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Anti-apartheid hero Denis Goldberg's last interview with DW

Adrian Kriesch
April 30, 2020

Denis Goldberg, a close colleague of Nelson Mandela's in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, has died. In a recent interview with DW, he reminisced about his struggle for justice, his imprisonment and his life.

Nelson Mandela and Dennis Goldberg hold hands while speaking
Former South African President Nelson Mandela speaks to Denis Goldberg in 2010Image: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/GCIS

Anti-apartheid veteran Denis Goldberg died on Wednesday at his home in Hout Bay, South Africa, aged 87, after a battle with lung cancer. 

Goldberg, a prominent member of the now-ruling African National Congress, spent 22 years in prison for resisting white rule in South Africa. He was sentenced in the infamous 1964 Rivonia trial alongside Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters, including Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu.
In January this year, Goldberg talked to DW about his political influences, how he became involved in the anti-apartheid fight, and his thoughts on the ANC now. 

DW: You became political at quite a young age. 

Denis Goldberg: I grew up in a political home. My parents were working class people from the East End of London. They came to South Africa and discovered apartheid and it was unacceptable to them. There was constant political discussion in our home and so I grew up very aware of what apartheid was like. 

I also grew up during World War Two. South Africa had racism by law but we sent soldiers to fight the Nazi racists. When you're 12 years old, it doesn't make sense. My real heroes were the people who said they're not going to live under the absurd system of racism of the Nazis and were prepared to risk their lives. I think that was the biggest influence on my life, that if I was called on, I would have to do something. 

Denis Goldberg stands in front of the farm where he was arrested in 1963
In a photo taken in 2013, Denis Goldberg stand in front of the ANC hideout on a farm in Rivonia where he was arrested in 1963Image: Getty Images/C. Furlong

Many years later, Nelson Mandela said he's setting up an illegal army. He said, 'Dennis, you've got the technical training [because I was a trained civil engineer]. You know how to build bridges. Can you blow them up? And will you join?' I said, 'yes, of course.'

Well, one thing leads to another – like 22 years in prison. But it was worth it. 

Do I regret it? I would have liked to have had a nice life. I would have liked to have been a great engineer, rich as anything. But I don't have any sadness about it. I did what I believed was necessary. And it was necessary. 

Nelson Mandela asked you to come and join Umnkonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC), because of your technical expertise. Did it take you a long time to make the decision? 

About 30 seconds! I had grown up knowing that when I was called on to act, I would do so. It was an easy decision for me but tough for my family and my children – not just my children, all of our children, they really paid the price. 

My late daughter, she would say, 'why my daddy? Why not everybody else's daddy?' It's very difficult to try and tell a child why you feel you have to do something. In the end, we could talk to each other and give a hug and a kiss and sort of get on with it. But it was difficult for her – and all of our children and wives. 

When you and your comrades were convicted in 1964 [for treason and sabotage], you could have been sentenced to death?


How did that feel?

I think the judge took a decision that he would leave what would happen to the politicians. And partly that was due to the evidence we all gave, especially Walter Sisulu, who gave evidence in such a calm, clear intellectual manner – a history lesson of the African National Congress of Apartheid. 

I think the judge in the end realized that he couldn't possibly sentence a man of that caliber – of that integrity and intelligence – to death. 

At the time, my mother called out: What is the sentence? I said, it's life and life is wonderful. 

And I have to say that life in South Africa is wonderful for me and I think for a lot of people. 

You were separated from your comrades and sent to a whites-only prison. Was that particularly challenging for you?
It was indeed. We requested that we be sent to Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela and the others were imprisoned] to share the experience. The attitude of the authorities was: 'We have a policy of apartheid. We are not going to put you together' because that would deny everything they believed in.

We took a stand. We gradually defeated them in a sense that they could not deal with us as brutally as they would like to because there was international support as well. 

Does that time in prison come back to you? Or have you put it behind you?  

There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night wondering where I am. Am I in prison? Why am I thinking about prison? Why am I feeling anxious? But not often. Not so much any more. That was much more in the past but it's there. You know, 22 years is a big chunk of your life. And you can't deny its effect, but I am fairly pragmatic and you have to move on. 

You left South Africa for England [when you were released in 1985] and worked for the ANC in London from then until the end of apartheid in 1994. How was that knowing that your comrades were still imprisoned?

I traveled the world speaking on behalf of the ANC, meeting government officials, heads of intelligence and calling on them to act because they were co-operating with apartheid and they couldn't have it both ways, believe in freedom and at the same time support the apartheid regime financially and diplomatically in various ways. 

Over the long term, it began to have an effect. Partly because people all over the world responded in demanding of their governments and their officials that they act in accordance with their human beliefs about freedom. It was a very exciting time to see the way in which politics really works. 

Nelson Mandela stands in his former prison cell
Nelson Mandela, seen here on a visit to Robben Island in 1994, was released from prison in 1990 after 27 years behind barsImage: J. Schadeberg

Do you think the ANC is still the right party to lead South Africa? 

I can't think of any other party that has the possible connections to the mass of people, not just in Cape Town but throughout the country. And not just in the cities but in the countryside. It has a history of people listening to the ANC. 

More and more, within the ANC, including from President Cyril Ramaphosa and other great leaders, there's the thought that [the ANC has] gone wrong – we've done things wrong and we have to win the trust of our people again. 

The only way to do that is to be honest with them and tell them what we've done wrong and try to put it right. I think that's a good starting point and gives me hope for the future. 

Are you satisfied with the current party leadership? 

Yes, I'm pleased. Especially with President Ramaphosa who's come out openly to say, 'people don't trust us any more. We have to regain their trust.' By talking about it openly, he makes it possible. 

DW Africa correspondent Adrian Kriesch conducted this interview with Denis Goldberg on 22nd of January 2020 at his home in Hout Bay, South Africa. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.