Jeremy Cronin: Above all, Denis Goldberg was a mensch!

Denis Goldberg. (Gallo Images / Beeld / Theana Breugem)
Denis Goldberg. (Gallo Images / Beeld / Theana Breugem)

Like his fellow Rivonia trialists, Mlangeni and Kathrada, who had also survived into the dismal years of state capture, Denis was not afraid to speak out frankly on platforms and to all who would listen, writes Jeremy Cronin.


Denis Goldberg was many admirable things. For our own sakes, we must not allow our memory of Denis to be frozen now into a one-dimensional symbol.  

And yet, inescapably, Denis has also long since been a symbol.

As a Rivonia trialist, as the only white convicted in that trial, he rightfully stands for a struggle that was fought, and for the best of a South Africa that is still struggling to overcome its deeply divided racialised reality.

Denis accepted this role, with a mixture of humility and pride, with an understanding of its responsibilities and even, at times, its burdens. 

The arrests of much of the senior leadership of the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe at Lilliesleaf farm and the subsequent Rivonia trial represented a major set-back for the liberation movement in South Africa.

Organisationally, inside the country, the ANC was not to recover from this and related blows until at least the latter half of the 1970s. And yet the Rivonia trial symbolically turned matters on their head.

The trialists used the court as another site of struggle.

In their speeches from the dock, the dignified bravery and principled posture with which Nelson Mandela and his fellow triallists confronted what they assumed would be near certain death sentences, resonated nationally and internationally. 

The trial was a decisive event. It was a foundational moment, a reference point, and not just for the eventual revival of the ANC-led movement.

It laid the basis for an international, anti-apartheid movement, among the most successful global solidarity struggles of the 20th century.  

Goldberg and Ahmed Kathrada’s presence in the dock, alongside Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Raymond Mhlaba was a statement in its own right. 

As the youngest and most junior of the trialists, Denis was proud to project himself, both then and in subsequent years, as a foot-soldier serving under a wiser and more rooted leadership. 

I first met what for me had been until then a legendary Denis Goldberg in Pretoria Central prison in September 1976. I arrived in the maximum security wing of Pretoria Local Prison in September 1976. I was joining a small band of fellow white male political prisoners back in those days of high apartheid.

At that stage there were just seven or eight of us. Frankly it was a relief to be a sentenced political prisoner, finally amongst comrades after months of interrogation and solitary confinement.  

Of course, we would all have preferred to be with the much larger contingent of black political prisoners, most of them on Robben Island.

In fact, Denis had once led a petition for white male political prisoners to be transferred to the Island. But that was never going to happen under apartheid.

Our political activism might have made us part, at least in aspiration, of the South African black majority. But our white skins also marked us out as a tiny minority of a minority. The regime was determined to keep it that way. 

After warm hugs of welcome from my new comrades in the exercise yard, the inevitable question arose. “So what did the judge sentence you to?”

“Seven years”, I replied. “Hmm, that’s just a parking ticket”, Dave Kitson shrugged dismissively - he was 10 years into a 25-year sentence.

“He’ll hardly be here long enough to dirty the dishes”, he jested with Denis Goldberg, who was by then some 11 years into his (supposedly non-concurrent) three life-sentences. 

A short while later, on that first day in Pretoria Local, I was summoned to the “venster” - the neck-craning, high window of the prison captain’s office that overlooked our tiny exercise yard.

As I jogged back to my new comrade acquaintances, Denis took me aside with an avuncular hand on my shoulder.

“When they summon you to the ‘venster’”, he admonished me, “you walk politely but SLOWLY, you NEVER jog.”  That was my first lesson in the war of position that was being waged daily inside South Africa’s political prisons.  

Year in and year out, there were grinding struggles to push back the authority and control of the warders, to create small and often furtive spaces, liberated zones for political discussion and debate, for smuggling in news of the struggles outside, for learning from each other across different and disrupted generations of struggle.

It was a struggle, even in prison, to win some space that we controlled and they didn’t. 

These collective struggles were particularly powerful on Robben Island and had left an impression in surprising places.

I remember one young Afrikaans-speaking warder, recently transferred to Pretoria from Robben Island, in awed tones proudly confiding to me that he personally had “met Mr Mandela”. 

The Denis Goldberg that I encountered for the first time in those September days of 1976 was our own local veteran and expert in this war of position.

Already important changes in conditions had been achieved. Correspondence studies were allowed - but not newspapers or radios. Even the anodyne magazines we were permitted (like Readers Digest or Farmers Weekly) often arrived shredded by the prison censor’s scissors.

Nevertheless, by 1976 things were immeasurably improved compared to the tough mid-1960s. 

Denis was acknowledged by warders and prisoners alike as our unofficial leader.

The first requirement for waging an effective and ongoing war of position inside the trenches of Pretoria Local, Denis educated me as a newcomer, was to maintain coherence, discipline and unity amongst ourselves.

In theory this should have been readily achievable.  

We were united, after all, in our political beliefs and in our shared predicament.

But it wasn’t always plain-sailing.

The serious strategic defeat suffered by the South African liberation movement by the mid-1960s, meant that there was a generational gap between those of us (like Denis and Dave Kitson) who had been politically active through the heady 1950s of mass campaigns and general strikes, and those of us (like me) who had become politicised as part of a distant, global 1968 student ferment.

In contrast to my older comrades, my experience (at that stage) of South African politics was entirely limited to small underground cells in which even the real names of the other two or three comrades in the unit were often unknown. 

More challengingly, some prison comrades had suffered terribly in the apartheid torture chambers and were still emotionally fragile.

Others had children who were now adolescents, but whom they had last seen as two- or three-year-olds. Others had not heard from wives or partners for many months.

All of this resulted in strains that inevitably impacted upon morale and cohesion. It was often Denis, with the longest sentence of all, who played father- mother- brother and counselor within our small circle.   

But, notwithstanding the occasional emotional flare-up or generational disconnect, we maintained a collective unity and discipline.

And this produced paradoxical results.

Some of the junior warders would approach us prisoners (usually Denis) to look after their lunch-boxes, or a packet of biscuits. "If we leave it in our locker-room”, they told us, “the other warders will steal it.”

Others would seek legal or financial advice, or help with their studies, or even marital counselling from us “terrorists”. 

Of course, this remained a war of position with an unfavourable power balance for us prisoners. Small prison advances accumulated over many years could be rolled-back suddenly in one fell swoop.

But even these wrenching roll-backs were read as positive omens, retribution for spectacular popular victories that we imagined (accurately or not) had happened somewhere outside. 

When I arrived in Pretoria Local in 1976 I was able to confirm to the news-starved comrades that, indeed, the frenzied chopping down by the warders of a lovingly cultivated fig tree in the prison yard the year before had coincided with the forced retreat, at the hands of Cuban forces, of the apartheid army from the outskirts of Luanda. 

Denis the moral leader in our confined space was, of course, many other things. If he was an a-typical white South African in some respects, he was thoroughly predictable in others.

The elasticised, old-fashioned knee-guard that he donned when exercising in the yard was testament to his love of rugby and the inevitable injuries he had suffered playing first team for Ikeys.  

He was also an engineer, which along with his communism, was what got him a long-term prison sentence. He was meant to be leaving the country for further military training, but, as an engineer, had stopped briefly over at Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia to assist Umkhonto we Sizwe’s technical planning for a massive escalation of the armed struggle.

Denis later ruefully confessed that they had been hugely over-ambitious. “At Rivonia we were planning to secure one million painkillers along with tons of chemicals for manufacturing explosives. I must admit that even then, as I was drafting these logistic proposals, a penny began to drop.”   

But his ruefulness was never a regret.  

After the completion of my sentence in 1983 and Denis’s release in 1985, our paths would cross intermittently.

I met him in London in 1987, finally re-united with Esme his wife and daughter Hilary and son David. After his return to South Africa and his beloved Cape Town in 1994, he remained passionately active in numerous community-based, solidarity and other projects.  

Like his fellow Rivonia trialists, Mlangeni and Kathrada, who had also survived into the dismal years of state capture, Denis was not afraid to speak out frankly on platforms and to all who would listen.

He did so, not with rancour, but out of deep concern for the movement, the cause, the country to which he contributed so much, both in a large symbolic way and in countless small ways, in school class-rooms, in community halls, in township homes. 

Denis Goldberg was many things. But above all, in the Yiddish of his immigrant communist parents, who had left behind their own experience of racial oppression in Eastern Europe - he was a mensch. 

For this, and so much more - thank you Denis!  

- Jeremy Cronin is a member of the SACP's central committee, and a former member of the ANC's national executive committee. He was a deputy minister between 2012 and 2019. His first collection of poems, Inside, was released to much acclaim after his release from prison in 1984.

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