Denis Goldberg: Man of integrity, freedom fighter and true mensch
|Ronnie Kasrils 19/05/2020|
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 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 Europe that we were supposed to be fighting against,” he explained many times.
It was his revulsion at the racism he witnessed in South Africa that became the driving force for his life’s journey, marking him out as so different from 99% of the white population. He abhorred racism and discrimination wherever it existed. He experienced anti-Semitism in his school years. He was not religious but imbibed from his mother the Judaic injunction of the sage Hillel: “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. In 1957, after graduating as a civil engineer, he 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 weSizwe. Denis was recruited at its inception. Within three eventful years he was captured with the movement’s top leaders 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 his family and his fellow trialist, who were 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 said was “akin to despair” that he had said goodbye to 48 comrades who had served their much shorter sentences. While Denis celebrated their release, Kuny 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 criminals, 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 on life.
On his release 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 repeatedly made clear his views on Israel:
Having lived through apartheid in South Africa, there’s no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state. I cannot allow in my name the same kind of oppression to go on against the Palestinians. I have to speak out against it. And I have to try and speak out against it in a rational and calm voice when really I’m very angry about it … when [Israeli] people say, well, you South Africans, you’re biased against us. We’re not. We’re talking international law …The pro-Israeli lobby, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation try to say that it [the Palestinian Israeli issue] is not a simple matter, [they say that] it’s complicated. It’s not complicated. It’s very simple, the simplicity is that a dominant group [Jewish Israelis] exclude the indigenous Palestinian people from equal rights.
Denis 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 in 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, near Cape Town. But tragedy struck with the untimely death of Edelgard caused by 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. This by no means meant that Denis retired from national or international work. His was an influential voice in the ANC and he travelled abroad extensively on speaking tours and fund-raising missions.
When the ANC under president Jacob Zuma became captive to corruption and the state to mismanagement and looting, he raised his voice in condemnation. He supported the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president and hoped for renewal.
Denis was of the view that, given the apartheid legacy of inequality and poverty, it would take years of honest endeavour to set things straight. Neither did he have illusions about the tough struggle ahead for the Palestinians. He continued to champion their cause to the end of his life, encouraging them with South Africa’s example of victory over apartheid and the importance of campaigns such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. By 2017, with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, he made a passionate plea for their release.
“We South Africans know from our apartheid past how laws and regulations such as administrative detention are used to bolster a racist, apartheid system. Over the past 50 years more than eight hundred thousand, I repeat, eight hundred thousand, Palestinians have been imprisoned by the Israeli state under many explicitly racist laws and administrative regulations under illegal military occupation of Palestine.
“I am disappointed that too many Jewish Israelis are silent in the face of Israeli state racism and the denial of justice. Silence in the face of injustice such as administrative detention makes people complicit in that injustice.”
Showing his humane concern for all, Jews and Arabs, imprisoned within the Zionist system in Israel, and believing they could live in harmony in a system based on equality for all he said: “The immediate and long-term answer to the needs for peace and stability throughout Palestine and the Israeli state is not more administrative detention, nor imprisonment of those who demand justice. The answer is not more illegal detention without trial. The answer has to be a social and economic system under the rule of law that develops an inclusive and democratic society.”
Denis’s disappointment with Israeli Jews mirrored his views about the Jewish community in South Africa and their unquestioning support for Israel. The fact that he was prepared to debate issues in a civil manner has given Zionists the effrontery to claim that he somehow empathised with them. He was prepared to debate with his prison warders as well.
For almost three years Denis struggled with a debilitating disease that would kill him. His good fortune was to have developed a tender relationship with a delightful woman, Deidre Abrahams, a forensic pathologist. She and other devoted friends, as well as his son David, worked with him on his final creation, the building of a House of Hope for the deprived children in the Hout Bay area, where art and music and sporting activities would thrive. So determined was he to see the start of the centre, that when there were tasks to be attended to, and Deidre or his helpers were unavailable, he would use a walking frame to get to his car, connect his oxygen apparatus to a battery on the back seat and speed off.
Denis had three wishes before his death: that he would die at home, that he would die in his lover’s arms and that he would see the construction on his House of Hope begun. He died with those wishes granted.
The government has declared four days’ mourning. I can hear Denis chirping that with the Covid-19 lockdown there couldn’t be any revelry anyway. What a life. A real mensch.