Nelson Mandela

MANDELA DAY 2020: How Mandela ate chocolate in the shadow of death: Goldberg on Madiba

On Mandela Day 2020, I am reminded of my late friend and Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg who stood shoulder –to-shoulder with Nelson Mandela in the shadow of the death penalty back in 1964. Goldberg, who died on April 30, spent 22 years in prison for his part in the sabotage campaign against the apartheid regime was a warm man with a robust sense of humour. He was an engineer by trade and was given the job of making bombs that earned him the title of ‘Mr Technico’ among his comrades. Goldberg spent his retirement years a spit from the crashing waves of Hout Bay near Cape Town. His home, with a balcony overlooking the sea and the mountain range that hems in the bay, was typical of the man. Not for him the expensive, luxury, homes of Hout Bay; he built his own home amid the fishermans’ cottages on the less fashionable side of Hout Bay. Among the people, he once said to me. It was in this glorious setting high above the sparkling sea that Goldberg related many of the stories of the desperate days of the struggle and the dock at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria in 1964. “Nelson loved a fight, we used to send him to wag his finger at them!” he said with his trademark smile. Goldberg never forgot the first day of the trial in Pretoria when Mandela when prison officers shoved Mandela, shackled and in short trousers, next to him into the dock. Mandela was already serving a five year sentence for supporting strikes and leaving the country without a permit and was hauled from prison to face the death sentence. “You were not supposed to humiliate a prisoner, before the judge, but they did,” Goldberg recalled. “I stood next to him and had chocolate in my pocket. I nudged him and he looked down and nodded. I broke off a square of the chocolate and handed a bit to him. He wiped his hands over his face and the chocolate disappeared into his very, very thin cheek. Here we are, they are charging us with sabotage and here this little bit of chocolate melts away. He nodded again and I gave him some more; for me this was such a moment of humanity. You don’t get sweeteners in prison,” said Goldberg. “But there he was standing there, his clothes were hanging off him because he had lost an awful lot of weight, demanding of the judge to look him in the eye.” The two men survived the death penalty. More than 30 years later Goldberg asked Mandela why he thought they didn’t hang. “Because I dared him too!” Mandela replied. Yet Goldberg believed at one stage Mandela may have felt – as the leader of the accused – that he may face yet get the noose. He recalled how Mandela would lecture Goldberg in the holding cells, under the court, near the end of the long trial. “He used to say: ‘Denis when you teach people about Marxism don’t talk about Europe and slavery and feudalism – our people don’t understand that. You have to go back to our own country and own experience’ I said to him: ‘Nel, why are you telling me this?’ He says: ‘I just think you should know’ I know he was thinking he was going to be hanged.” In the end no one was hanged. When the life sentence was handed down the accused, sitting with Mandela and Goldberg all looked at each other and laughed in relief. “Nelson said in his book A Long Walk to Freedom that I said to my wife, from the dock, when asked about the verdict: ‘Life, life to live’ I wouldn’t use such literary English and it wasn’t my wife , she was in England, I said it to my mother. I said: ‘Life, life is wonderful’ and I can tell you more than 30 years later life is wonderful,” recalled Goldberg.” “Was it worth it? Every single day. I wouldn’t change it except, I wouldn’t want to get caught if I were to it again!”

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