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Nelson Mandela and Dennis Goldberg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

'A great leader'

Interview: Daniel Pelz
December 6, 2013

Denis Goldberg fought alongside Nelson Mandela against South Africa's apartheid government. In this exclusive interview with DW, he talks about their joint struggle for freedom.


DW: How will you remember Nelson Mandela?

Denis Goldberg: I will remember Nelson Mandela as a great leader, but also as a friend. I especially admired his courage, his clarity of thinking and his ability to find answers for political problems. I remember having an argument with him about the nature of leadership. In my view, it needed to be collegial and not individual leadership. There were people who were getting angry with him for being a bit distant. He said that he was elected a leader and he was going to lead. We went around this argument a couple of times and I said "but you see what you've done in all your history, is that we've reached critical points and you and others have found new ways forward". That's my point. There comes a deadlock, there comes a need for a way forward and the need is to find the answer to persuade them and lead collectively. That's what he did.

How did he all through manage to keep a sense of joy and gentle firmness despite the many years he spent in prison?

Denis Goldberg
Goldberg fought together with Nelson Mandela against apartheidImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

I can only talk of my own experience. We were convinced that what we had done was right: Fighting for equal rights for all in our country, between our country and other countries and between people everywhere. It's the only way to be a human being. It's not about me, it's not about you, it's about us. That's the over-riding principle that drove our generation and that drove him.

When you were with him during the armed struggle before being sent to prison, were there moments where you, where he and other people thought of giving up?

Were we prepared to give up? No. The manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) with Nelson Mandela as the first commander in chief said in effect: In the life of a people there come moments where there are two choices, to live on our knees or to stand and fight. Our decision was to fight. I once said to him: "What are we fighting for?" He said: "One person, one vote!".

Did he ever share with you if there were any issues in his political career that he regretted?

He didn't say that to me but in his autobiography he says somewhere that he's made mistakes. That he could have handled things differently. But he was fortunate. He had Walter Sisulu with him. At the end of Walter Sisulu's very long life, we knew that he could tell Nelson Mandela "wait let's think about this, let's consider whether there's another way, let's not be impatient, let's carry people with us". This helped him not make mistakes. He said so himself and he said that to me.

If I understand you correctly, Nelson Mandela was always very fortunate to have good advisors and greatly benefitted from their advice?

I believe that's absolutely true. To work with others is the essential thing, because then you get a collective input and a variety of views. But there are moments when a leader must lead. He did that when he began the negotiations (with the apartheid government). He was actually careful not to discuss that, because he knew his colleagues would have tried to stop him. But is a quality of leadership. He said he would negotiate about how to negotiate, but not about anything substantive.

Denis Goldberg was born in South Africa in 1933. He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1961. Together with Nelson Mandela, he was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to four times life in imprisonment. After his release in 1985, he lived in exile in Great Britain. Goldberg returned to South Africa in 2002.

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