Anti-apartheid veteran Denis Goldberg dies

Rivonia Trialist and anti-apartheid veteran Denis Goldberg passed away late on Wednesday night.

The anti-apartheid stalwart was one of 10 people who stood alongside Nelson Mandela in 1963, charged with sabotage and planning to embark on guerilla warfare against the apartheid government.

A trained civil engineer, Goldberg joined the ANC and later its armed-wing uMkhonto we Sizwe. At the age of 31, he was the youngest man in the dock during the Rivonia Trial. Other defendants included Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, James Kantor, Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein, Raymond Mhlaba, Bob Hepple and Andrew Mlangeni.

All the men, except Bernstein, were found guilty.

Rivonia convicted (from the top, left to right):Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Gowan / Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, ‘Kathy’ Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg.

As the only convicted white man, Goldberg was imprisoned at Pretoria Central Prison, whereas the others were sent to prison on Robben Island in Cape Town.

Goldberg was released in 1985 after serving 22 years.  

In a brief tribute, published by the Denis Goldberg House of Hope — an art, culture, and education centre for children in his hometown of Hout Bay — his death was confirmed.

“His family and the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust are very sad to announce that Denis Goldberg passed away just before midnight on Wednesday 29 April 2020. His was a life well-lived in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. We will miss him,” the brief social media post announced.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lauded Goldberg for a lifetime of service to the South African people.

“Denis Goldberg was a mensch, a human being of the highest integrity and honour who eschewed personal aggrandisement and consumptiveness. His lifetime contribution to South Africa and its people was second to none. His passing conducted with customary courage and grace feels as if the nation has lost part of its soul.”

ANC Western Cape provincial caucus leader and a longstanding fellow ANC branch member of Goldberg, Cameron Dugmore, said he was devoted to the party, despite its faults, till the end: “Denis was an exceptional person. The first thing that comes to mind is absolute humanity, compassion, and integrity. He was a critical voice, but always loyal to the organisation. He had the belief that warts and all, the ANC remains the best hope for the people,” Dugmore said.

In 2019, Goldberg was awarded the Isitwalandwe Medal — the ANC’s highest recognition for party members. Only 21 people have been awarded the honour in the party’s 108-year history.

With Goldberg’s passing, Mlangeni becomes the sole surviving Rivonia Trialist, exemplifying a class of South Africans whose stories are deeply etched into the broader fight against apartheid.

“I hope comrade Mlangeni continues to play golf and enjoys his life for many more years. But it’s very sad when one begins to see the passing of these icons of our struggle. But they’re also humble and compassionate people. Our movement and our country just owes people like that a huge debt and I just hope that all of us that face the current challenges always bear in mind those that have gone before us, and emulate their conduct,” Dugmore said.

Goldberg spent the last years of his life still contributing to his local ANC branch in Hout Bay. In an interview with the University of Cape Town, the life-long engineer said his legacy would also be felt in the physical world through creativity, design and performance.  

“My role now is a foundation to bring young people in Hout Bay and the peninsula together. Through art classes, and arts and culture programmes. But also through computer literacy, and dance, and drama, and singing, and being together, “ he said.

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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