Denis Theodore Goldberg was born on 11th April 1933 in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape). His parents, Sam and Annie, had both been born in London, the children of Lithuanian Jews who had left the Pale of Settlement to escape the Russian pogroms. Sam and Annie were active communists in London before they came to South Africa, settling in the suburb of Observatory and playing an active role in the Woodstock branch of the South African Communist Party.
Denis and his older brother Allan were raised with a keen awareness of injustice, inequality and the urgency of the ideological battles that were being fought during World War II. He grew up in the then mixed-race area of Observatory, Cape Town, where his father had a small cartage business and dreamt of becoming an engineer and building a great work for the benefit of mankind in the vein of the Suez Canal.
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.
In 1953 Goldberg joined the multiracial Modern Youth Society, a discussion group that also helped to sell the left-wing Guardian newspaper. During his studies in 1953, he then met a young woman and fellow MYS member during his final year named Esme Bodenstein, who would shortly become his wife.
Goldberg matriculated from Observatory Boys School and was the first in his family to attend university. He enrolled at the age of 16 and graduated from the University of Cape Town with a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1955.
In 1957, 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. He became involved, together with Looksmart Ngudle, in identifying and coaching young recruits to MK in the Western Cape.
Bodenstein (his wife at the time) also came from a political background with both her parents being political activists, which resulted in her being politically active. She was subjected to solitary confinement under the 90 Day Detention Law in 1963 after Goldberg had been arrested and had escaped and been recaptured. For her and their children’s safety, she was asked to go into exile in Britain. While Goldberg was in prison, Bodenstein sustained his mother who helped her to bring up their two children, Hilary and David, in exile. Bodenstein passed away in February 2000.
Goldberg was arrested on 11 July 1963 at Liliesleaf Farm. He was served with a stringent banning order. Goldberg was tried from June 1963 to October 1964 in the Pretoria Supreme Court along with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and others in the Rivonia Trial. He was the youngest of the accused, aged 31. Goldberg was charged under the Sabotage and Suppression of Communism Acts for ‘campaigning to overthrow the Government by violent revolution and for assisting an armed invasion of the country by foreign troops’. The charge sheet contained 193 acts of sabotage allegedly carried out by persons recruited by the accused in their capacity as members of the High Command of uMkhonto we Sizwe. Goldberg was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in Pretoria Local Prison.
Two years after his arrival at Pretoria Central, Goldberg was joined by his former Rivonia lawyer Bram Fischer, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for furthering the aims of communism and conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government. When Fischer fell victim to cancer in 1974, Goldberg was instrumental in caring for Fischer, recording his treatment at the hands of warders, moving into his cell to care for him and pushing for him to be released under house arrest. This request was eventually granted, allowing Fischer to see out his final days at his brother’s house in Bloemfontein, where he died in 1975.
From the time of his arrest, Goldberg was in jail for a total of 22 years before being released in 1985. 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, Kune writes, the interminability of his sentence was brought into sharp focus.
In 1985, Goldberg’s daughter Hilary was living on a kibbutz in Israel where a committee had been established to put pressure on the South African government to have her father released. After an intense period of negotiation between Israeli activists, the apartheid government and communication with his comrades in the ANC, Goldberg agreed to a condition from then president PW Botha that his release was contingent on a commitment that he would not participate in violent action for political ends.
After his release, he went into exile in London where he joined his family. In London he resumed his work for the ANC in its London office from 1985 to 1994. He was a spokesperson for the ANC and also represented it at the Anti-Apartheid Committee of the United Nations. A large group of USA organisations presented Goldberg with the Albert Luthuli Peace Prize in recognition of his work against apartheid.
After the first non-racial elections in South Africa Goldberg founded the development organisation Community H.E.A.R.T. in London in 1995 to help to improve the living standards of black South Africans. With the support of German friends he established Community H.E.A.R.T. e.V. in Essen in Germany in 1996. He was involved in the early days of Computer Aid International in London and was CAI's Patron and Ambassador.
In 2002, Goldberg returned to South Africa with his second wife, Edelgard Nkobi, (widow of the son of ANC leader Thomas Nkobi) to take up a position as special adviser to then minister of Water Affairs and Tourism, Ronnie Kasrils. After a subsequent stint as adviser to Kasrils’ successor, Buyelwa Sonjica, Goldberg retired from public life but remained committed to community activism for the remainder of his life.
Edelgard passed away in 2006 after a long battle with cancer. Goldberg's daughter, Hilary, also passed at the age of 47 from a sudden blood clot.
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.
Goldberg was always campaigning for the betterment of the lives of all South Africans and never steered clear of taking to task those members of the ANC whom he felt were letting down the ideals for which he and his generation of activists had fought. At a 2008 ceremony for the opening of the Liliesleaf Museum in Johannesburg, an impish but deadly serious Goldberg warned then president Jacob Zuma not to allow the civil service to be used for the enrichment of government officials at the expense of the people it was meant to serve. 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.
As he wrote in the conclusion to his autobiography: “For me, personally the work continues within my community to try to realise in practice the vision we had that our children shall not be hungry, shall be well cared for, go to school, have jobs to go to and to be able to laugh a little.”
In 2010 he published his autobiography, The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa (STE Publishers, Johannesburg) and a German edition, der Auftrag, ein leben fuer die Freiheit in Suedafrika (Assoziation A Verlag, Berlin and Hamburg).
Denis Goldberg was awarded the Order of Luthuli in Silver by the President of South Africa in 2010.
UNISON, the UK trade union has made him an honorary life member along with Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 2011 he was awarded the German Cross of the Order of Merit for his work in strengthening relations between Germany and South Africa.
In 2012 he was awarded the South African Military Veterans Medal in Platinum for his services in the armed struggle against apartheid.
The Gandhi Development Trust has decided to award him its Satyagraha Award for his sacrifices for human rights.
Goldberg was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018 and while doctors didn’t give him much time, he was, as he told The Sunday Times newspaper on the eve of his 85th birthday, “still full of life”.
For the remainder of his life, which ended on the night of Wednesday 29 April 2020, Goldberg remained fiercely dedicated to the fight against inequality and oppression that he had waged for most of his 87 years.
He is survived by his son David, who is a fundraiser for the DGLF Trust in London, two granddaughters and a grandson who all live in England.
Joyce, P. (1999). A Concise Dictionary of South African Biography, Cape Town: Francolin, p. 101|Email sent by Professor Dr Denis Goldberg to SAHO, dated Monday, 7 January 2013 | Gail M. Gerhart, Teresa Barnes, Antony Bugg-Levine, Thomas Karis, Nimrod Mkele .From Protest to Challenge 4-Political Profiles (1882-1990) http://www.jacana.co.za/component/virtuemart/?keyword=from+protest+to+ch... (last accessed 28 November 2018)
Kasrils, R. (2020) Denis Goldberg: Man of integrity, freedom fighter and true mensch [Available Online] at https://mg.co.za/opinion/2020-05-07-denis-goldberg-man-of-integrity-freedom-fighter-and-true-mensch/ [Accessed 08 May 2020]
Law, A (2020) OBIT | Denis Goldberg's life was 'the radical contradiction to the system of apartheid' [Available Online] at https://www.news24.com/Obituaries/obit-denis-goldbergs-life-was-the-radical-contradiction-to-the-system-of-apartheid-20200430 [Accessed 08 May 2020]