Vale Denis Goldberg, anti-apartheid freedom fighter

May 4, 2020
The Rivonia trial defendants, including Nelson Mandela (top left) and Denis Goldberg (bottom right).

The moment the Rivonia trialists were sentenced, white and black went their separate ways, Denis Goldberg was to be the only white political prisoner serving for life. It was very hard in a different way from Robben Island, because the numbers of prisoners were small and Denis had to watch us all come in and go out before he was eventually released after 25 years.

In this period Denis suffered ill health and it was a big challenge for him to keep his spirits up. He was a very inventive person. Small things mean a lot in prison. Denis could always fix things that were broken, for example the binding of books. He knew how to make chocolates with the ingredients that we were gradually allowed to buy after many years. Sweets were a great luxury and his were better than those in the shops.

Being a small community was often stressful, but Denis managed to retain his dignity and enquiring mind. He was our negotiator with the "boers". Individual prisoners were not allowed (by us) to make requests. It all had to go through a consultative process and then Denis would take it to the Captain (most of the time a Captain Schnepel — who was eventually transferred — having similar impact for us to the fall of the Shah of Iran). He and the captain had travelled together for many years so he knew how to win him over somehow or other, and make some improvements in our conditions.

Small things assume big dimensions in a small community of prisoners, outnumbered by warders, who decided that it was best to give us space, and we determined much of what happened, apart from counting us (which the boers often got wrong) and locking our doors. That we could decide whether or not to polish floors was the result of years and years of struggle, by earlier prisoners, led by Denis.

When Denis was released he immediately threw himself into the liberation struggle, in London and on his return to South Africa, where he involved himself in a range of projects.

It is important to know that there was a person called Denis Goldberg, who served 22 years to bring about freedom in South Africa. We can honour his memory by ensuring that that freedom is defended and not jeopardised by acts of lawlessness and violence against the poor. Denis loved to debate. We can also honour him by restoring the culture of debate which used to be so important in liberation politics.

Hamba kahle [Farewell] Denis Goldberg!

[Raymond Suttner, based in Johannesburg, is a scholar and social and political analyst.  He was actively involved in the liberation struggle against apartheid, both in legal political activities and illegal underground work.  He served two periods of imprisonment and after release in 1988 was under house arrest, totalling 11 years.]

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