OPINION | Denis Goldberg: the Rivonia trialist who didn't want to be the 'last man standing'

News24 journalist Tshidi Madia with Denis Goldberg. (Lerato Sejake, News24)
News24 journalist Tshidi Madia with Denis Goldberg. (Lerato Sejake, News24)

Goldberg, the only white person to have been convicted alongside his black comrades in the treason trial was not only sentenced to 22 years behind bars, but had continued with his activism after prison, writes Tshidi Madia. 

News of the passing of Denis Goldberg, an ANC struggle veteran and the youngest Rivonia trialist hit me mid-sentence, during a telephone call.

I hung up to look at the news strap to understand what had happened.

It wasn't a surprise.

Goldberg had been ill for some time - in all the engagements I have had with him, his deteriorating health had been a stark reminder that the end of an era for one of the gentle giants as some described him, was approaching.

Hearing of the 87-year-old’s passing brought back a collection of memories from interviews I have had with him in recent years.

I couldn't stop thinking of the day we had met at Liliesleaf farm, which is a crucial part of the Rivonia trialists' story.

The aim of the meeting was to discuss his growing disdain for former president Jacob Zuma, a man he used to refer to as "a once brave comrade" and his concerns over the direction the party was headed.

But the conversation shifted and ended with Goldberg in tears while reflecting on the legacy of former ANC president O.R. Tambo.

His sense of his own mortality became more acute following the death of another liberation hero and trialist Ahmed Kathrada, fondly known as "Uncle Kathy".

Goldberg had been ill but was thought to be a bit stronger than the other remaining trialist, Ntate Andrew Mlangeni, who is now the only survivor of those brave freedom fighters who willingly stared death in the face in their demand for liberation and equal rights in a country that was then under the repressive apartheid regime.

As Mlangeni was in and out of hospital, Goldberg, who was the youngest of the trialists, feared he might be the last one standing.

He told me in an interview that while they didn’t see each other often, they remained bonded forever through their shared experiences and having faced the prospect of being executed by the then regime.

Goldberg said he felt he still needed the other trialists by his side, as it was painful seeing them depart this mortal coil.

"People you respect and admire leaving you all alone, actually it’s not a nice feeling," Goldberg once said.

I suppose it's that conversation that will stay with me, when I think of Goldberg, the realisation that one’s work in this realm is coming to an end, work I understood he continued to do, while battling his illness.

In one of our sit downs, we spoke about him having traveled to Gauteng from Cape Town to raise funds for a project aimed at telling the story of black soldiers who fought in World War II.

He was also fiercely advocating for the ANC to change its ways in order to regain society’s trust - the people are "gatvol" of their party he said.

For the most part, he also seemed just as gatvol of his beloved movement.

Conversations with Goldberg were at times painful, as his sense of loss of the ANC he remembered was palpable.

He once shared a story of how he found out that he had been appointed to the party’s integrity committee - a structure made up of veterans aimed at assisting to assess and help deal with leaders who did not espouse the ANC's values.

Goldberg said he read it in a newspaper - the ANC had not approached him but went ahead and told the media they had done so.

A visibly hurt Goldberg said he went along with the idea, thinking there was a chance of redemption, but the body went on to be seen as "a dog with no teeth".

Its views, under the party presidency under Zuma, were mostly ignored and that seemed to have left him even more disconnected to the post-liberation ANC.

It's this relationship between the old and new I find fascinating.

I think the current crop of ANC members should be more cognisant of this, moreso as its leaders take to several platforms to praise the "seaparankwe" an honour which was bestowed by the party on Goldberg last year.

It’s the highest honour afforded to those who have made outstanding contributions and sacrifices in the struggle for freedom.

The ANC is by and large a nostalgic organisation, one that loves to reflect on days of old, as if it truly takes in those lessons.

One merely needs to look back at Goldberg’s views of his beloved movement or listen to any other veteran in the party to understand that it speaks right but walks left when it comes to its former leaders.

A friend in the ANC once said that the depth of one's pockets determine how amplified your views can be.

Again, this is what concerns elders in the liberation movement - it is a philosophy that is in direct contradiction to the values of the ANC they grew up in, but one which seems to have become the norm.

This is the same party that insists on memorial lectures just so factional battles can find expression and reach.

Some have said that when stalwarts die, the impact, the gap must be felt - questioning whether Goldberg and others of his generation had done enough in a post-apartheid South Africa.

The man once known to the country’s courts as accused number 3, settled in England for some time, returning to South Africa much later in his life.

Goldberg, the only white person to have been convicted alongside his black comrades in the treason trial was not only sentenced to 22 years behind bars, but had continued with his activism after prison.

While Goldberg's passing can be seen as the beginning of the end of an era in the party, perhaps it is an opportunity to also look back in order to chart a way forward?

Not in nostalgia, but to seriously take advantage of the institutional memory that is still alive and yearning to engage in shaping the role the governing party plays in South Africa.

Young and innovative is fantastic and for the most part the ANC’s approach to many issues suggests this is lacking, but institutional memory is gold and the party has it in the room but refuses to genuinely acknowledge it.

Perhaps, mourning a leader like Goldberg in a time of the coronavirus outbreak, where large gatherings are prohibited, presents a wonderful opportunity to truly reflect on what the ANC wants to become and how it wants to use its stalwarts and their folders of knowledge.

They may just carry with them a blueprint to help the party re-imagine itself in a post Covid-19 world.

- Tshidi Madia is a senior politics reporter at News24

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