'He chose freedom over privilege, humanity over brutality' - old comrades pay tribute to Denis Goldberg

One of South Africa's most revered and respected sons has died - Nelson Mandela's fellow-Rivonia treason trialist Denis Goldberg.

The anti-apartheid campaigner from Cape Town was imprisoned for 22 years and served a long history with the South African Communist Party, Umkhonto we Sizwe and a long list of organisations before and after South Africa's transition to democracy.

A family spokesperson said today: "His family and the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust are very sad to announce that Denis Goldberg passed away just before midnight on Wednesday, 29 April 2020. 

"His was a life well-lived in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. We will miss him."

He was 87.

Former minister of the then-water affairs and forestry, Ronnie Kasrils, told News24 on Thursday: "The abiding memory for me, lodged in my mind, ever since I've known him since 1960, is his revolutionary optimism and commitment.

"He demonstrated that, in your life, whatever the challenges, you can make so much of life. You can find so many creative ways to contribute. Even from within the walls of a prison, you can radiate a message outwards," Kasrils said.

Read: OBIT | Denis Goldberg's life was 'the radical contradiction to the system of apartheid'

Around 15 years after his release from prison in 1985, Goldberg had been living in London, leading a major education fundraising organisation, when Kasrils had implored Goldberg to return to his home country.

"He agreed to serve as my Special Advisor, and he was absolutely outstanding. He rolled up his shirt sleeves - I sent him into the rural areas, to check on the water projects, and he gave me the kind of reporting, on the ground, which was greater in quality than I was receiving from the department."

Kasrils cited an excerpt from "Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela, which reflected words for which Goldberg is remembered by many. 

Mandela wrote: "We looked at each other and smiled. There had been a great collective gasp in the courtroom when De Wet announced that he was not sentencing us to death. But there was consternation among some spectators because they had been unable to hear De Wet's sentence. Dennis [sic] Goldberg's wife called to him: 'Dennis, what is it?"

"'Life!' he yelled back, grinning. 'Life! To live!'"

'Last link to Liliesleaf'

Nicholas Wolpe, founder and CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust - named after the farm in Rivonia where the apartheid state caught six of the trialists - said:

"Denis Goldberg's death has now severed the link to those who were arrested at Liliesleaf. He was the surviving trialist of those arrested at Liliesleaf. 

"Denis was a true struggle activist, who epitomised the very soul and essence of what it meant to be a servant of the people. He held true to the ideals of the Freedom Charter of bringing about a transformational change to South Africa and South African society predicated on the notion that all are equal. 

"He was in the struggle not for self-interest, not for any material gain or acknowledgment, but to rid our country of the blight of apartheid. 

"He was willing like his fellow trialists to sacrifice the most precious gift of all, his life, for the betterment of a new social order where the people were judged by the content of their character. 

"To the very end, he held true to these ideals and was outspoken and critical of the ANC government's failure to realise the clauses of the Freedom Charter. He was the embodiment of our struggle," Wolpe told News24.

'Irrepressible sense of humour'

Sello Hatang, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, wrote: "We have been deeply saddened to hear that Denis Goldberg has passed away and send condolences to his family, friends and comrades. South Africa has lost another true patriot, someone who was a friend of Nelson Mandela and a stalwart of struggle.

"Most of Ntate Goldberg’s life was dedicated to the struggle against apartheid and the building of democracy. He was a member of a generation of leadership which shaped the country’s history in profound ways. In later years he challenged the direction our democracy was taking, initially critiquing the country’s macroeconomic policies and then challenging state capture during the years of cronyism and looting."

"He was our friend," Hatang said. "Always supportive, right to the end. We were delighted he was able to attend our events marking the 30th anniversary of Madiba's release from prison. And always a constructive critic of our work, with insight and that characteristic naughty sense of humour.

"In 'Long Walk to Freedom' Madiba spoke about that humour manifesting during the Rivonia Trial: 'There was a good deal of gallows humour among us. Denis Goldberg, the youngest of the accused, had an irrepressible sense of humour and often had us laughing when we should not have been.' It was Ntate Goldberg who responded to the Rivonia life sentence by shouting to his wife in the gallery: 'Life! To live!'"

"He knew how to live. We honour his many contributions, from the work he did in the formation of MK to his many years of incarceration in Pretoria Central Prison, from his deep reflections on transformation in the democratic era to the many philanthropic causes he supported. He will not be forgotten.

"During my very last conversation with him in February, he talked passionately about a resilient inequality as the greatest obstacle to transformation and expressed relief that we again have a leadership in South Africa which is up for the challenge."

'He chose freedom over privilege'

ANC stalwart Mac Maharaj told News24: "Comrade Dennis [sic] Goldberg has taken leave of us. He came from among those privileged in our country because of the colour of his skin. He chose a life of service and struggle for liberation side by side with the exploited and oppressed.

"He chose freedom over privilege. He chose humanity over the brutality and dehumanisation of apartheid.

"He took the hard road. The road that took him away from Esme and the children, who had the rebuild a life in exile without him. His journey took him to Rivonia, detention without trial, to life imprisonment, to exile in Britain and, through continued service to the struggle, to the dawn of democracy in 1994. He continued to his last days to stand for justice and for a life of dignity for all. He stood tall.

"It is time to bow our heads I tribute to a life well lived and to share the grief of his family and the nation. Long live the spirit of comrade Denis Goldberg."

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
DAYS
HRS
MINS
Voting Booth
When assisting your child with remote learning this year, did you:
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Results
Follow the school's comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum?
14% - 399 votes
Adjust the CSE curriculum to suit the family's morals?
24% - 693 votes
Ignore the schools CSE programme and do your own teaching?
63% - 1831 votes
Vote
ZAR/USD
15.21
(-0.28)
ZAR/GBP
20.56
(-0.77)
ZAR/EUR
18.50
(-0.47)
ZAR/AUD
11.30
(-0.19)
ZAR/JPY
0.15
(-0.20)
Gold
1843.88
(+0.21)
Silver
24.14
(+0.45)
Platinum
1071.00
(+4.70)
Brent Crude
48.78
(+0.95)
Palladium
2378.50
(+3.03)
All Share
59242.61
(+0.50)
Top 40
54349.62
(+0.33)
Financial 15
11614.82
(+1.89)
Industrial 25
79712.91
(+0.04)
Resource 10
56671.31
(+0.09)
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo