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Denis Goldberg

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Denis man

1933 Born in Cape Town

1939 Starts school in Cape Town

1949 Works on a fruit farm

1950 Studies in civil engineering UCT

1955 Bachelor's degree in engineering

1950 Joined Congress of Democrats aboveground and Communist Party underground

1953 Joined the Modern Youth Society

1960 Joined Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK)

1960 Arrested with his mother and spent several months in prison

1962 Commander at the first MK training camp at Mamre

1963 Arrested at the Rivonia Headquarters of MK

1964 Sentenced at Rivonia Trial to four terms of life imprisonment

1977 Takes legal action against the denial of access to news media and censorship in the prison

1985 Writes a letter to State President, P.W. Botha

1985 Set free and reunited with his family in London where he continued to work for the ANC

1985 Spokesperson for the ANC and represented ANC at Anti-Apartheid Committee of the United Nations

1990 Meets Nelson Mandela in Stockholm

1995 Founded the development organisation Community HEART

1996 Branch of HEART opened in Germany with the help and support of German friends

2000 Trustee of the University of Transkei Foundation and member of the Board of Medunsa Trust.

2002-2004 Adviser to Ronnie Kasrils who was then the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry

2010 Autobiography The Mission – a life for freedom in South Africa is published.

2016 New edition of autobiography, A life for Freedom: the mission to end racism in South Afric

2017 Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust presents the first event: An exhibition, A “Decolonised” History of the Third World in World War Two, at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town

2020 He died at his home in Hout Bay

Born on the 11th of April 1933, Denis Theodore Goldberg grew up in a communist household, his Lithuanian Jewish parents were communists who escaped Russia to London, before arriving in South Africa. One day in 1943 a ten years old Denis got back from school in standard 3 and asked his mother why a textbook titled “Our country” lies to him, teaching him that South Africa is a democracy, where all grown-ups can vote, but Black, Colored and Indian people can't all vote. The seeds of questioning injustice were already being sown and they flourished well into his teenage years as his fascination with the modern world and the technologies that made it possible developed. He read about wars and admired heroes who sacrificed their lives for a cause greater than themselves.

By the time he got into high school, he was participating in left-wing discussion groups and after graduating from the University of Cape Town, he joined the underground Communist Party and Congress of Democrats, in 1957. Denis Goldberg fully immersed himself in a political struggle that saw him sacrifice his privileges as a white Jewish man in apartheid South Africa. All of this was met with hostile and armed resistance by the repressive system, and eventually, he had no choice but to put his rich technical and mental skills into the process of transitioning the struggle against apartheid from a political to a military one. This came at a prize. In 1963 while trying to obtain clearance for higher military training from the Umkhonto we Sizwe’s High Command at Liliesleaf farmhouse in Rivonia, he alongside other ‘Rivonia trialists’ were arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. After spending 22 years in prison, he was released in 1985, following series of negotiations.

Denis Goldberg died in 2020 at the age of 87, but throughout his later years, he was never distant from the 10-years-old boy he was, when he observed the hypocrisy of South Africa’s global position on racism, questioning why the country defended racism within its shores yet sent soldiers to fight the Nazis in Germany. He noticed the same hypocrisy in the ruling class of today’s South Africa and he never hesitated to call them out, cautioning and casting minds back to the values and ideals he and other great heroes fought so hard for.

He may have been the bomb-maker of the past who worked to dismantle a repressive system using military arsenal, but in his final days he preached a different message; “Just recently somebody asked me to do an interview to describe the weapons we made and what message we used to... I said no, it's not time for fighting now. Now it's time to use the democratic processes we put in place”. He continued to propagate the gospel of the constitution he helped to formulate, till the very end.

Denis leader

Look at your responsibility and culpability in the maintenance of inequality

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Denis Goldberg

South African

Public Servant


Adviser to Ronnie Kasrils who was then the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.

Awards for his roles as Public Servant

1999 Honorary doctorate of law by The Glasgow Caledonian University

2000 Honorary doctorate by the Medunsa (Medical University of Southern Africa)

2009 National Order, the Order of Luthuli for his contribution to the liberation struggle and his service to the South African people

2011 Cross of the Order of Merit by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany

2012 South African Military Veterans Medal in Platinum

Denis interview

Things You May Not Know About Denis

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.


since 1860


The racism, it goes way back

"Within South Africa there's no doubt in my mind that we have to start from the beginning when we think about racism. When you're born you have no idea of colour as a physical phenomenon Well later you see that people look different, their skin colour, maybe some are yellow, brown some are brown and some are blacker but when does it get social significance? You're not born with it, you're taught it. And if you're taught it you can unlearn it, our Constitution requires us to unlearn. Why racism by law in South Africa? Because we have land, and we have resources like natural rain and so on, and early settlers wanted to grow crops. Well you've got land and you've got the capital, and you need some labour. How do you make labour cheap? By denying people political rights. So leap a couple of centuries from the time Jan van Riebeck landed to a discovery of diamonds in 1860, you say in the end, only white miners can dig for diamonds and own the claim. But they need labour to do it for them as the hole gets deeper so let's make people of colour without political rights, without the rights to strike, do the hard work so that we can create cheap labour. Come the discovery of gold in the 1990s (1884), you need masses of labour, and you need labour for the farms. And white farmers can't compete with black farmers. So active union then, 1912, the proposed Native Lands Act, end of 1913, you force African people off the land into the reserves where they cannot make a living and compete with white farmers to supply food to the mineworkers, to the industry workers and so on. And you provide subsidies to the white farmers and not to the black farmers, you create a system of cheap labour."

since  1950s

The scars of racism are burnt in the soul of the nation

"I mean if you think of the Population Registration Act, how people were defined. Europeans, or whites of European descent, blacks, there were various names, natives, bantu. There were all sorts of names, essentially black South Africans and then people of Asian origin, for instance, the Indians, who were brought in as labourers before the Zulu people were conquered, and then the coloured people who were defined as none of the above. I mean how do you define people as nothing, not something? Very insulting. And then there were seven different kinds of coloured people in the law. All these definitions and they’ve stuck with us you know. In the last census that was taken… they asked people to state their ethnicity, they don't like the word race anymore, and white, black South Africans, Indians, they've got no problem with that we know that these our identities remain. But for coloured people there's a lot of resentment, they said: “Our new Constitution of 1996 says we’re creating a democratic non-racial, non-sexist South Africa. So if we are non-racial why do you ask me my ethnicity?” My answer is an easy one. If you're going to overcome the legacy of the past, say in education, whites had fine schools and didn't need special schools. Government education took you to university and got you into the professions. For coloured people in the Western Cape, for quite a lot it wasn't bad. But in the lesser schools and countryside not good. For Indian people they set up their own community schools, government couldn't pay. But then there was Bantu education for black pupils, black children, and not for all children. I remember in apartheid about less than half the children went to schools and their parents and grandparents were, and are, illiterate. So how do you overcome the past if you don't know where you need to spend the money? What percentage of black kids in the Eastern Cape, or the Free State or wherever or Cape Town go to matric? You have to actually ask the question… You say we are non-racial but you ask the racial question to overcome the racial question. It's a contradiction, but you have to ask it, otherwise you can't allocate resources to overcome it. So you perpetuate the thinking in racial terms when you're trying to overcome thinking in racial terms. That's a legacy and a very serious one, because I think most South Africans, no matter how careful we are, those of us who truly believe in a non-racial future, when we meet somebody it's very hard not to see skin colour, not to hear accents in language and you stop yourself and say no, is this a person I can be friendly with? I don't want to love everybody, and I don't want everybody to love me, that would be a terrible burden. The need is to judge people as people. But I think the scars of racism are burnt in our souls if we’ve got souls, in our psyches. People still live in different areas. I live here in Hout Bay, there’s the Hangberg, it's a coloured area from the Group Areas Act of the 1950s. Over there there's Imizamo Yethu, It was designated a black area. The village was taken from the coloured people and turned into a white area. And now there’s the valley going all the way up to Constantia, rich-rich-rich you can't believe it. I'm an ANC member and I support the ANC. I want to see it correct itself from things that are going wrong. But only at election time does it suddenly talk about building a non-racial future. We ignore the national minorities as a government, it's a very difficult balance to strike, but we are not careful enough."



"The bucket worker who got it"

“And the classic for me, is I think 1919, Johannesburg, the bucket workers who removed the night waste, the shit buckets what a job to do, very badly paid, and they go on strike and the police shoot five workers down. In those days if five workers were shot they had a commission of inquiry judicial commission. I've read the evidence, the blue book, the publication. And one witness says he explains the background. and the judge says to him, one of the five judges says: “If you were on strike for higher wages, why did you strike against the Pass Laws?” The Pass Laws controlled who could go from the countryside to the city, and you had to have written permission to go to work. And you couldn't take your family. So the Pass Laws not only broke up, forced people to work under controlled conditions, they couldn't take their families. And this man says: “We strike against the Pass Laws because the Pass Laws makes more money”. What an understanding from an ordinary worker. He’s not an academic, but out of his lived experience, he knows that if he doesn't work he’s going to be endorsed out of the town, and another worker, ‘cause there are plenty of workers who on reserves, workers who are desperate to eat, but not only desperate to eat, but black workers had to pay taxes. Black people in the reserves and they had to pay taxes in cash. They couldn't pay with a goat or a sheep or a chicken like in the old days. So if you are going to have money, where are you going to get it? You got to go to work for whatever you can get. And what are the taxes African people paid, that no others paid? Well, they had to pay a hut tax, the whites pay rates to the city that’s, but then they had to pay a wife tax, did you know that? You didn't, did you? You know they had to pay a livestock tax, a goat tax, a cow tax, a dog tax, a wife tax. A wife and a dog are equally taxed. What does it say about an attitude to people? So why did we fight it? Because it was inhuman. They treated people, not as humans. It's not until the 1960s and 70s that Wolpe and Legassick worked out a whole political-economic theory about what this worker knew in 1919. No, really and truly. They then provided a theoretical underpinning for it.”


since  1950s

The bad neighbours

"Some of my neighbours used to spy on me and my family for the security police and go to the police station and say: “Goldberg’s having a party there are all those blacks in his house you should see what's going on”. I mean that was reality. I know because other friends heard them reporting… But we had quite a nice circle of friends - you know I was asked some time ago, when Ben Turok was still in Parliament, he said: “ You know, ANC members they don't know there were whites in the struggle, they had forgotten. And coloured and Indian people, it wasn't just African people”. So I sat down and made a list of 600 people that I personally knew because it wasn't unusual to oppose apartheid, just we were too few, and too few of us who wanted really thoroughgoing change, not just that we could sit on park benches together and go to the movies together. But a new South Africa."



since  1950s

The Whites also resisted

"Nowadays we have leaders who say: “We in the ANC did it all on our own.” It's not true. You know there was the United Democratic Front. The UDF followed the lead of the ANC, the leaders of the UDF, but there were possibly two million people involved. And then there were the liberals, and then there were the progressives, and then there were the Black Sash Women, and then there were the young white soldiers who refused their military service. Yes okay our war, our low intensity war, made them think twice about going on killing, but at the end half of the young whites refused their military service. No government can make war if it doesn't have soldiers, doesn't have the support of its own people. These young soldiers went underground. Some had to look after them, these were the Christian white ladies mainly from the Black Sash. So instead of being formally opposed to apartheid and apathetic, now they've taken a stand. They were all part of the struggle against apartheid of the change of political action through our leadership, but not by giving orders. But by finding the policies that said there's a place for you, and this the key, really my interpretation of the Freedom Charter. It sounds maybe weak now, but if you think of that opening sentence: “South Africa belongs to all that are living in it black and white together,” now that freedom charter was literally by our people through the thousands of meetings that were held and I took part in that and I also saw boxes and boxes of papers with these ideas on them. So the majority of our people were saying, African people mainly, but alsocoloured and indian and also some white, were saying we’re not fighting you because you're white, we're fighting you because you're a white supremacist."


The rivonia trialists

"They were much older than me. I mean Nelson was 15 years older, Govan even older than that, Walter I think might have been the oldest. There was a sort of 15-year gap. Nelson used to call me boy. I called him Nel, but it was, we had an affectionate relationship between all of them and me. I knew that these were national leaders, who if we survived, would make governments and so on. I didn't see myself as being a leader of that caliber. I was there to serve. I was a leader, people followed me, people did what I did. Young people in Cape Town, through the modern, new societies through the training camps we had, through uMkhonto we Sizwe, Sandi Sijake and many others of that group. who were at the Mamre training camp. Chris Hani called me his first commander. Brigadier (indistinct) comes from our political training and so on. We were proud of it all, but I didn't see myself as a national leader like Mandela was. I was a quiet little guy. I did the work in the background, I wasn't a public speaker.I was always good with my hands. You need to get microphones and you need to have platforms, you need to organise. Some people love being in the limelight, and some people are shy, I'm not anymore. I was then. I would get up to make a speech and somebody will say, are you talking nonsense and I will collapse. Now I know when I’m not talking nonsense but anyway. So I was the technical guy I really was. Loudspeakers, silk screening, churning out leaflets, on those old duplicators by hand. Get a call, 11 o’clock at night: “Comrade, you've got to come down to the herbalist shop.” that's in Langa.” What was his name, I can't remember the herbalist’s name. Lights are on, we've got three duplicators there, the duplicators are broken. “Comrade come and fix the duplicators,” and there are people running in and out with leaflets. Why the cops weren't there I don't know. Well I fixed the duplicators quickly and I was out of there, back home and in bed. But that's the kind of thing I did. How can I put it this way, it doesn't seem to me to be heroic. It just seemed to be I was privileged, I had these skills, the skills are needed in the movement then you must provide them. It just seemed to be normal."


early 1990s

Became Mandela’s voice of reason

"Whenever he flew into London, the British government treated him with great respect and he would be given the VIP suite at Heathrow airport. And we in the ANC office had to be with him because he can't sit there alone. Then when he flies off he's taken by car and one of us goes with him, and I went with him. And I’d just come back from a visit to South Africa because I was based in the ANC office in London and I say: “Nel people are saying you're becoming remote. You're not listening anymore and that's unlike you.” I’ve never chickened out of speaking truth to power even my own comrades and he's got two bodyguards, sorry companions. And as I say this I could see the hair rise to the back of their necks. Who’s arguing with their chief and saying.. And I say: “Nel you've always been a collegiate leader, you've listened to people you've discussed,” and he says: “I'm a leader and I will lead.” He had just come back from Malaysia he’d been with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was a real dictator I have to say. And so he says “We discussed this a leader has to lead.” and I say: “Ja, but you see you lead us together into an activity which changes the balance in a new situation”. Now there's gotta be a new solution, a new tactic, a new strategy, new ways of seeing things, that's your role as a leader and with OR and others”. Oh, that's where we ended the conversation, I believe he agreed with me. And he never held it against me that I'd argued with him. His bodyguards were very angry with me and we'd gone on. I mean we went round and round the argument and we’re getting more and more angry and I’m being rude to the Chief. How can you, you know, but he treated me as a comrade, as an equal and I admired that in him."


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Denis's conversation. 



The courage of a native man

"I grew up my parents were communists. They believed inequality. I’m a first-generation, South African born, my parents opposed apartheid and segregation. I grew up knowing this. But seeing a man, an African sitting on the pavement 1943, height of the war, I’m 10 years old and this man, he's got a little baguette, a little French loaf, and he's opened it, now he's poured in a tin of sardines. Now you'll call it a submarine. And he's eating his lunch. A white man comes along and I remember him. He's an older man. He was 45 with a little piggie glasses and he says to him: “You filthy black, you make the street dirty with your food.” There is no place for people to eat, he's a worker. He's having his lunch. The man gets up and says: “Do not call me a filthy black. I am a respectable native citizen”. What courage it took, and the man ran away. I've admired this man all my life, 1946, 73 years ago I can still see it. How can you say people aren't people when you're a child? And you see that point is you see that once you've seen through the lies of a society, you can't put the veil back together again. You have to oppose it or you're part of it."



“Mom, why does the book lie to me?”

"My school book, Our country, I was ten years old, grade five, standard three in those days. It says South Africa is a democracy. It means all grown-ups can vote for their representatives in Parliament. And can even sit in Parliament if they get enough votes. And when you lose the majority then that party goes out of power peacefully and then another party comes in. And I go home and I say: “Mom, why does the book lie to me. It says all grown-ups can vote. Well all grownups must include black, coloured and Indian people and they can't all vote, so why do they lie to me?” That's the reality of South Africa. I talk in schools now and young people look up to me and say to me did they make such laws? How could people, human beings make laws about other people like that? Go to Khayelitsha or somewhere down there in the high school, and they look at me and I say to them: “Under the Pass Laws families were broken up”. And they say: “Really?” They don't know, you’ve got to explain to me why parents don't tell them. I have a theory, but I want you to tell me, I think that we protect our inner sense of being, our ego. For a parent to say: “I was humiliated every day”, is to show weakness. “I went to a shop to buy something and a white customer came in and I had to stand aside, I was humiliated.” How can you humiliate yourself in front of your child, you see. And so children of ‘76, the uprising, and it became a country-wide thing. “Why didn't you stand up and fight?” And what do the parents say: “Because in Soweto you can go to high school, my children, my daughter, my son. You get an education. Bad as it is, you get an education. If we speak out we'd be sent out of the city, back to the countryside. You'll get nothing so we did it for you, and we kept quiet”. And all over the world people find ways, some are outspoken in their resistance, others accommodate, for whatever advantage they can get for survival. It's totally understandable."


The man for war

"So I wasn’t getting off a Cape Town train… the cops were always watching… That was going through my mind… The 90-day law came into effect on May the 8th 1963. I had no contact with family, friends or lawyers, that was the law. The purpose to obtain information to the satisfaction of the police. They were going to torture us. My comrades in Cape Town said: “Dennis you're going to be arrested, you could be among the first. You do all the technical stuff. They must know you're involved in uMkhonto we Sizwe.” I was on the regional command. “And they're going to torture you” they said. “And either you will break or others will break, and you are going to get ten years, at least ten years.” … So they said: “Leave the country, go overseas”. I was too young to fight in World War II, I was 12 at the end of the war. So go overseas, get yourself trained as a proper guerrilla fighter and come back with a new personality, new documents and so on. But you go through Joburg because you must get permission. You don't just leave on your own, it's discipline. I consider myself a soldier, I’m under orders, I get to Joburg, I'm met by Joe Slovo, I'm taken to Lilliesleaf Farm the underground headquarters and I'm asked to stay and become the weapons maker for Operation Mayibuye. And I said: “Well I’d left Cape Town because I couldn't function anymore… and so here am I. I'm not really known in Joburg, at least I thought not, and so I’ll stay. I’ll make the weapons, the landmines, and hand grenades. By the tens of thousands, they wanted them and I was going to. I bought a farm, not my money, our money, and a Volkswagen Combi, with beautiful curtains. Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki and I, could drive them around. I wore a suit and tie. I could drive them around the campgrounds of the place… We were preparing to overthrow the government if we could, that's what I left for. I was thinking, now how am I going to explain all this to my wife. Well I told her I was going overseas. And said when I get overseas I will send for her, I can't tell her how or where I’ll be. Then I'm in Joburg and I write to her through somebody else, and say there's going to be a delay. I am thinking, man! I'm a full time revolutionary. This is exciting stuff. The adrenaline is pumping everyday. I'm finding where to get the equipment to make the landmines and explosives and hand grenades and this was very exciting. But I also want to say you see, it was exciting in a way, because during World War II my heroes were those who fought behind the lines. In Russia, in Hungary, in France, the Maquis, the Italian partisans, they call themselves Partigiani, the Italian word. Inside Nazi Germany there was a resistance. People knew they would probably die, but freedom was more important. They were my heroes."



Traitors or heroes

"In the four years from his release till the time, he becomes president, the apartheid security forces backed by the traitors, sorry collaborators, like Inkatha, elements of Inkatha. I can't blame chief Buthelezi because says he knew nothing about the arms. So elements in Inkatha and the police murdered between 10 and 12 thousand people. More than at any time in our history, and they call it a bloodless revolution. It's only black people who died and the media say that doesn't matter. And our young people today say “Mandela betrayed us, he gave it away”. What did he want? More and more people murdered? Why did Mandela, after Chris Hani was murdered, he went on television and said, “We can't win a war, they're too powerful with their military and international support all the major powers supported their military we can win at the ballot, we have to have elections we have to have peace because our people we're dying every day, mercilessly”. Inkatha moved into Joburg in Alexandria township, in the first month, 1 600 people died, the next month, 2 000, it wasn't called Lebanon around there for nothing you know. The government just stood there and watched. They loved it for ANC people to be killed."


Full Interview 

Denis Full Interview
Denis lesson

Servant Leaders must look at their responsibility and culpability in the maintenance of inequality


"... And last time I looked Patrice, and Cyril and Saki, they're not white. But they are part of monopoly capital, no seriously, a small part, but part of it.

I want people to look at their responsibility and culpability at the maintenance of inequality. I don't want them to tell me we cannot afford to be equal. How much is enough? How many different wines do you have to have in your cellar? How many different cups of coffee can you drink in one day? How much can you waste? When will you stop lying in your bookkeeping? You can't afford higher wages but you ship 12 billion dollars into your ‘artificial commissions’. That's Marikana by the way..."

Daniel in conversation with

Denis Goldberg





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