Esme Bodenstein

Posted by Jeeva Rajgopaul on

Biographical information


Physiotherapist, political prisoner

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Location of birth: 
Date of death: 
Location of death: 
London, United Kingdom

Esme Bodenstein was born on 6 July 1929 in Johannesburg. She trained as a physiotherapist at St Mary’s Hospital in London before moving to Cape Town.

There she joined the Modern Youth Society (MYS), a left-wing association which attracted many former Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) members. The Society organised lectures, youth festivals and discussion groups as well as a night school for Africans.

In order to support her family, Bodenstein started a physiotherapy practice. She was  also active in radical politics, although she never joined the CPSA. She was a member of Federation of South African Women (FSAW) and the Western Cape’s representative to its 1961 conference.

She married Professor Dr (hc) Denis Goldberg on 9 April 1954. In 1963, she was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 38 days under the 90-Day Detention Law in 1963. During this time, the security police threatened to put her children, Hilary and David, into separate government orphanages. In 1964, her husband was among those jailed after the Rivonia Trial, along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others.

Bodenstein subsequently went into exile in the United Kingdom, where she practised as a physiotherapist. She was allowed to visit Goldberg in Pretoria Central Prison twice in 20 years before his release in 1985, following which he joined her in the United Kingdom.

Bodenstein refused to return to South Africa, and Goldberg chose to remain in the United Kingdom with her. She died of a stroke on 22 February 2000.

• Representation & Reality ”“ Appendix ”“ Select biography ”“ Index pdf ”“ p254 ”“ 255. Free download from
• Email sent by Professor Dr Denis Goldberg to SAHO, dated Monday, 7 January 2013   

Last updated : 10-May-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 15-Jan-2013

Support South African History Online

Dear friends of SAHO

South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.

SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.

Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.

Make a donation here and send us a message of support.