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The Struggle was well worth it, says Denis Goldberg

  • Goldberg
The award of the Freedom of the City of London is extremely rare and is usually bestowed upon royalty, heads of state or figures of genuine global standing. On Wednesday last week, 20 years since Nelson Mandela received the award, it was given to four exceptional South African Struggle icons in an inspiring ceremony.
by SHIRA DRUION | Feb 03, 2016

Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg received the award with fellow South African legendary lawyer George Bizos and Lord Joel Joffe at a ceremony in Guildhall’s prestigious Livery Hall, conducted by Dr Peter Kane, Chamberlain of London. Andrew Mlangeni, another surviving member of the Rivonia trial, was too ill to travel to London to accept the honour in person.

The men took to the stage as a unified force, recognised for their fight for democracy and equality and ultimately for the roles they played in changing the face of South African history. Other recipients of the award have been Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill and Princess Diana.

Relative to their small numbers in the South African population, Jews played a disproportionately important role in the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa.

The Freedom award is the highest honour which the City of London can bestow on someone and usually takes place in Guildhall in the presence of the Common Council and with the Lord Mayor, sheriffs and aldermen present, along with invited guests.

Questions were posed to the panel by visiting school children and Goldberg spoke candidly and with clarity of the past. It is hard to believe that he is into his 80s as he still radiates with palpable vibrancy. 

“Most whites were apathetic and did not do enough to change the policies of apartheid. I was a white, I benefited from it, had a deep conscience about the injustice and did not want to be responsible for it and there weren’t enough of us, but there (still) were many. 

“Not everybody ended up in prison, but white South Africa, from top to bottom, benefited from apartheid and allowed it to go on.”

He thanked the anti-apartheid activists from the United Kingdom and all over the world who he acknowledged had played “a magnificent role” in bringing the fight against apartheid to a head.

Goldberg took the audience back in time as he recalled the events that had taken place during the Rivonia Trial.

“When the judge delivered his verdict he spoke very softly and my mother couldn’t hear very well. After he finished speaking, my mother screamed out: ‘Denis, Denis, what is it!?’ You know I was still my mother’s little boy and I answered: ‘It’s life and life is wonderful!’

“In only 21 years (in South Africa), we have come a long way in undoing the laws of apartheid where for 300 or more years, racial segregation took place. It’s been burnt into the minds of all South Africans.

“The ANC today is a different situation and my personal view is that my current comrades in government, at every level, have followed the example of British colonial South Africa and the National Party in having created a crony economy where political power means enrichment - show me in Britain where it does not happen. We have learned from you.”

He told the audience that prison had “obviously been good” for the trialists as he is now 82 and the others well into their late 80s and early 90s! When asked about his views on the future of South Africa he said: “I reckon it’s going to take a generation to change. It’s a shame and a tragedy because in a sense the current situation robs our people of a democracy but we do have a flourishing democratic environment of people who speak out in the streets and riot and I’m happy to add my voice to it.

“The strength of the ANC is that some of the leaders within the ANC are speaking out against it, which gives me hope for the future.”

As the award was given, Goldberg, to the applause of the audience exclaimed: “My grandfather from Lithuania escaped and pushed a barrow selling rags for a living and here I am!”

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