Denis Goldberg, 1933 – 2020: An Appreciation by Brian Filling

Denis Goldberg and Brian Filling
Denis Goldberg with Brian Filling at the Glasgow Transport Museum, 9 October 2013. The locomotive in the background was built in Glasgow, transported to South Africa, and returned to Glasgow after the end of apartheid. The display describes apartheid in South Africa and explains that black people were prohibited from driving trains and many other jobs on the railway under apartheid.

It is with great sadness that we mourn the death of our comrade and friend, Denis Goldberg. His life will be celebrated by people in many parts of the world including by his many comrades and friends in Scotland.

I became aware of Denis as a result of the Rivonia Trial when he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 31 in 1964. Following Denis’s release from prison in 1985, I organised his first speaking tour of Scotland, and he returned to Scotland numerous times thereafter over the decades as African National Congress spokesperson (1985-1994), Director of Community H.E.A.R.T. (1995-2002) and also after his return home to South Africa.

He travelled around Scotland, inspiring and organising people in the struggle against apartheid, and later assisted with the reconstruction and development of the new South Africa. Over the thirty-five years since that first visit, he made countless friends and connections with people in trade unions, churches, local authorities, universities, the student movement, political parties, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and its successor organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) Scotland, and he made many media appearances.

Nelson Mandela at his Inauguration as President of the Republic of South Africa on 10 May 1994 said,

“Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land  will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”

These words were spoken in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where I sat beside Denis and his wife, Esme, listening to the Presidential address in what had been the government buildings of Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha and De Klerk.

As we watched the South African air force flypast overhead, with the new South African flag emblazoned on the wings of the planes, Denis remarked that he couldn’t quite believe that these planes were now on the side of the people rather than conducting mayhem on the Front-line states. We recalled Chile and the violent overthrow engineered by the CIA of the democratically elected government of President Allende in 1973 and thought, ‘Will South Africa be different?’ Denis joked how, as he sat in his prison cell down the hill from Union buildings, he had attempted to do a ‘Uri Geller’ and bend the wings of the aeroplanes during the Apartheid-era Presidential flypasts while he was incarcerated for 22 years.

All over the amphitheatre old friends and comrades were meeting, embracing, shaking hands, exchanging stories, rejoicing in their victory. Some who had travelled the world as exiles from apartheid had been sworn in the previous day as Members of Parliament in Cape Town. Some were about to become Cabinet Ministers. It was a momentous day.

One of those emotional meetings was between Denis and Andimba Toivo ja Toivo, then Minister of Energy in the recently liberated Namibia. They recalled when they had first met as young men in a progressive youth organisation, the Modern Youth Society, in the 1950s in Cape Town. They were both jailed in the 1960s, Andimba with Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and the other black political prisoners on Robben Island and Denis in Pretoria Central prison along with the other white political prisoners. The absurdity of apartheid reached everywhere. Andimba said that he couldn’t quite believe that he was standing with Denis in the citadel of apartheid watching the inauguration of Nelson Mandela with whom he had spent more than 20 years on Robben Island.

Working with Denis during the apartheid years, 1985-1994

I first met Denis following his release from prison in 1985 and then worked with him in the anti-apartheid struggle until the end of apartheid in 1994 and thereafter on various projects to assist the new South Africa.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s campaign for the boycott of, and sanctions against, South Africa during the years of the Thatcher-led Tory government in Britain was boosted by Denis’s speeches and tireless campaigning. The campaign did not move Thatcher nor her Tory government but it drew thousands into the boycott movement and to solidarity with the African National Congress and the South African people.

He spoke to many thousands of people in Scotland, the UK, Europe, North America and the United Nations in New York about the struggle against apartheid and he had the same effect everywhere, inspiring audiences and capturing the media.

Trade Unions in Britain were staunch supporters of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Denis was a great favourite at the annual conferences of the Scottish Trade Union Congress and of UNISON, the UK public services trade union, which made him a life member, as did the Fire Brigades Union; and the Civil Service Union held wonderful ‘Nights for the ANC’ in Edinburgh.

Denis’s speaking style was neither that of a firebrand nor tub thumper. His speeches were informative, gentle in tone, laced with humour, and inspired his audiences into action. He had people laughing out loud and then brought tears to their eyes not just in the same speech but sometimes in the same scenario if not the same sentence.

He had long been known for his humour. George Bizos in his memoir, Odyssey to Freedom, relates the feelings of the defence lawyers in the 1963/1964 Rivonia Trail, “To our relief…he (Denis) successfully avoided any witticisms and controlled his expressions”, when under examination by the prosecution.

Denis’s ability to condense complex ideas into short, sharp, accessible messages was perfect for media interviews, in which often the next question is being asked before most people have had time to answer the previous question.

Denis also took on the role of creating and distributing ANC merchandise. It started with T-shirts, and then there were button badges, flags, caps, coffee mugs and jewellery. The range of goods kept growing to include sterling silver pendants of the MK Warrior, high quality enamel badges, brooches, earrings, pens and watches. All merchandise carried the ANC logo or symbols. It was great publicity as thousands of people identified themselves publicly with the ANC and the merchandise raised a lot of much-needed funds.

Denis’s love of, and interest in, children was another of his characteristics. Becoming President of the Woodcraft Folk, a progressive children’s organisation in Britain, in which Esme and their children had been active members, was just one expression of this.

Scottish delegation to South Africa 1994

The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain was dissolved in October 1994, six months after the South African election, which signalled the end of apartheid. The successor organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), was immediately formed.

The following day a thirty-three strong Scottish delegation departed from the UK for a ten day visit to South Africa. Denis had been invited to join the delegation as a special friend of many people and organisations in Scotland. From a lunch in Parliament on arrival hosted by Aziz Pahad, the new Deputy Foreign Minister, via visits to townships in Jo’burg, Cape Town and the Eastern Cape to a reception in Cape Town barracks hosted by the Deputy Minister of Defence, Ronnie Kasrils, with senior military personnel in attendance, it was a most remarkable trip.

The delegation was given a tour of Parliament by a pleasant, but apartheid-trained, tour guide. After a few interjections, additional comments and explanations by Denis the tour guide generously handed the tour over to him. Denis then proceeded to give the delegates a wonderful history of the building from an anti-apartheid perspective. He described the tri-cameral parliament, which had given seats to Indian and Coloured members, whilst retaining majority control for the Whites. We had our photograph taken against the background of the Tuynhuis where Nelson Mandela was brought from prison to meet Apartheid President Botha.

During the visit many meetings were held with the new leaders of the country in which we learned about the legacy of colonialism and apartheid and the challenges of reconstruction and development. The meeting with Cyril Ramaphosa, in which he was explaining and discussing the new constitution, was running over time and we were due to visit the Rape Crisis Centre Cape Town. The women delegates left the meeting to avoid being late and then had a discussion as to whether men should be included in the visit. Apparently after a heated discussion it was agreed that Denis, who had organised the visit to the Centre, and I, as leader of the delegation, should accompany the women.

On arrival at the Centre, Denis was rapturously welcomed by the South African women who saw Denis as a great supporter of their work. In the discussions that followed they made the argument that men needed to be included in their campaign if the horrendous problem of rape was to be overcome in their society. Denis’s connection to, and support for, the Rape Crisis Centre Cape Town continued long after that visit including successfully bidding for large-scale funding from Comic Relief.

Other highlights of the trip included meetings with Thabo Mbeki, Acting President, as Nelson Mandela was out of the country, and Denis’s fellow Rivonia trialists. Govan Mbeki, then Deputy President of the Senate (later to become the National Council of Provinces), hosted us in the members’ tearoom in Parliament in Cape Town and Raymond Mhlaba, the new Premier of the Eastern Cape, met us in the government office in Bisho in the Transkei.

The meetings with Govan and Raymond suggested that they had never been apart from Denis despite their separate incarceration for decades under apartheid.

Community H.E.A.R.T. founded in 1995

As he was not returning home to South Africa, Denis had decided to establish a charity, Community H.E.A.R.T. (Health, Education and Reconstruction Training) to assist with the redevelopment of his country. Towards the end of the Scottish delegation’s visit he asked a few of us, Jane Coker, Bob Bruce and myself to form the Board of the new organisation and it was launched in the South African High Commission in London at an event in April 1995 with Denis as Director and myself as chair of the Board.

Denis worked extremely hard to make Community H.E.A.R.T. successful. He launched the “Book and Ten Pence Appeal” which involved the collection, sorting and packing of books, which were then sent by container to South Africa. This took him all over Britain, speaking to all kinds of audiences, from former members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement to a speaking tour round Edinburgh’s independent private schools. All of which resulted in the donation of many books and cash for the container to transport them. Three million books were eventually sent from the UK to South Africa, of these some ½ million were sent by ACTSA Scotland to the Eastern Cape.

On one occasion in Edinburgh he was invited to give the Vote of Thanks following FW De Klerk, Deputy President in the South African Government of National Unity at that time, delivering the prestigious Edinburgh Lecture. Denis commented that it was obvious “that Dr De Klerk had learned much from the African National Congress.”

Community H.E.A.R.T. held a number of very successful book launches in South Africa House with a number of South African authors including Ahmed Kathrada (Letters from Robben Island) and Luli Callinicos (The World that made Mandela). Denis’s autobiography, The Mission: a life for freedom in South Africa, was launched at large events in Glasgow, Manchester and London.

Denis launched a campaign for second-hand computers to be re-furbished and sent to South Africa which led to the founding of Computer Aid International. As well as raising vast sums of money for the Cape Town Rape Crisis Centre, Denis encouraged connections between South African and British organisations.

He built relations between South African educational institutions and those in the UK. Not only did he travel extensively throughout Great Britain and Ireland but he combined it with the establishment of Community H.E.A.R.T. in Germany and regular speaking tours there. Denis also accompanied another ACTSA Scotland delegation to South Africa in 2000.

When Esme died in 2000 Denis asked me to conduct a rationalist commemoration of her life at the funeral in London. It was quite an event as it brought together Denis and Esme’s family, many of Esme’s friends of all age groups, British and South African comrades and friends. It was not long afterwards that their daughter, Hilly, died.

It was a hard time emotionally and Denis was exhausted by the work with Community H.E.A.R.T. It was time for a new start. Isobel McVicar replaced Denis as Director of Community H.E.A.R.T. and he was elevated to the position of Honorary President.

Return to South Africa

Denis returned to South Africa in 2002 as he had been appointed Special Adviser to the Minister of Water and Forestry Affairs, Ronnie Kasrils. He enjoyed this role as it took him all over the country and allowed him to meet, hear the concerns and take action on behalf of the people.

Denis eventually settled in Hout Bay near Cape Town. He hosted braais for visiting delegations from Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) UK, often in the evening of their first day after visiting Robben Island. There could have been no better introduction to South Africa, its history and the challenges it faced, than an “audience” with Denis.

Glasgow Caledonian University

I was requested by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) to approach Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison, to ask if he would accept an Honorary Doctorate from the university. He accepted on the understanding that the university agree to assist with the reconstruction and development of the new South Africa.

Denis, on behalf of ANC, visited the university to discuss how it could assist, and following those discussions, Professor David Walsh, Dean of the Faculty of Health, and myself visited South Africa just before the election of 1994. Denis introduced us to the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA) and there began a productive connection between the two universities.

We also visited the University of the Transkei (UNITRA) in the Eastern Cape which led to that university adopting a problem-based nurse training curriculum assisted by GCU. Several GCU senior university staff were seconded to UNITRA and MEDUNSA to assist with the development of the new programme and some of the South African staff undertook placements at Glasgow Caledonian University. This very positive and mutually beneficial partnership was facilitated and nurtured by Denis over the years.

Denis was gratified to know that GCU’s connection with South Africa continues with, for example, Vision Science students undertaking placements on the Phelopepha Heath train which traverses rural South Africa bringing much needed health care. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement with the GCU students gaining a lot of practical experience and South African patients getting attention and assistance.

In 1997 Denis was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by Glasgow Caledonian University in recognition of his contribution to the struggle against apartheid, his role in the reconstruction of the new South Africa and his services to the university.

At the ceremony in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, attended by some 2,500 people, he was given a standing ovation following his acceptance speech. This had never happened before. To receive a standing ovation from an audience of such disparate people politically (the graduates from different academic disciplines, their mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings, friends and university staff) was unique and was testimony not only to Denis’s sacrifice, bravery and intellect but also his way with words.

The continuing Scottish connection

Following his return to South Africa Denis continued to visit Scotland on many occasions. On 4 August 2011 Denis and the Lord Provost of Glasgow unveiled a plaque in the City Chambers to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela receiving the Freedom of the City, the first city in the world to bestow the honour, while he was still in prison in 1981.

To coincide with this event the Lord Provost and the City Council sponsored the publication of The Glasgow Mandela Story, which I wrote. In the Foreword Denis wrote “Glasgow was my launching pad into the warm atmosphere of Scottish hospitality, comradeship and the forming of friendships that have endured to this day.”

The following month Denis returned to deliver the 4th Mandela-Tambo lecture at the City of Glasgow College. It was entitled “Mandela-Tambo: friends, comrades, leaders: legacy”.

In the lecture he referred to the “long history of contact between Scotland and South Africa” and said, “Of course, the early contact was that of Scottish soldiers serving the British Empire in the conquest of South Africa.”

Denis also referred to the positive side of the Scottish connection: “But also there were missionaries and educators who played an important role through institutions such as the Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape Province. Many leaders of the African people gained their knowledge of the modern world at that institution.”

Following Denis’s return to South Africa my wife, Mary, and I visited Denis in Hout Bay on many occasions. Staying with Denis in his house surrounded by his art collection was like living in a wonderful art gallery. Denis was justly proud of his art collection which he has bequeathed to his House of Hope. It was most enjoyable having Denis as our guide around the Cape: visiting Cape Point, Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain; sites of sabotage under apartheid; meals on the V&A waterfront; a day in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden; a wine tour of Stellenbosch; a visit to the Rape Crisis Centre, where Mary spent two weeks evaluating its work as a conclusion to the Comic Relief funding; and all the while discussing politics and the problems facing South Africa including the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, British Imperialism’s responsibility, and encroaching corruption.

In the last few years following his illness Denis continued his connection with Scotland and became one of the Patrons of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation, whose aims include creating a statue of Mandela in Nelson Mandela Place in Glasgow; and conducting educational activity to increase understanding of the struggle against apartheid, Scotland’s connections, and the lessons for human rights, equality and racial harmony.

During one of his last visits to Scotland the City of Glasgow College presented Denis with their inaugural Global Scholar award. Denis was accompanied by his son, David, his grandchildren and myself. In his acceptance speech Denis talked about the meaning of ‘humanity’.

“I have looked at people in class conflict between owners and workers and the middle people, very well paid, who do the work of maintaining disunity and inequality among people in those conflicts and wondered about what it is to be human…

To be scholars, to try to understand our world in isolated academic ivory towers is to deny our innate human equality. Knowledge is for me and many millions of people, a guide to action…

Understanding the world is not enough. As human beings in society, we are called upon by our humanity to change the world, to make it a place of greater equality…

What I have learned through good times and bad, is that to be human, in the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘We must so live our lives that we respect and advance the freedom of others.’”

Denis Goldberg certainly lived his life in that way and we are all the better for it.

Denis will be sorely missed by many people in Scotland and the UK as well as South Africa and elsewhere. The passing of Denis Goldberg is a great loss to humanity.

Brian Filling is the Honorary Consul for South Africa in Scotland;
Chair, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) Scotland;
Honorary Vice-President, Community H.E.A.R.T.;
Chair, Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation;
Chair, Scottish Committee, Anti-Apartheid Movement (1976-1994).