up ANC Merchandising.   He also spoke at countless meetings on behalf of the ANC, involved himself in the work of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and spoke at the United Nations.   US organisations awarded him the Albert Luthuli Peace Prize in recognition of his work in the struggle against apartheid.   Denis served as an inspiration to the thousands of Anti-Apartheid Movement activists that he met, and was a constant source of knowledge and wisdom about the struggle in South Africa.   There were so many ways in which he helped to develop the international campaign against apartheid that it is impossible to list them all.

During the years Denis was in prison and then in exile, the situation in South Africa reached crisis point.   On 16th June 1976, the children of Soweto organised a demonstration against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools.   The apartheid police opened fire.   In the years that followed, thousands fled South Africa to join Umkhonto we Sizwe.   There was a popular uprising.   South Africa became ungovernable.   There was an increase in armed attacks by MK.   There was a storm of international protest.   The apartheid regime, facing bankruptcy, was forced to consider negotiations.   Secret discussions had been taking place with Nelson Mandela.   There were also discussions between the African National Congress and key figures of the Afrikaner establishment in Dakar and in the UK.   There was no doubt that the end of apartheid was in sight.

First Govan Mbeki was released in 1987 and then all the other Rivonia trialists, except Nelson Mandela, at the end of 1989.   Then the ANC, SACP, MK and other organisations were unbanned.   Finally, on 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released.   The long process of negotiations was soon to begin.  It was to take something like 3 and half years, and 10,000 people were killed, including Chris Hani, the Secretary-General of the SACP.

The elections took place on 27th April 1994 and lasted until the end of the month.   When Nelson Mandela was installed as President at the Union Buildings on 10th May 1994, Denis was there as one of the guests of honour.   

On his return to London, Denis set up Community HEART as a British charity working for the reconstruction of South Africa.   HEART stands for Health, Education and Reconstruction Training.   Denis became the Executive Director, throwing his energy into a host of projects to assist his country.   Since its inception in 1995, Community HEART has sent 3 million books to schools and libraries in South Africa, has supported the Rape Crisis Centre in Cape Town, the Ububele Psychotherapy Project in Johannesburg, HIV/Aids projects helping to raise awareness of the disease, community arts and housing projects.   For a small organisation, Community HEART has had a considerable impact and that is due, in part, to the energy and enthusiasm that Denis has put into the organisation.

After Esme died of cancer in 2000, Denis decided to return to South Africa.   The sudden death of his daughter Hilary, from a blood clot, in 2002 confirmed him in this decision.   He had just married Edelgard Nkobi, the German born widow of Zenzo Nkobi, the son of the ANC Treasurer-General, Thomas Nkobi.   It was through Edelgard that Denis made the connections to set up the German Community-HEART.   On his return to South Africa, Denis was appointed as a Special Adviser to Ronnie Kasrils, the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.   He held this post until he retired in 2004.   By then, Denis had moved to Hout Bay in Cape Town, and he became the Patron of the Kronendal Music Academy of Hout Bay.   Edelgard died of cancer at the end of 2006 and her funeral took place on 8th January 2007, the anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress.

When Denis returned to South Africa, Isobel McVicar was appointed as the Director of Community HEART.   The organisation has continued its vital life-enhancing, life-changing work for the people of South Africa.

I was privileged to know Denis since, following his release, he arrived in London to continue working for the ANC and for freedom in his country.   We worked together very closely over the years.   Denis was a joy to work with and an inspiration to us all.   There are so many stories to tell, and there is one that typifies the man.   We were both part of an Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) delegation from Scotland in 2000.   We were in Cape Town and went to a nursery school in Khayelitsha.   Denis was like the Pied Piper.   He was surrounded by children.   He played with them.   They sang to him.   They danced around him.   They clamoured to be photographed with him, and of course we obliged.   The teachers may have been awestruck that they had a Rivonia trialist in their school.   The children were just delighted.   Denis was in his element.   We were looking at a Rivonia trialist helping to build a new South Africa.   

On 11th February 2019, the anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison, Denis Goldberg was awarded the Isitwalandwe Seaparonkoe, the highest honour of the African National Congress.   It was a significant and deserved tribute to his contribution to the liberation struggle.   He had earned it.

The last time I saw Denis, we were sitting in a fish restaurant in Hout Bay, discussing the future of South Africa.   I remember him quoting Bishop Trevor Huddleston, saying that he was not an optimist because that implied that we could sit back and that things would just happen.   He said that he was hopeful, because that meant that there was work to do.   That is now our task.   We have to help build the new South Africa, in which there is a better life for all.   

It will be hard going, but let us put our hands to the plough and get on with the job.   It is what Denis would expect of us.

Denis’ legacy has been building a new, free democratic South Africa.   So many people have benefitted from his contribution to the freedom of his country, and to his efforts at repairing the damage done by apartheid and colonialism.   He is truly a hero for his country and his times.

Hamba Kahle, Comrade Denis, Hamba Kahle.


David Kenvyn became an anti-apartheid campaigner while studying at LSE in the 1960s. He worked as a volunteer at the offices of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London and was a delegate to multiple ANC conferences. A former librarian, he is now Vice-Chair of ACTSA Scotland and Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustess of ACTSA, as well as member of the governing board of Community HEART, a charity set up by Denis Goldberg.

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