For Denis Goldberg, life is still wonderful

  • DenisGoldberg
In October 1963, 10 anti-apartheid activists went on trial for their lives. This, the Rivonia Trial, was one of the most significant court cases in South Africa’s battle for liberation.
by JONATHAN ANCER | Apr 19, 2018

On June 12 1964, eight of the accused were found guilty.

It was during this trial that Nelson Mandela made his celebrated “I am prepared to die” speech. Charged with taking up arms against apartheid, the accused were expecting the death sentence. But they didn’t get death; they got life.

The mother of Denis Goldberg, 31-year-old Accused No. 3, was in court and didn’t hear the sentence.

“Denis,” she shouted, “what is it?”

Goldberg famously replied: “It’s life… and life is wonderful.”

You see, Goldberg is a natural-born optimist.

At his home in Hout Bay, Goldberg, who turned 85 last week, remains an optimist who still believes life is wonderful.

A massive window in his lounge overlooks the majestic mountains across the bay. The unrestricted view serves as a daily reminder that he’s no longer behind bars.

Although Goldberg is still full of life, he is fighting to stay alive.He collapsed in Germany last year and was diagnosed with lung cancer, which the doctors told him was incurable. They expected him to return to South Africa and die.

Goldberg did return home, but he lived. He started treatment and the tumour shrank.

Unfortunately, he discovered last month that the tumour had grown back “with a vengeance”.

“Treatment starts again,” he shrugs.

Goldberg’s journey is a remarkable story from a “Jewish” boy in Cape Town’s working-class suburb of Observatory to an exceptional struggle icon. Jewish in inverted commas because – as my father would say – he’s not really a Jew, he’s Jew-ish.

Goldberg jokingly explained: “I’m only a little bit Jewish.” His Judaism is incidental. He isn’t religious and was never part of the Jewish community.

He does, however, come from Jewish stock.His maternal and paternal grandparents left Lithuania in the second half of the 19th century, fleeing the pogroms to settle in England.

In the 1930s, it was the turn of his parents, Sam and Annie, to seek a new home. They left London with Goldberg’s brother, Allan, for Cape Town. Sam and Annie were communists who were appalled at South Africa’s racist policies and taught their sons to respect people because they were people.

Goldberg, who was born in 1933, grew up in the shadow of Nazism.

When he started school, his parents warned him that some children would call him a “Jew boy” and “commie”, and he should ignore them.

He remembers Sergeant Jordaan’s son doing the Heil Hitler salute and telling him: “I’m going to get you, Jew boy.” The local butcher, who combed his hair over one eye in the style of Hitler and had a brush moustache, ran after him with a meat cleaver, threatening to “get the Jew”.

When he was 12, Goldberg asked his mother to skip school on a Jewish holiday so he could go to the beach. His mother said if he missed school, he shouldn’t go to the beach but to shul. He decided to go to school. He didn’t want to abuse a Jewish holiday for his own pleasure.

When Goldberg was 16, he studied civil engineering. It was only after he qualified and met Esme Bodenstein, who was active in the Modern Youth Society, a left wing association, that he became politically active.

They got married and had two children, Hilary and David.

Goldberg joined the Communist Party and the Congress of Democrats (CoD). There were many Jewish activists at that time, including Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Albie Sachs, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, Arthur Goldreich, Rowley Arenstein, Arthur Chaskelson and Harold Wolpe.

Goldberg says they never talked about their Jewish roots, but jokes that the most common phrase at CoD meetings was: “So, nu?”

After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the government clamped down on the opposition, arresting thousands of activists, including Goldberg, who was detained for four months, and his mother.

The ANC decided to launch an armed struggle and Goldberg joined its army, Umkhonto weSizwe. His task was to find railways, power lines and telephone lines to damage.

He left for Johannesburg and ended up on Liliesleaf Farm, the ANC’s underground headquarters. He was there when the security police raided the farm and arrested him and his fellow Rivonia Trialists.

When Goldberg was interrogated, he was told he was going to be hanged by “one of your people”.

His interrogators were referring to the Rivonia Trial’s Jewish prosecutor, Percy Yutar.

Goldberg shot back, saying Yutar “supports apartheid, so he’s one of your people”.

The prospect of being sent to the gallows was real, but Goldberg wasn’t afraid.

“I made the decision that I was prepared to die for the struggle because freedom is that important … and now that my life was on the line, there was no point in saying, ‘Oy vey, why me?’”

And so, in 1964 he began a life sentence.

For many years his toilet was a stinking bucket and breakfast was a bowl of gruel. Goldberg spent long days in isolation, living in his memories.

Esme and the children had moved to England. She was only let back to visit her husband in 1967 for five short visits, and then again four years later. The next time she saw him was when he was released. Goldberg 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.”

He wasn’t religious, but he asked to see the Jewish chaplain – to be a witness in case something untoward happened to him. The rabbi brought parcels for Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, and acted as a spiritual adviser.

One day, Annie came to visit her son. They weren’t allowed contact, but at the end of the visit the guard allowed her to climb on a stool and kiss her son through a tiny gap in the window.

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

Goldberg’s father continued to visit, but after a few years he became frail and moved into the Jewish old-age home in Sandringham. He died in 1979. Goldberg didn’t ask to go to his funeral.

“I wasn’t going to give them the pleasure of refusing me.”

In the meantime, Hilary was living on a kibbutz in Israel, where a committee was established to lobby for her father’s release. There were also behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to pave the way for negotiations between the National Party and the ANC, and the then prime minister PW Botha offered to release certain political prisoners, including Goldberg. There were conditions, but after 22 years in jail Goldberg had had enough. He accepted the conditions.

On February 28 1985, Goldberg was freed and put on a plane for Israel. He was taken to a house in Tel Aviv, and there to greet him was Arthur Goldreich, the anti-apartheid activist who had bought Liliesleaf Farm for the ANC, and had fled South Africa to live in Israel.

Goldberg recalls the meeting. “Arthur said to me: ‘The last house you were in before you were arrested was mine – and now the first house you are in is mine.’

“I said to him: ‘Arthur, is it safe this time?’”

Goldberg and Esme moved to London. Esme died in 2000 and Hilary died in 2002. Goldberg returned to live in South Africa, working in the ministry of water affairs and forestry.

Goldberg, who has always been outspoken, has been critical of Israel’s policies and also joined the chorus calling for Jacob Zuma’s resignation.

Goldberg is frail, but his eyes sparkle when he talks about his new project: building House of Hope, an arts centre for Hout Bay youth.

On Sunday, hundreds of people celebrated his birthday and paid tribute to his extraordinary life. Goldberg and 92-year-old Andrew Mlangeni are the only surviving Rivonia Trialists.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Carmen Turyn ( new Papert) 20 Oct
    I should like to leave my large Art book library to Denis's ArtCentre in Hour Bay. How do I contact Denis  about this? Also to send him my heartfelt good wishes.


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