Denis Goldberg died at this Hout Bay home after battling cancer. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)
Denis Goldberg died at this Hout Bay home after battling cancer. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

What a life! A real mensch - Ronnie Kasrils pays tribute to Denis Goldberg

By Ronnie Kasrils Time of article published May 10, 2020

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One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised. - Chinua Achebe

Integrity and defence of the truth, whatever the personal cost, was a choice Denis Goldberg made from a tender age, and stuck to throughout his life. It is said that a life lived with integrity, served in a struggle for freedom and equality of all, is seen as a light unto the nations. Denis joins that pantheon of stars in the firmament.

His parents settled in South Africa, from Lithuania via London, to escape the Czarist pogroms and poverty of 19th-century Russia. He grew up in the then mixed-race area of Observatory, Cape Town, where his father had a small cartage business.

Both parents were members of the communist party and Denis’s upbringing in a non-racist home during World War II, and the struggle against fascism, shaped his views.

“I understood that what was happening in South Africa with its racism was like the racism in Nazi Germany in that we were supposed to be fighting against (it),” he explained many times.

It was his revulsion at the racism he witnessed in South Africa, however, that became the driving force for his life’s journey, marking him out as so different from 99% of the white community. He abhorred racism and discrimination wherever it existed.

He experienced anti-Semitism in school. He was not religious but imbibed from his mother the Judaic injunction of the sage Hilel: “treat others as you wish them to treat you”.

As an anti-Zionist Jew he came to view Israel’s colonial-racism as akin to apartheid South Africa.

Already in his teens he had been attracted to the liberation movement, and by 1957, after graduating as a civil engineer, he had joined the underground communist party, and the above-ground Congress of Democrats which was allied to the ANC and supportive of the Freedom Charter.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960 saw both he and his mother serving four months imprisonment.

The shooting of unarmed Africans saw the ANC move from non-violent to violent resistance and the establishment of its armed-wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Denis was recruited at its inception.

Within three eventful years he was captured with the movement’s top leadership at their Rivonia farm retreat.

It is well known that he was the youngest of the accused in the Rivonia Trial of 1964 when, aged 31, he faced a possible death sentence alongside Nelson Mandela, (Walter) Sisulu and others, for launching the armed resistance to apartheid. His jubilant call to his ailing mother, who hadn’t fully grasped the verdict, was “Life mother! Beautiful life.” 

That was prophetic, for his life, his beautiful life of meaning and service to the people, was fulfilled despite 22 arduous years of imprisonment, separated from family and fellow trialist, incarcerated on Robben Island.

What nearly broke Denis was separation from those African comrades-in-arms while he served out most of his sentence in a whites-only prison with never more than a handful of companions at any one time.

By 1985, after having been a resourceful prisoner, enthusing his fellow inmates, his morale began to sag. He confessed to his sole visitor, Hillary Kuny (his wife Esme was exiled to England and did not visit) in a voice she recounted was “akin to despair” that he had said goodbye to 48 comrades who had served their much lesser sentences. While he celebrated their release, Kune writes, the interminability of his sentence was brought into sharp focus. Then came release from an unexpected quarter. His young daughter, also named Hillary, living on a kibbutz in Israel, had enlisted the support of an influential Israeli associate who had negotiated the release of Jewish prisoners, mainly criminal, from around the world.

The apartheid government agreed to the man’s pleas, striving to impress their Israeli ally. Denis was released on condition he undertook not to advocate the violent overthrow of the apartheid state. He creatively interpreted this as giving him the right to advocate political change once abroad, and mobilise for the isolation of the regime. 

Pretoria was incensed when this occurred. Freedom gave him a new lease of life but he had no option but to fly with the Israeli to his daughter’s kibbutz. To the consternation of his saviour, he proceeded to lambaste Israel for its arms deals with apartheid South Africa, stated that Israel was the Middle East’s equivalent of South Africa, and that the solution in both places should be identical: one state with equal rights for all.

Without further ado he flew to London to his wife and his son David, now a man. He was warmly welcomed by the ANC and was soon working full-time for them. Among his first international tasks was speaking on the ANC’s behalf in solidarity with the Palestinian people. He has repeatedly made clear his views on Israel:

He served the ANC with unbounded energy and devotion, became one of its most impressive public speakers on the international circuit and later in South Africa, raised funds establishing a successful merchandise company and founded Community Heart which to this day raises books and educational equipment for underprivileged schools throughout southern Africa.

He returned home to a government job in 2002 after his wife and then his daughter died. A new chapter in his life began with his second marriage to Edelgard Nkobi (widow of the son of ANC leader Thomas Nkobi), an East German journalist.

They settled in Hout Bay, outside Cape Town, when tragedy struck with the untimely death of Edelgard through cancer. As brave as ever, Denis never allowed personal grief to hold him back. His political contribution and involvement continued, becoming more and more centred on the upliftment of the underprivileged in his community.

The government declared four days of mourning for his passing.

I can hear Denis chirping that with the Covid-19 lockdown there couldn’t be any revelry anyway.

What a life. A real mensch.

Kasrils, former government minister and Struggle veteran.

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