Rivonia triallist Denis Goldberg dies at 87

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Struggle veteran and social campaigner Denis Goldberg at his home in Hout Bay, 13 February 2016. Pictures: Alaister Russell

He was 87. His niece said in a video message that he had died peacefully in his sleep just before midnight at his home in Hout Bay after a battle with stage 4 lung cancer, diabetes and an aneurysm.

The South African social campaigner was active in the struggle against apartheid and imprisoned for 22 years.

After his release in 1985 he continued to campaign against apartheid from a base in London with his family, until the system was fully disbanded with the 1994 election.

He only returned to South Africa in 2002.

In an interview with The Citizen at his Hout Bay home in 2016 with the late Yadhana Jadoo, Goldberg said: “By the age of six I was reading newspaper headlines about World War 2 about to break out in 1939. I knew about Nazi concentration camps. I also grew up in a communist home where people, regardless of their social class or skin colour, would come to us for meetings – dinner and so on – and I learnt to respect people because they are people.

“For me the idea that I learnt at school that people of colour are bad or not to be trusted just seemed wrong. But you must also know that this was the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi racism – and white South Africa was very divided over it, but in the end went to war against Nazi Germany.

“We sent 30,000 soldiers to fight the Nazi racism when we had racism at home.”

In 1943 he was 10 years old and realised this didn’t make sense.

Goldberg said the late Nelson Mandela once told him that “people who are heroes are those in all the countries who fought the Nazis behind the lines”.

“And I tell this because later I discover Mandela says the heroes for him were the leaders of the African people who fought for 100 years against the British.

“So it’s the same thing … freedom is absolutely important. I grew up knowing this.”

He wanted to be a civil engineer at age 13, but when he went to university he discovered he could only build for white people.

Goldberg knew apartheid was wrong and if he didn’t do something about it, he was part of the problem.

“This I couldn’t do because of my own conscience; of what I know is right or wrong – so I got involved in youth politics.

“We very quickly became active in it. We were busy, busy, busy. The demand, however, for a democratic South Africa was high treason.”

These were key moments in his life.

He joined the Umkhonto weSizwe movement.

“Fighting for your freedom means that people are going to die – and mostly the people who die are those in the liberation movement.

“As happened in the end. It was necessary because kids were dying because of apartheid – there was hunger. It was crazy.”

Half the kids never went to school.

He eventually ventured to Johannesburg where he was responsible for a supply of arms. But after being caught in Rivonia, along with the rest of the triallists, Goldberg thought that was it.

“They wanted death, but it was all life sentences. So in the end I didn’t die. I got a 100% discount. I expected 75%,” he joked.

The moment where Goldberg knew what he was supposed to do in life came down to this: “There was a man, in 1946, sitting on the pavement eating his lunch … an African in the shade of the tailgate of a truck. And he had a baguette and he poured sardines into it – today you call it a sub. And he was eating this, hmm hmmh, num num …

“I remember thinking, why can’t I eat like that?

“And along came a white guy with little piggy glasses and said: ‘You filthy black, you make the street dirty with your food. “And this man stood up and said: ‘Do not call me a filthy black! I am respectable.’”

The Citizen