Denis Goldberg to perform at SICMF 2016

Denis Goldberg

Denis Goldberg

I arrived at Denis Goldberg’s house at the designated hour, not really knowing what to expect. It is well known that he lives in Hout Bay, but what Wikipedia does not tell you is in which part of Hout Bay he lives. I had prepared myself for a mansion in the affluent, elevated section of the suburb but already, before I even found the house, was getting signals that my preconceptions were wrong. The house has a lovely view of the harbour, but in order to get there, one could be forgiven for thinking one was accidentally driving through Langa. 

The house itself is modest, albeit well situated, and the first thing that struck me upon entering was this man’s love for his fellow human beings. Much of the artwork contains people from many different walks of life. The cluttered living room and kitchen were lived in, homely and eclectic, and somewhat old-fashioned. As soon as I made my presence known, a friendly voice called me to the kitchen. Goldberg greeted me like an established acquaintance and I immediately felt relaxed and at home. From the sea-facing windows I could see the beautiful mountains across the bay, and directly in front of me, fish factories, a school field, colourful houses and people of all descriptions. I opened the conversation by saying that he had the whole of South Africa encapsulated in the view from his house. 

We spoke about composer Matthijs van Dijk’s work right from the beginning. All of the text was extracted — some of it severely edited of course — from Goldberg’s autobiography The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa. He said jokingly that if he had the time and the inclination to do so, he would not be reading his story at all, but rather a cleverly adapted version of Peter and the Wolf, where the wolf would have represented the great monster (apartheid) that we have now defeated. This suggestion was immediately followed by a pretty good, albeit casual, whistling of Peter’s tune by Sergei Prokofiev.

When we gravitated towards the subject Denis made it clear to me that he was not religious, saying, “I am a rationalist, a free thinker”, but after 10 minutes or so I began to think he was one of the most spiritual men I had ever met. He spoke with such empathy, and without anger or condemnation about a great many people. He lamented the unnecessary bloodshed (often, ironically, in the name of religion) and put our first 25 years of democracy into perspective by suggesting a roughly 60-year period before we could all live together, without visible apartheid scars. 

He spoke about his involvement in 1955 in the Congress of the People and the drawing up of the Freedom Charter, stressing: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. Not everyone realises that our current Constitution is in fact largely an adaptation of the Freedom Charter. He reminded me that back in the day “they did not fight whites, but white supremacy”, and called apartheid “racism by law”. Goldberg may not be religious, but engaging with the Kairos Document in the manner that he did shows that was not scared to tackle religious doctrines and/or personalities in pursuing freedom and human rights for the common man.

Back to the music: Van Dijk’s piece opens with the story of Goldberg as a young boy, completely in love with a beautiful schoolteacher. One gets the sense that he still sees her face, smells her perfume. One particular experience is relived in detail: he and a few school friends were reprimanded, but at the same time comforted, by a teacher who through her actions and human embrace, taught these boys perhaps their first lesson in empathising with those who are “different”, and therefore outcast.

Goldberg also spoke with reverence about his friend Bram Fischer, at whose side he spent much time in prison whilst Bram was dying of cancer. He wondered if Stellenbosch could handle these stories, to which I replied: “Stellenbosch needs to hear and speak these stories”. For Stellenbosch University to do so would, to my mind, be a retrospective token of empathy, perhaps our own cathartic act, helping to free the institution from its apartheid past.

Denis spoke of buying LPs in prison. In the end he and his comrades had around 800 records, most of them classical. The music was an antidote to the suffering and tension associated with the cause. Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem seems to have evoked particular emotion, and having had this as his basic music education, so to speak, it was the African liturgical music on LP that combined the Fauré emotions — with an even closer to home, and perhaps more accessible, African rhythm — that really pulled at his heart strings.

When Goldberg was convicted at the Rivonia Trial, his mother called to him, “What is the verdict?” He answered: “Life — life is wonderful!” Life imprisonment meant you were not sentenced to death. And so, with this attitude, Denis Goldberg, Bram Fischer and Nelson Mandela et al were able to struggle on for a cause that they were prepared to die for. 

Van Dijk’s piece also refers to Goldberg as a musician. He learned the guitar and alto recorder in prison, and I got gooseflesh when he told me that the prisoners on death row would sing freedom songs that he then learnt to play on the recorder. He said his recorder had a particularly penetrating sound and there were times — poignant times — when he would play these songs back to the folk on death row. He later found out that his renditions of these songs were greeted with much emotion and hope by the death row prisoners who heard him, because, as a prisoner in for life, he represented a continuation of life and a continuation of the struggle … and life won in the end.

Denis understands a musician’s ability to communicate through music. He thinks back to his recorder playing and wonders about his musicality — he played those songs so many times that he must have become quite good at performing them. In fact his performances must have taken on some profoundly musical dimensions as he dwelled on certain “words” and/or phrases, controlling his intonation to convey a particular emotion. He talked about the late painter Dumile Feni, who, when asked to describe his artworks, simply said to Goldberg: “You use words — I draw.”

Denis identifies with the work of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in seeing music as an activity that promotes and facilitates social cohesion. He supports the Kronendal Music Academy in Hout Bay and would like to leave them with a new building and sustainable business plan before he dies.

I could not resist asking his opinion about Jacob Zuma and the current ANC crisis. He told me that it was a very difficult decision to come out and say that the ANC needs to change its leadership, but he has spent his life “speaking truth to power” as he calls it, and felt morally compelled to do so now again. He was quick however to qualify his position, saying that his stance is not a vote in support of the opposition.

Denis Goldberg is a most engaging speaker and an internationally recognised icon for human rights. He continues to “speak truth to power” and will do so as part of a new composition by Matthijs van Dijk at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF). He is excited by the prospect of performing with Ferdinand Steiner, principle clarinettist of the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Gareth Lubbe (whose viola playing will be complemented by his internationally recognised talents as an overtone singer) and a number of top South African musicians. 

While we have not yet seen the score and remain intrigued as to its musical content, Denis is hoping that some of the freedom songs to which he has alluded will find their way into what promises to be a unique world premiere.

This concert takes place on Wednesday July 6 at 8pm in the Endler Hall, Stellenbosch University. Tickets for this concert and all the other SICMF concerts that take place between July 1 and 10 are available from Computicket.