How kind struggle hero Denis Goldberg lit up dark days behind bars with the help of a Rabbi

By Chris Bishop

Fellow prisoners of the late struggle hero Denis Goldberg have told how he worked selflessly to brighten the lives and ease the pain of incarceration for his fellow inmates. Also how he nursed the lawyer Bram Fischer, who saved the Rivonia accused including Nelson Mandela from the noose, through his last painful days.

Goldberg died this week, aged 87, after a life in politics fighting for the betterment of others. It was a long and tireless career that saw him turn his engineering skills into making bombs for the military wing of the African National Congress. Twenty-two of those years of activism were spent in prison in Pretoria serving a life sentence for sabotage handed down at the Rivonia trial.

Sean Hosey, one of the so-called London recruits who helped the South African liberation struggle, spent five years in the same cell block as Goldberg in Pretoria in the late 1970s. He recalls how Goldberg fought a campaign for the prisoners to get newspapers.

“One of the cruellest apartheid prison policies was to deprive prisoners of all current news. No newspapers, news magazines, radio, or any source of current news. Family letters and visits were heavily censored, and not infrequently stopped. Prisoners had to cope with this for many years, with lasting psychological damage, which even now is not fully understood,” recalls Hosey.

“For a period of about 18 months, in 1976-77, Dennis masterminded a campaign to get this information into the public domain and to try to launch a legal challenge in the South African courts. He battled relentlessly to brief a lawyer on the matter, despite harassment, delaying tactics, and threats from the prison authorities. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t get to court, but it did lead to a considerable easement in news deprivation from about 1978. Many ‘politicals’ would be thankful for that.”

Former Pretoria political prisoners also recalled how Goldberg cared tirelessly for the man who had saved his neck in the Rivonia trial – lead counsel Bram Fischer. The authorities, many of whom saw the Afrikaner as a traitor for his part in defending Mandela and his comrades, treated Fischer harshly, even after he was diagnosed with cancer in 1974. Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment, in 1966, on charges of furthering communism and attempting to overthrow the government. In prison the warders did him few favours.

“In the years I spent there, Bram Fischer was with us until one day he slipped and fell, fracturing the collar of his femur. He was left without treatment for fourteen days,” says former activist  Alex Moumbaris, who spent over seven years in Pretoria prison.

Hosey recalled how Goldberg nursed Fischer through his final, painful, days.  

“Denis and Bram had adjacent cells in Pretoria Central. Bram developed cancer during 1974. Eventually, he was given treatment, which apparently included radiation therapy. On a number of occasions, he was brought back to his cell in a dazed and confused state and left to his own devices under lock and key, with heavy consequences for his wellbeing,” says Hosey.

“Denis vociferously and consistently raised this with the senior prison officers and complained about Bram’s treatment. After weeks and months of this, Denis was allowed to help Bram overnight, after these treatments, which I know was a comfort to him. Although the vicious regime kept Bram in that cell until days before his death, I believe that Denis’s actions, in the face of threats to himself, helped Bram in his last days.”

On a lighter note, Hosey recalled how Goldberg, who was far from religious, used to see a Rabbi six times a year for what he called philosophical debates.

“However, a bonus to the visits was one of the rare treats that was permitted us – the annual ‘Passover Parcel’. This was a food hamper of appropriate Passover foodstuffs, all of it a delightful delicacy compared to our prison diet,” says Hosey. “Excitement would build for weeks with anticipation, because Denis shared everything the Rabbi brought with the rest of us. I never suggested to him that his ‘philosophical debates’ might have had an ulterior motive! But that was Denis, generous and always supportive of his comrades.”

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