By Chris Bishop
I once asked Denis Goldberg what he thought of one of his high ranking former comrades taking R500, 000 in bribes from a crook.
“What a cheapskate!” came back the reply faster than a gunslinger’s bullet. I expected more pious reply, not with Denis.
“He has sold out his job, his country, his beliefs, his politics and his morals – for half a million bucks?”
Denis said it with that dead pan look on his face. Believe me, he was deadly serious and angry, but his expression dissolved into that famous smile of his that made you think we frail human beings all make mistakes.
That was Denis and his attitude in a nutshell – he was principled and far from enamoured, in later years, with all that was going in the government that he fought to put in power and was never afraid to say so; and yet, he never forgot that we are all human and vulnerable, something that fuelled his tireless charity work.
I first met Denis at his home near the crashing waves of Hout Bay, near Cape Town, the city where he was born and should have lived out his days as a comfortable engineer in the suburbs. Instead he spent years training revolutionaries in the art of warfare and making bombs.
We got to know each other during the making of a three-hour documentary Liliesleaf – the Untold Story for CNBC Africa on the Rivonia trial, in 1963, where he faced the death penalty with Nelson Mandela. We kept in touch down the years with lunch, a phone call and the odd laugh about the absurdity of politics.
I shall never forget the warm, human, story he told on that summer day back in 2009 about how he sneaked small squares of chocolate to a chained and emaciated Mandela, in short trousers, whom police had dragged from prison to face sabotage charges.
“You don’t get sweeteners in prison,” said Goldberg with a smile.
Alongside Mandela, on that day, were the leading lights of the liberation movement: Walter Sisulu; Govan Mbeki; Ray Mhlaba; Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada. Only Mlangeni, who will be 95 in June, survives.
The authorities hoped would put them away forever. They nearly succeeded and certainly set back the liberation of South Africa by decades by incarcerating the leaders of the movement for life.
“’There was Mandela standing in the dock defiantly and forcing the judge to look him in the eye,” Goldberg said as if the hearing were yesterday at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria.
For some reason, Denis and I got on like a house on fire. He reminded me of my grandfathers – a hard man ready to fight for what was right, yet humane and compassionate with it.
The tough side of him came out in that interview. He told how the special branch officers used to taunt him across the courtroom, as the evidence was presented, by running their forefingers across their throats with a grin of death.
“I had to think about how to respond and in the end I did this back…” says Denis giving it the middle finger. Anyone who can give the finger to their captors in the shadow of death is tough enough.
Then, when he was relating the harrowing tale of his fractured relationship with his daughter, Hilary came out the old soldier hide of granite.
It was a sorrowful tale. Denis’s daughter worshipped him from afar as a latter day Robin Hood in the 20 years he was in prison. When he was released in 1984 they were reunited in Israel. A few months later the two fell out. It started when Hilary filtered the pile of hate mail from his daily post.
“I told her, Hilary, Hilly, you are trying to control me like they did in prison,” he said.
It all blew up. An angry Hilary told her father he had never been around and was always away fighting the struggle, you could see the pain Denis’s face.
“It took five years and a lot of counselling, but we reconciled. Unfortunately shortly after that she died.”
By this time both the young cameraman and myself, I am not ashamed to say this, had cast off our professional masks and had tears rolling down our cheeks.
“What’s the matter with you guys?” shot back Goldberg in mock outrage.
“I thought journalists were supposed to tough. I don’t know, the journalists of today!”
Then we all laughed, once again Denis had made people feel they would see the sun tomorrow.
His humour was legendary, as was his compassion. He once told me that he was handed three life sentences but was given a bulk discount and only served one. On the other side of the coin, he told me of the horror of lying in his cell listening to condemned men screaming as warders dragged them to the gallows. It was pure Denis that he learned the guitar so he could play a heartfelt musical tribute to the condemned.
Only Denis could have led the laughter in court when he and his comrades slipped the noose.
“Life and life is wonderful,” he called out when someone asked the verdict of the dock.
Amid all the laughter, sound and fury of the life of Denis Goldberg there is one cool winter’s afternoon that I will always remember him by. It was at Liliesleaf , in 2013, at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the raid on Rivonia that led him to spending 20 years in prison.
It was a draining day for an 80-year-old. There were journalists asking questions and taking pictures everywhere. Denis was patient and explained his story to those too young and green to know, but as the day wore on I could see he was getting tired. It was a Rivonia reunion with lawyers Joel Joffe, who became an insurance tycoon in Britain, and George Bizos, still fighting the good fight, there to reminisce with the men they saved from the noose.
On top of that, Denis had to settle a 50-year-old grudge with the late Bob Hepple, a former comrade who was up to his neck in the sabotage trial. He had negotiated his way out of police cells with a decision to turn state witness that led to him skipping the country to a knighthood and a comfortable life as a professor at Cambridge University.
“At the time, I told him you do this and people will cross the street to avoid you,” Denis told me.
To rub salt in the wound, Hepple sent Denis, insensitively, a Christmas card in prison in his first year of incarceration. Fifty years later Denis shook hands with Hepple and buried the grudge with good humour.
My abiding memory of Denis came later on that day as the sunlight dimmed along with his fading energy. A young schoolgirl, in uniform, who must have been about 13, approached him as he was heading for the car to take him to the hotel.
“Excuse me Mr Goldberg I am doing my school project on the Rivonia trial can I talk to you?” she says. Even I thought an exhausted Denis he was going to decline politely, but he sat down and smiled.
More than an hour later I saw Denis sitting at the table telling patiently his story to the school girl making copious notes. Maybe she will fight for freedom one day too.
I smiled and walked away. That was Denis and I was proud to have known him.