Tag Archives: Democracy

RIP: Denis Theodore Goldberg (1933-2020)

Artist's Open Air House in Rivonia
An Artist Friend’s Open Air House in Rivonia, © Wilbur Norman
Artist's Open Air Library in Rivonia
The Open Air Library, ©Wilbur Norman

I just learned that Denis Goldberg, one of the last two survivors of South Africa’s infamous Rivonia Trial (1963-1964), died on April 29th of cancer with Covid-19 complications.

Denis Goldberg, a civil engineer and an anti-apartheid activist, spent 22 years in prison. He was arrested during a meeting of activists and commanders of the MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) the armed wing of the ANC (African Nation Congress) on a farm in Rivonia. The defendants in the sabotage and treason trial were Nelson Mandela (already in prison under a “citing workers to strike” charge), Walter Sisulu, Lionel Bernstein, Denis Goldberg, Arthur Goldreich, Bob Hepple, Abdulhay Jassat, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Moosa Moolla, Elias Motsoaledi and Harold Wolpe. (Goldreich and Wolpe escaped from prison, after beatings and torture, before beginning their sentence; Hepple fled the country when charges were withdrawn; and Lionel Bernstein was acquitted, rearrested and placed under house arrest before escaping from the country.) The rest beat a de facto death sentence thru what was probably a private treaty with the judge. Goldberg received release in 1985 largely through the work of his daughter and members of her kibbutz and the U.S. and Israeli governments (for many years both close allies of apartheid South Africa.)

Many Americans think the fight for democracy in South Africa was a monolithic black vs. white struggle. This arrest list shows how wrong this view is: those arrested were English, Indian Muslim, Jewish, Xhosa, Pedi and Coloured.

The Rivonia Trial (Rivonia is a suburb of Johannesburg) contained what is considered a founding moment in the attempts to create a democracy in South Africa – 31 years before it became a reality. The ‘moment’ was , in fact, a three hour defense opening statement by Nelson Mandela, his famous “I Am Prepared To Die” speech. Here is the closing paragraph:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

As the only remaining white found guilty, Denis Goldberg was taken to Pretoria Central Prison to serve 22 years. The others served in various prisons with most doing extended time on Robben Island off the coast. Mandela served almost 28 years (18 of which were at Robben), Walter Sisulu served 26 years (most at Robben), Ahmed Kathrada served 26 years (18 at Robben) with the balance at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison (along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu.) Many, perhaps all, of those convicted worked on interesting college degrees while incarcerated. Some may remember that it was Ahmed Kathrada who showed President Obama and the First Family around Robben Island in 2013.

In 2017 the three remaining survivors of the Rivonia trial – Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and Kathrada, along with the three surviving defense attorneys, Joel Joffe, George Bizos and Denis Kuny – appeared in a documentary film entitled “Life is Wonderful”, directed by Sir Nicholas Stadlen. These were the words Goldberg’s mother, Annie, is said to have uttered when she learned that he and his comrades had been spared the death sentence. (Annie must have been quite a mom: in 1960 she was arrested with him for supporting strikers after the Sharpeville massacre and they both spent four months in jail.)

Here is an interview with Sir Nicholas about the film: https://vimeo.com/284713545