Going strong at 80

2013-04-14 14:00

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Denis Goldberg is still as lucid, and determined, as the day he was first thrown in prison

In 1963, when Denis Goldberg was 30 years old, he was a Rivonia trialist alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others. He was convinced he was going to be sentenced to death.

On Thursday this week, he celebrated his 80th birthday at a tea party with a few close friends and, on Saturday, he was at a fundraiser for the Kronendal Music Academy, of which he is the patron.

“It’s quite amazing,” he says. “When I was 30 years old, I thought they were going to hang me after the Rivonia Trial. It’s funny, but so many of us have lived so long. Four of us, out of the eight, are still alive. There are times when I can’t believe I am 80. I look at old people and I think: why are they so slow? And then I realise I am like them as well.”

He described the Rivonia Trial as one of the highlights in his life. “The low point was being caught,” he said.

“I was arrested at Lilliesleaf on July 11 1963. It was winter in Johannesburg. After they arrested us, it got really cold, I tell you. It seemed to get very dark. That was a bad time.

“The Rivonia Trial was a moment of tremendous pride, of having taken a stand. I was proud to be on trial with people of such integrity. And then Nelson made that marvellous speech. He challenged the judge to hang him, but also to hang all of us. It was a moment of pride, but also

relief when the judge said he was not going to hang us.”

Goldberg (the only white person convicted at the trial) was kept in Pretoria Central Prison while the others were sent to Robben Island.

“I would have liked to have been with my comrades. It would have been strengthening. There was a group of white political prisoners in Pretoria, but we were always a small number. The more numbers you have, the better it is, because they cannot watch the whole lot of you at every moment.”

Liberation took longer to come than he had anticipated.

“I was in prison for 22 years from the time I was arrested. It is a long time. My daughter was eight and my son was six when I went in and they were 30 and 28 when I came out. A generation had passed.”

His family went into exile while he was on trial. “I escaped once from prison and was recaptured. I was instructed to escape again but, the first time, they arrested my wife. We had young children and they had a bad time. I knew that if I escaped again, they would go after her again, just as revenge.

“While I was in prison, my family was in exile. My children grew up and were educated in the UK. My son speaks like a Londoner. He does not sound South African at all. My grandchildren are English.”

The first time he saw his children when he was in prison was after about seven or eight years, when they were 14 and 12.

“They came together every two years and then later they took it in turns. My wife was allowed to visit me after four years, and then after another four years, and then not again. I only saw her again after about 14 years. That was mean, but these things are all designed to try to break you, to cut you off.”

In 1985, Goldberg became the first of the Rivonia trialists to be released. “It was difficult. I had been informed this was okay, that things were happening. When I left prison, I had this sense of leaving comrades in my prison, but also the rest of the comrades who were in prison elsewhere.

“That was difficult. I knew, in my bones, that this was the beginning of the end of apartheid – not because it was me, but because it was part of a process. Over the next while, first Govan Mbeki, then Walter Sisulu and five others were released and, five years later, Nelson Mandela was released. So, it was a process.”

He said the remaining Rivonia trialists hardly see each other.

“We don’t get together as Rivonia trialists. Madiba is very much alone. I see Andrew Mlangeni from time to time and I see Ahmed Kathrada from time to time. We get involved in the same interviews, but we are each busy with our own things. Kathy with his foundation, me with supporting projects and Andrew playing golf. He loves golf.”

Goldberg said he was pleased with much of what was happening in democratic South Africa, but not all of it.

“I’m saddened that we made the assumption that political democracy, the right to vote and trade union rights would automatically improve the lot of low-paid workers, and it hasn’t. I have to say that, as a movement, we have neglected that transformation.

“That is what Marikana is about. That’s what the farm workers’ strike is about. We have neglected to transform labour relations, not the act of Parliament about dismissal and so on, but the huge gap between low-paid workers and skilled workers, managers and, especially, shareholders of big


“Many of our leaders have been co-opted into that group and have forgotten why we made a revolution. It is normal around the world. I thought we would be different. I hoped we would be.

“I don’t want to attack any particular comrade who is a leader in the ANC or the Communist Party, but we have had comrades who have been on the boards of the mines where they have had strikes and they did not even know the strikes were coming.

“They did not seem to mind

to perpetuate migrant labour on the platinum mines. This is disappointing. I know one can be critical of President Jacob Zuma about corruption, and people are always attacking him about this, but more cases against corrupt officials have been brought into the open under his administration than ever before. “On the other side, nobody will criticise Nelson Mandela. I don’t want to criticise him, he’s a great leader, but the way we idolise him as Saint Madiba, it is as though he personally brought us freedom with his two hands, as though

nobody else was involved.

“What about Oliver Tambo, who really led us to freedom for almost 30 years while Madiba was in

prison? The danger of this idolisation of Madiba is that we sit back and wait for the messiah to come to set us free from our current problems. Only we can solve our problems.”

One of the differences, he said, between the leaders of then and now was “we did not have anything to tempt us except freedom. There were no resources. There was no money”.

He also said it was tempting to live well, making reference to tenderpreneurs. “But I have to

condemn the greed. They are stealing our freedom.”

Goldberg said he was still feeling healthy. “Actually, the last year or so I have felt better than I have felt for many years. But I don’t walk so easily any more. I can’t stand for an hour giving a lecture.”

If he could live his life over again, he would try not to get caught.

“Without sounding pompous, I’m quite proud of what my generation achieved. We fought, perhaps, the most powerful state in Africa, supported by major world powers, and we compelled it to change its policies. To have been part of it, what a delight that is. What a fulfilment.”

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