Denis Goldberg obituary

Fighter against apartheid in South Africa who spent 22 years in jail after being convicted with Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia trial

Denis Goldberg, who has died aged 87, was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Nelson Mandela and nine others in the 1964 Rivonia trial, in which he was found guilty by the South African authorities of sabotage.The only white man to be convicted and, at 31, the youngest of the defendants, Goldberg was a mainstay of the ANC’s military operation in Cape Town, obtaining bomb ingredients and instructing recruits on how to handle them. There was no doubt about his guilt, and he did not deny it.

Because of his colour, after conviction Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central prison rather than Robben Island, where the others, who also included Walter Sisulu, were incarcerated.

He would have preferred to be among his fellow Rivonians, even if life on Robben Island was more inhumane than in Pretoria Central. In some ways jail brought out the best in him; fellow inmates found his passion and chirpy humour an inspiration. However, after two decades of interminable routine and no hope of release, his spirit had begun to weaken. It was therefore an immense relief when he was finally set free in 1985, five years ahead of Mandela.

After prison Goldberg moved to London and campaigned against apartheid until it was fully abolished with the 1994 elections in South Africa.

He was born in Cape Town to English Jewish parents, Annie (nee Fineberg), a seamstress, and Sam Goldberg, a lorry driver. Growing up in a mixed-race, working-class suburb of Cape Town, from an early age he shared his parents’ strong commitment to communism.

From Observatory boys high school he went to the University of Cape Town to study civil engineering. After graduating in 1954, Denis worked on the railways and then in a power station. In 1957 he joined the clandestine Communist party and, three years later, during the state of emergency that followed the Sharpeville massacre, he and his mother were detained without trial for several months due to their political beliefs. Following his release, no state or municipal body would employ him, but a sympathetic architect gave him work.

Denis Goldberg with Nelson Mandela in 2010.
Denis Goldberg with Nelson Mandela in 2010. Photograph: Debbie Yazbeck/Nelson Mandela Foundation

When the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we-Sizwe, was launched in 1961, and believing that “a principled war of liberation” against apartheid was necessary, Goldberg became involved in its underground activities. In 1963, following a period of harassment by the police, and after a bomb he was making exploded in his garden, he decided to go to ground and flee the country for his own safety.

He visited an ANC hideout at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg, where his comrades were preparing to help him get away. However, while he was there the police raided the farm and found a treasure trove of bomb-making equipment. Although Goldberg was a relatively small fish in the ANC pond, he was viewed by the security police as a special catch because he was white. They hoped that he would incriminate his comrades, but he gave away nothing of importance.

While he was awaiting the subsequent trial, his wife, Esmé Bodenstein, whom he had married after leaving university, was also arrested, and spent 38 days being interrogated. Following her release she left for England with their children, Hilary and David.

Goldberg’s demeanour in court was combative, and, like Mandela, he seemed almost to welcome the idea of a death sentence, which was what most observers were expecting. When the judge handed down life imprisonment, he was equally defiant. His mother, who was in court for sentencing, found herself unable to hear the judge properly, and shouted across to her son: “Denis, what is it? What did the judge say?”, to which Goldberg responded: “Life, and life is wonderful.”

Esmé, who was soon joined in London by Goldberg’s mother, was permitted to visit her husband only twice during his 22 years inside. When Goldberg’s father died in Johannesburg he refused even to ask to attend the funeral on the grounds that he would not give the authorities the pleasure of refusing his request.

His children, however, were allowed to see him more regularly, and Hilary, working on a kibbutz in Israel, set up a committee to work for his release. Eventually, when South Africa’s president, PW Botha, met Margaret Thatcher in 1985, a letter pleading Goldberg’s case was delivered to Botha by the British foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, and within weeks he had been released to a new life in London.

The decision upset some ANC expats, who were unaware at the time that Mandela was in talks with Botha about his own release. But Goldberg was warmly welcomed in London by the ANC leader-in-exile, Oliver Tambo, who was also living in the UK.In London Goldberg devoted himself to anti-apartheid campaigning and to giving talks on the ANC in Britain and abroad. He also set up a charity, Community Heart, which raised funds for projects in southern Africa.

Esmé, a physiotherapist, died in 2000, and two years later Goldberg married Edelgard Nkobi, a journalist. When Hilary died shortly afterwards, he returned to South Africa as a special adviser to the department of water affairs and settled in Hout Bay, on the outskirts of Cape Town, where he became involved in setting up the House of Hope, an arts and cultural centre. Edelgard died in 2006.

In 2009 Goldberg was awarded South Africa’s Order of Luthuli (silver). Later he spoke out against the corruption of President Jacob Zuma, but said he could never bring himself to vote against the ANC.

He is survived by David and four grandchildren.

• Denis Theodore Goldberg, engineer and anti-apartheid activist, born 11 April 1933; died 29 April 2020


Denis Herbstein

The GuardianTramp

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