‘18 years is a blink of an eye’Comment on this story
Struggle veteran Denis Goldberg, who spent more time in prison than the 18 years that SA has been free, says it will take a few generations before the scars caused by apartheid are healed.
But the country was well on the way to overcoming the legacies of the past.
Goldberg joined members of the Ex-Political Prisoners Association to celebrate Mandela Day by planting trees outside the prison warder’s house on the grounds of the former Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, since renamed Groot Drakenstein Correctional Centre, where Mandela had spent his last 15 months of his 27 years as a prisoner.
From there Mandela would prepare for what was to be a historic first meeting, at his request, with then-president PW Botha at Tuynhuys, which started the ball rolling for an eventual negotiated settlement with the ANC and democracy.
At the house, Mandela also met ANC, United Democratic Front and other leaders on the prospects for a settlement and to prepare for his release.
It is from this house that Mandela took his first steps to freedom 22 years ago.
Wednesday’s event at the house was a building block towards a second ex-political prisoners’ reunion event on February 11 next year. The Ex-Political Prisoners Association was founded after Mandela witnessed the pitiful socio-economic circumstances of many former political prisoners.
Goldberg, 79, spent 22 years in Pretoria Central, mostly on his own, as the only white male prisoner, far away from his fellow freedom-fighters held together on Robben Island, after being sentenced to life in the Rivonia trial as a co-accused with Nelson Mandela.
Goldberg was released in 1985 and moved to London before returning to SA in 2002.
“We’ve come a tremendously long way in a very short time,” Goldberg said on Wednesday in Paarl.
“Eighteen years is a blink of an eye in the lifetime of a nation,” Goldberg added.
“We’ve also got a tremendously long way to go. But we have to be optimistic.”
There had been 400 years of oppression which had left deep scars in the psyche of all races.
“It’s not easy to overcome those feelings of resentment.”
He said SA was in the hands of a government which subscribed to the message of the Freedom Charter, which called for equal rights for all.
Goldberg acknowledged there were some individuals who did not act accordingly, but said they were not the norm.
While he was positive about SA’s future, Goldberg said: “We do have serious problems.”
He said it was deeply worrying that thousands of people moved into “hellholes of informal settlements” because they felt they had more chance at a prosperous future than in a rural area.
He said a big problem facing SA’s leaders was the thousands of young people frustrated by high levels of unemployment.
He and the other former prisoners were taken on a tour of the house by prison warder Jack Swart who had been Mandela’s chef.
Goldberg said on entering: “Hey, this is a nice prison.”
He suspected Mandela had been embarrassed by the size and comfort of the house, which other prisoners would never have had.
During the tour Swart pointed out a hole in a tree where a microphone had been placed to record Mandela’s every conversation.
He showed the visitors a small room just off the kitchen, the only one in the house which was not bugged.
Swart, 65, told the Cape Times that he would report for duty at the house at 7am to make breakfast and leave at 4pm after cooking dinner.
He said Mandela had at first been on a strict diet – low cholesterol and high protein.
Mandela had switched to eating normally when he began having lunches and dinners with the leaders he had invited to briefings at the house.
Swart said he and Mandela would discuss who was coming to visit and he would cook according to their tastes.
He described their relationship as “good”.
On Mandela’s first day he had asked Swart whether he was interested in politics. Swart replied that he was not and the two never spoke of it again.
He said Mandela would exercise first thing in the morning and spend the day reading or talking to his guests.
Mandela had built a carbon copy in his birthplace Qunu of the prison warder’s house, to where he is now retired.