Explore his life: 1933 - 2020

Denis Goldberg


An ordinary man, an extraordinary life

© Denis Goldberg Foundation

Explore Denis Goldberg’s extraordinary life by clicking on the text and archive below

Denis Goldberg was sentenced – alongside Mandela, Motsoaledi, Kathrada, Mlangeni, Mhlaba, Mbeki and Sisulu – to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial of 1963/64. He then spent 22 years in prison in Pretoria, separated from his comrades because he was white. After his release, he went on to make significant contributions to building a democratic South Africa.

Denis Goldberg’s birth

11 April 1933

Denis with his older brother, Allan, his mother Annie and his father Sam in about 1939.

Denis was one of the first babies born in Mowbray Maternity Hospital, Cape Town. His parents, Annie and Sam, were communists who had immigrated from England. Denis grew up in a working-class family. His father tried to support the family through a series of different small businesses. He had a small trucking company when Denis was a child.

“South Africa had its share of militant groups of Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites. Even as a child I experienced them. Living across the road from us … was Sergeant Jordaan, an Afrikaner. His son, who was a few years older than I, would strut about wearing his father’s police cap and his revolver holster, throwing ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes ... Catching sight of me, he would shout, “I’ll get you, Jew boy!”
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg<quote-source>

Denis’s birth certificate.

Annie and Sam Goldberg attending a wedding in London in 1923.

Denis’s parent’s marriage certificate which indicates Sam’s occupation as a commercial traveller and their fathers’ occupations as general dealer (Sam) and tailor (Annie).

Here Denis is standing outside the house he lived in for some of his childhood in Cavendish Street, Woodstock.

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The school years


Beat 2

Denis aged seven.

Denis attended Observatory Boys Junior and High Schools near to where he lived. Denis often told the story about how his first teacher, Miss Cook, gave his class a practical lesson about discrimination after they had dishonestly blamed a disabled classmate for stealing Miss Cook’s pen.

Denis in rugby clothes at age 16. Denis believed that his school changed from playing soccer to rugby for racist reasons – because soccer was popular among ‘coloured’ people, while wealthy white schools played rugby.

Reference letter written by the Principal at the end of Denis’s matric year.

Denis also won some athletics prizes while at high school.

Denis’s Senior Certificate.

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The university years


Denis dressed as the devil (last person standing on the right) in a Rag Parade (an annual university fundraising event run by students).

Denis started his studies in civil engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT) when he was 16 years old. He had wanted to study medicine but his father did not have enough money for such a long degree. Denis studied hard at university but he also joined the multi-racial youth organisation, the Modern Youth Society. There he met Esme Bodenstein, who had come from Johannesburg to live in Cape Town.

Denis ultimately used his engineering knowledge to create weapons for Umkhonto we Sizwe to help destroy apartheid. Denis’s hope was to use these skills to <block-quote>“build houses, roads, and bridges for all the people of South Africa.”<block-quote>

Denis (second left) at a dance in 1952.

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Marriage to Esme Bodenstein

9 April 1954

This is a picture of Esme, Hilary and David when the children were small.

Denis first met Esme when she came to ask his mother for blankets after arriving in Cape Town from Johannesburg. A year after their marriage, their daughter Hilary was born, followed by their son David three years later.

Esme Bodenstein, 1953.

This ornament was on display in the lounge of Denis’s Hout Bay house. Denis said that the ornament reminded him of Esme.

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Political awareness

The early 1950s

Delegates at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, Soweto.

Denis joined the newly-established Congress of Democrats, an organisation for white people who supported the African National Congress (ANC). He was treasurer and chairperson at different times.

In 1955, Denis worked in the Loyolo informal settlement in Simonstown, organising support for the Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter that still guides ANC policy today. Denis was sacked from his job with South African Railways when they found out that he was organising for the Congress of the People.

The Communist Party


Portrait of Liz Nana Abrahams, who was in the same Communist Party cell as Denis.

Amy Rietstein (later Thornton) and Collette “Bubbles” Thorne were fellow members of Denis’s first Communist Party cell. This photo shows them at Denis’s 86th birthday party.

In 1950, the Suppression of Communism Act banned the Communist Party. The Party went underground and Denis joined it in 1957. Members met and worked in small groups called cells because small meetings were easier to hide from the Security Police than big meetings. Denis’s comrades in his cell included Albie Sachs, Nana Abrahams, Blanche la Guma, and Bubbles (Colette) Thorne.

Both Denis’s parents had been active communists in London before they came to South Africa. They also played an active role in the Woodstock branch of the South African Communist Party. Sam Goldberg was also listed as a Communist which meant that his words could not be quoted – not even after he died.

Blanche la Guma - another guest at Denis’s 86th birthday party - was also in the same Communist Party cell as Denis in the late 1950s.

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The Sharpeville Massacre and first detention

21 March 1960

Hilary and David’s first letters to their father during his detention in 1960.

This letter from Denis tells his mother that his request to visit her has been refused.

On this day, outside the police station in the township of Sharpeville, the police shot and killed 69 and wounded more than 180 people. The group was protesting against the pass laws that controlled where African people could live and work.

The government responded by declaring a State of Emergency and banning the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). They also detained more than 11 000 people, including Denis and his mother, Annie. They were imprisoned separately – in Worcester and in Paarl prison (now named Victor Verster) respectively. Because of apartheid, white women and men were also kept separately from black women and men. Esme had to travel more than 100 kilometres each way between Cape Town and Worcester and about 60 kilometres each way between Cape Town and Paarl to visit them while also trying to earn enough money as a physiotherapist to provide for the family’s needs. Denis was in detention for four months.

Esme sent Denis this photo of Hilary and Denis. The message on the back reads: “We salute you Daddy - we love you.”

The envelope of Denis’s final letter to his mother in detention. It was readdressed because she had already been released.

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Release from detention


Denis wrote this letter to Esme from Worcester prison during his first detention. One of the paragraphs was censored by prison authorities.

Portrait of Denis from May 1963. Artist unknown.

After his release, Denis returned to the construction site where he had been working before he was jailed. But the engineer in charge said that the Security Police had written to the company saying that they must not allow Denis to continue to work there because he was dangerous. Denis then found another job designing a road in South West Africa (now Namibia). This meant that he was separated from his family for another three months.

Denis is recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK)


Denis together with Alfred Willie and Sandi Sijake at the Mamre site of the first MK training camp in which they all participated.

After the ANC was banned, some of its leaders felt that with the ever-stricter laws and controls, freedom would not be achieved through peaceful protest alone. They founded MK as the armed wing of the organisation, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership.

Denis was recruited into MK in 1961 as a technical officer in the Western Cape Regional Command and learnt how to make bombs that could damage buildings and electricity lines, but not target people.

“He was the bravest of us all by far … We were all talkers but none of us went deep into the underground … Denis gave himself up completely to the struggle for freedom in South Africa … And his courage didn't desert him even after he'd been captured … He was courageous all the way through.”
<quote-source>- Albie Sachs, speaking at Denis’s online memorial in May 2020<quote-source>

This photo shows Albie Sachs as a young advocate.

Looksmart Ngudle and Denis trained the recruits at the Mamre camp. Looksmart was arrested on 19 August 1963, and died in prison after 17 days of torture. He was the first person to die after being arrested under the 90-day detention law – which said that people could be arrested and not be allowed to contact a lawyer, family or anyone else for up to 90 days. They could then be re-arrested for another 90 days.

Albie Sachs also attended the Mamre training camp. Both Albie and Denis were prepared to suffer to achieve freedom in South Africa. Albie lost an arm and the sight in one eye when his car was blown up in Mozambique.

In 2007, The Star newspaper published a series of articles on the 44-year quest to find Looksmart Ngudle's body.

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Raid on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Sandton

May 1963 – 11 July

This is one of Denis’s diagrams of weapons that the Security Police found when they searched the farm. This was used as evidence in the Rivonia trial.

Denis’s comrades told him to leave the country for training overseas so as not to be arrested under the 90-day detention law. He travelled via Johannesburg so that he could meet with the MK High Command on the way. They were stationed at Liliesleaf Farm, the secret headquarters of the ANC, MK and Communist Party. One of the leaders then asked him to stay in Johannesburg and find out how to produce weapons for the Operation Mayibuye plan that was being discussed.

On 11 July, the Security Police raided Liliesleaf. They arrested Denis and nine other comrades.

Mugshots of the accused – Denis is in disguise on the bottom left. Denis related how,“Arthur [Goldreich] designed and executed my disguise which turned me into a rather rabbinical looking character with small wire rimmed glasses and a full beard.”.

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Attempted escape


Photo of Esme (on the extreme right) at the FEDSAW meeting in 1961.

Denis and his comrades were held under the 90-day detention law. Denis was first held in Pretoria and then in Vereeniging. There Denis found a way, <block-quote>“with brute force and a little ingenuity”<block-quote>, to open his cell while the guards were on lunch break. He climbed onto the roof of the building, and jumped down twenty feet to the ground.

Unfortunately, a criminal prisoner saw Denis and alerted the guards. One of the prison guards kicked and broke his ribs while arresting him. Then they put him in leg irons that weighed about ten pounds. He was kept in leg irons for a month, and then had to relearn how to walk without this heavy weight.

Denis’s wife Esme found out about Denis’s escape attempt when someone collected his laundry from the prison and saw blood on the clothes.

Esme part 1

Esme part 2

Listen to Esme telling the story of the bloody clothes at 00:20:07 – 00:22:32 in this interview. Listen to the remainder of the interview in Part 2 above. (This interview and the one with Denis were conducted by Wolfie Kodesh in 1993 and form part of the UWC- Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.)

In 1963, Denis was in prison when Looksmart Ngudle died after being interrogated and tortured. The people who were interrogating Denis told him that they would pull out his beard like they had done to Looksmart.

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Esme's arrest

September – October 1963

After his interrogation ended, Denis was able to write letters to his family. He wrote this letter to Esme after she was released from prison. The red signature at the top shows that the prison authorities – and probably the Security Police as well – read the letter before posting it.

Esme was then detained under the 90-day detention law. Granny Annie looked after the two children, Hilary and David. Esme was released in October after 38 days in detention. By the end of the year she, Hilary and David had gone into exile in London in the UK.

Esme part 1

Esme part 2

Listen here to Esme telling the story of a traumatic moment in detention at 31:22. Also listen to her talking about  starting their new life in the UK at 41:09.

This is a letter that Denis wrote to his son, David, after Esme and the two children had travelled to the UK by ship. Simon was the son of Denis’s cousin who lived in London.

This letter from Denis to Hilary, aged about 9, was sent together with a ‘theme’ on houses that he had developed for her to do.

A letter from Denis to David, aged about 6, in London regarding his (simpler) theme.

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The Rivonia Trial


These are the mugshots of the eight men sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. Top row left to right: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba; Bottom row left to right: Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg.

Denis was charged with sabotage together with Nelson Mandela and eight others. Twenty  witnesses gave evidence against Denis personally. The accused’s lawyers did not want Denis to give evidence. Denis explained:

<block-quote>“They were worried that I might antagonize the judge, who indicated that he thought of me as a ‘smart aleck’ who stirred up ‘poor but happy black’ to become ‘cheeky’ revolutionaries. [I gave evidence] “because I wanted to explain why I had been prepared to give up all the privileges of white racist society to help bring about a just society in which we would one day live in harmony.”<block-quote>
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg, A Life for Freedom, 2016 p. 107<quote-source>

These are the notes that Denis wrote during Hymie Slyde’s and Cyril David’s evidence against him in the Rivonia Trial. They display Denis’s meticulous note-taking skills. Later on Denis was to relate this story:

“Arthur Chaskalson was the first President of the new Constitutional Court of South Africa and later Chief Justice and has recently taken retirement. As a prisoner I was delighted when he used the notes I had made during the Rivonia Trial and my analyses of the witnesses statements made in support of our defence team. I still have part of these notes.”
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The sentence and its impact

12 June 1964

Esme and Hilary whilst waiting in London to hear the Judge announce the sentence at the end of the Rivonia Trial. When Denis was in prison in 1960, Hilary wrote a short letter to him saying that she had stopped sucking her thumb. This photo shows how the stress of Denis’s arrest and imprisonment in 1963 made her start sucking her thumb again.

Denis was the youngest, and the only white person among the accused, to be found guilty. His black comrades were sent to Robben Island. He was jailed in Pretoria.

At the end of the trial when the judge said he would not impose the ultimate penalty [death] but sentenced us to life imprisonment instead, we smiled, then laughed and I called out to my mother who could not hear very well that the sentence was Life! and life is wonderful.”
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg<quote-source>

Denis was proud of being with Nelson Mandela when he pronounced the famous words: <block-quote>“It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.<block-quote> But Denis said that it was the people and organisations outside prison in the 1980s who played the biggest role in ending apartheid.

Click on the links below to listen to Wolfie Kodesh interviewing Denis about his life in the early 1990s. From the Mayibuye Collection.

Denis part 1

Denis part 2

Denis part 3

Denis part 4

Denis part 5

This is Nelson Mandela's handwritten version of his famous last lines of his statement that he read out to the Court in the Rivonia Trial.

The World’s front page on the Rivonia Trial sentence.

This is a note from Denis to Esme after the Rivonia trialists were convicted.

This is the exit permit issued to Annie, Denis’s mother, when she left South Africa to join Esme, Hilary and David in London after the Rivonia Trial ended. (An exit permit means that the person cannot return to South Africa.) Denis’s mother and father were divorced. His father remained in South Africa and visited Denis until he died in 1979.

Esme reads a statement after the Rivonia Trial sentences were announced, 12 June 1964.

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Denis’s studies in Pretoria Jail

1964 onwards

This diagram from 1981 is from Denis’s thesis for his four-year librarianship degree, entitled, The Public Library as a Communicator of Information. It looks a bit like an engineering diagram!

Denis knew about many different things. Whilst in prison, Denis completed several degrees – a B Admin, a BA, and Bachelor in Librarianship – through the University of South Africa (UNISA). He did so because there were few other things to do in prison. But he also wanted to understand the world so that he could change it in order that everyone could enjoy it to the full. He was in the middle of a law degree when he was released.

“I started a degree in education ... What they were teaching in Christian National Education was horrific. They said just read the study guides and tell us what’s in them … I was quite relieved in the end when they said I couldn’t finish the degree … Because I was in prison, they wouldn’t allow me to go to a school to teach … I think they were happy to stop me and I was happy not to complete it.”
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg<quote-source>

Certificate of apprenticeship for joinery which Denis earned during the period that the white male political prisoners worked daily in the prison workshop.

In 1979, three of the white male prisoners - Tim Jenkins, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris - escaped. Tim made a full set of keys (the photo shows a replica of these) to unlock the 14 locks between their cells and the outside. Denis tried to assist in organising for comrades to meet the escapees with a vehicle as soon as they left the prison. He did so in coded letters to “Min” - the codename for Baruch Hirson with whom he had exchanged letters ever since Baruch finished his own prison sentence in Pretoria. This letter tells Baruch, in code, the planned day and time of the escape and what the driver of the vehicle should wear. The communication was slow because Baruch, in the UK, had to get messages to comrades in Mozambique and they had to send messages back. Jenkins, Lee and Moumbaris went ahead with their escape despite not having a pickup car. They succeeded in their escape.

This extract is from a coded letter that Denis wrote to Baruch Hirson with a request for Baruch to organise a vehicle to pick up three of his fellow prisoners who were planning to escape. The pick-up plan fell through although the escape took place.

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Letters and visits

1964 onwards

The table shows how the rules changed for Denis as he moved slowly through the grades.The asterisks show that this rule was for people sentenced to life imprisonment.

The number of visits and letters that prisoners could have depended on their prison grade. All political prisoners started as Grade D and could move gradually up to A if the prison authorities felt that they had behaved well. All other prisoners started as Grade C. They were moved to Grade D only if they broke prison rules.

Denis kept a careful record of prison visits. In 1969, the officials cut short Denis’s father’s visit to him when he mentioned the moon landing because visitors were only allowed to discuss personal matters. They were not allowed to give prisoners any news. 1983 was a good year, with visits from his son, David, and David’s partner Beverly; visits from his daughter, Hilary (“Hilly”); one visit from his brother Allan and sister-in-law, Betty; and regular visits from Hillary Kuny. Hillary was Denis’s only regular visitor after his father died in 1979.

Denis also kept a careful record of letters received and sent. If the prison authorities did not like something that was written, they censored it by covering the words in black or cutting them out. Sometimes they did not pass letters on at all. When Denis was released, the authorities handed him all the letters from Esme that they had not passed on to him.

Denis usually ended letters with a comment on when that person should write next in order to fit in to the prison quota. In this extract, Denis is instructing his daughter Hilary on when her mother should write to him.

In this extract, Denis expresses his happiness at Hilary’s passion for her work with children.

Painting of poppies by Yvonne Anderson, which is in Denis’s collection. He wrote as follows about this painting: “In prison I had a long spell as a gardener. With Iceland poppies you plant and they flower within six weeks. They produce their seeds and die; their glory quickly fades. So the whole circle of life and death is there adjacent to the execution chambers.”

This painting was by Colette Thorne, who was in the early Communist Party cell with Denis. She wrote regular letters to him from the mid-1970s (with discussions, among others, about feminism, psychology, etc that she was discovering on returning to university at the same time as her eldest daughter). She was a librarian at the time she was writing, and later gave him this painting.

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Meeting personal needs

A careful record of Denis’s expenses.

The prison did not provide any pocket money. Family or friends had to provide this. Denis kept a careful record of his expenses in prison. Common expenses were groceries, toiletries, stationery, stamps (for letters), books, and subscriptions to magazines.

Most of the political prisoners shared what they bought with others. They also made some interesting ‘dishes’ for themselves, using whatever was available. Toothpaste, for example, was used to give a mint flavour to special desserts. Guy Berger remembers how Denis used a mango pip as the face for a puppet.

This extract is from a letter that Denis’s father, Sam, wrote to Athol and Bubbles Thorne in 1972. Sam was 74 years old at the time, and had very little money even for himself. Cape Town comrades arranged for money to be sent to the prison for Denis.

Denis’s Pretoria prison card.

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Access to news and stimulation


Until 1978 – fourteen years after Denis’s conviction – prisoners were not allowed any newspapers, radio broadcasts, news magazines. TV was introduced in South Africa in 1976. That was also not allowed for prisoners.

From this time, prisoners were allowed to receive magazines if they subscribed to them with their own money. But the prison censored many of the articles in the political prisoners’ magazines.

Denis made a collection of all the articles which were censored and led a court challenge, Goldberg v Minister of Police, against all the censorship. His lawyers argued that depriving political prisoners of this information was “cruel, inhuman and unnecessarily harsh treatment”. The prisoners lost the court case but soon afterwards the censoring stopped and they were allowed access to news. The Robben Island prisoners also benefited from this change.

Here is the first page of the notice of motion.

Extract from: Forsyth C. 1985. “The Judges and Judicial Choice: Some Thoughts on theAppellate Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa Since 1950”, Journal of Southern African Studies 12(1): 107.

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The Pretoria white male prisoner community

The graph shows which political prisoners were with Denis (in red above) in Pretoria Prison between 1964, when he was sentenced, and 1985, when he was released. Over the same period, there were about 2 000 black political prisoners on Robben Island prison.

Bram Fischer whilst practising as an advocate.

Denis saw more than 40 of his fellow white male political prisoners leave prison before he was released. In 1975, Bram Fischer died, shortly after being released on compassionate grounds to stay with his brother. Denis kept detailed notes on Bram’s illness, which the prison officials ignored until it was too late. Denis persuaded the prison officials to let him be in Bram’s cell overnight when Bram became too weak to care for himself.

“I have my notes of the way Bram was treated medically during his final illness in 1974-75. I hid them. They were later taken out of the prison by Baruch Hirson. They were transcribed and used in part by Stephen Clingman in his biography of Bram Fischer. The full transcription was submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing on the Prison Service.”
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg<quote-source>

The following is the typed transcript of Denis’s notes:

Bram Fischer – Diary of medical treatment 1974-1975

What follows about AF’s medical treatment has to be used with great care. (1) Ostensibly there could not be access to his medical file, 2) because there might be simple (!?) medical reasons for what happened – but I doubt it.

12(?) May ’74 AF to hospital after ulcer haemorrhaged some days in hospital then in Central prison hospital for a few days. No op, but transfusion etc.

July ’74 Request and with Doctor’s recommendation AF has prostatectomy. Surgeon did a section in theatre. Report in file says that it was negative for cancer but showed all signs of being cancerous & therefore sent gland to path lab for thorough histology & path lab report to be sent to prison. This report apparently not on file. Was path lab work done? Was it reported? Was report sent to the prison? Did prison Dr press path lab for report? … for histology to be done? Did surgeon or specialist see the histology & surgeon’s reports? In January of 1975   it was established that prostate was the site of primary cancer, ie it was missed in July possibly through histology not being done, or done and not reported. Ie 6 months of delay in treating for cancer of prostate. ,,,

(see later)

Early Sept 74  saw Dr Brand – pain in hip acute. AF not examined. Pills to relieve arthritic pain. … relief – but did aggravate ulcer. Then given physiotherapy. After +/- 2 weeks physio says treatment not helping. Refers him to Dr and suggests need for X ray and orthopod. (This to DTG) don’t know what was in his report. But AF not called to see Dr and nothing done. During this period AF asked for a crutch. None available it was said. We found AF a broom of right length to use as crutch. Then, only then, were proper crutches obtained. AF not sent for X rays. During Oct Dr Groenewald was in attendance. Sends AF for X rays. No follow up for 2-3 weeks (I’d say). 5 or 6 days before fall orthopod sees AF at prison at a very rushed consultation. Orders Xrays to be taken (ie not given plates until AF tells him they’re available. Had made a tape recording of diagnosis before seeing X ray plates. Don’t know if he’d read through file or not.

Tues 5 Nov 74  AF sees Dr groenewald to hear specialists opinion. Warned of danger of falling – neck of fmur very fragile. Talk of replacing head of femur.

Wed 6 Nov AF falls while struggling into shower on crutches.

7 Nov AF asked orderly to get Dr because feared fracturer. Orderly says imposs to get DR and in his opinion not fractured.

9 Nov Dr Brand says no fracture. Great pain Tues 12 & Wed 13 (Thur)

Fri 15 Nov AF sees Dr Brand → X Rays & done immediately. Radiographer says fracture and sends AF back in wheel chair.

Sat 16 Nov Specialiast says fracture and will try to get hosp. bed.

Tues 19 Nov AF to HF Verwoerd Hosp … ….

Wed 4 Dec AF brought back, We find him alone in wheelchair in diningroom at 1 pm. AF confused and unable to speak. By midafternoon high temp. Unable to help himself. DTG proposes to CO that he spends the night AF in cell. This agreed after heavy argument. (At first said I could put him to bed only) … all night. Not able to turn him. DG had to pick him up to put him on toilet. Great pain. Not seen by a Dr.

Thur 5 Dec Temp lower in morning. Unable to do simplest things. Still not able to speak. DTG again in cell that night. Wakes up to find AF struggling to lavatory. AF falls and DTG catches him (literally) in mid-air. Not seen by DR though DTG asked CO to get DR.

Fri 6 Dec =/- 10AM, AF to hospital

Heard that cancer of hip found when femur was pinned. Cobalt therapy started.

Acute and constant pain in hip started early in September. (Had arthritic pain there for years, but never so acute or constant). But no X rays taken until well into October, and then not followed up for some weeks after physiotherapist had urged referral to surgeon. Why was this not done at once  why were X rays not taken immediately?

Point here is the unnecessary delays which may have been fatal. Esp., as lack of care & increasing debility led to fall & fracture of cancerous femur (& presumably spread of secondaries) Further, it is known that cancer of prostate typically produces bone cancer(s) as secondaries. The extreme weakening of neck of femur in a relatively young man – on 5 Nov could (?should) have alerted GPs (Brand/Groenewald) specialists, radiographers to possibility of bone cancer & link with prostate cancer, especially IF they had been aware of |July report from surgeon & path/histology report if it was done/exists. Werte the prison Drs (Brand/Groenewald) aware of the July report(s)? Was specialist told? Did specialist see X rays of fracture? Why was possibility of bone cancer missed – even before fracture? It is known that hormone treatment of prostate cancer can induce remission of bone cancer secondaries. But prostate cancer not established until January ‘75, instead of |July ‘74.

Had Xrays been taken early in Sept & cancer been recognized cobalt radiation could have been started 2 ½ months sooner than end of Nov. And if X rays followed up at once in mid Oct, 1 ½ months could have been gained.

Must ask if cancer was known in July and the knowledge concealed? A fantastic thought, but the question must be asked.

From the diary can be seen : the inadequate availability of the Dr when a prisoner needs & requests to see him (Thurs 7 Nov) [This is general and not only in case of AF]

Unwillingness of orderlies to call out Dr (Fri 8 Nov)

a) it took 13 days for AF to be admitted to hospital after he fractured femur

b) b) it took 9 days to diagnose fracture

c) It took 4 days after diagnosis to get AF a bed &/or for administrative detail to be fixed

d) When brought back from hospital on 4 Dec AF was in no condition to be removed from hosp. I’m confident that the Drs in charge of the case would not willingly have agreed to him being moved back to prison from hosp. I suggest they were subjected to great admin pressure. (I know they wanted to keep him in hospital, but can only suggest this was so].

e) 4,5,6 Dec. NO doctor even looked in to check the condition of a very sick man.

DTG very willingly spent +/- 48 hours continuously with AF to tend his needs. But he is not a trained nurse & this was an inadequate way of looking after him.

Hell! Bram was so emaciated that DTG could pick him up & put him on lav or back into bed. Shaved him. It was a joy to be able to do what was needed; terribly sad that it was needed. That’s when I did my crying – in December when I realised he had cancer - & he’d soon be gone.

The finality – yes, terrible to bear in this place. BUT, confidence in the future & the CERTAINTY that one day (& not too many years hence) we’ll be out of prison leaves no rom for brooding. We SHALL BE FREE!

The following are some examples of what Denis’s fellow prisoners said about their time together. The pictures are from later times because photos of prisons and prisoners were illegal.

Jeremy Cronin, shown above with Denis.

Guy Berger with Esme and Denis.

“The ‘Prisoner’s Handbook’ read: ‘Singing, poetry and the making of any other unnecessary noise is strictly forbidden.’ So, when I wrote my ‘Group Photo’ poem and many others, I was uncertain whether any would survive, except in memory. But thanks to the ever resourceful Denis, poems were transcribed with a 0,5mm pencil onto strips of paper and concealed in many ingenious ways inside the cardboard lids of washing powder or the covers of note-pads. I still have a speciality Goldberg prison-made cardboard box-file with a toothpaste cap for handle..
<quote-source>- Jeremy Cronin, fellow prisoner<quote-source>
“This was a comrade with an infinite generosity of spirit, and to whom I am ever grateful for the personal time he spent with me in the prison.”
<quote-source>- Guy Berger, in Denis Goldberg Freedom Fighter and Humanist: p49-50.<quote-source>

And Denis Goldberg

Many those

who saw

who knew

and even cared.

Doubtless they get their due elsewhere.

Fewer those

who knew the cold twist through the gut

the vomit taste of fear:

because they felt – and chose and dared

these words for them, for you.

You knew

the yardstick of success

knew the test of comfort, pleasure

chose another measure of your life

– no more than your brother’s.

We value it no less.
<quote-source>- Dave Evans in Poets to the People, 1981, Heinemann, page 20<quote-source>

“I believe it was his stoicism and inimitable humour (taken at face-value as facetiousness) that enabled him to survive the trial, separation from family, a life sentence and an initially brutal prison regime. In his stoicism and self-discipline, he was a role model for all political prisoners.”
<quote-source>- Norman Levy, 2011, page 285<quote-source>

Here are cartoons of Dave Evans and Norman Levy from the programme of one of the Christmas plays that the prisoners put on during Denis’s early years in jail. Denis helped with the costumes, props and scenery.

This is an extract from Norman Levy’s autobiography, The Final Prize, describing the plays that the prisons put on during the early years of Denis’s imprisonment.

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Denis’s father’s death


Sunday Express article on Denis’s father’s death with a photo of Sam Goldberg, aged 77.

Denis’s father, Sam, died in 1979. Denis visited his grave only six years later, when he was released from prison.

The Internal Security Act

2 July 1982

The new act set a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment for sabotage, instead of the death sentence or life imprisonment. The government then offered to release some of the political prisoners if they signed saying that they rejected violence as a way to oppose apartheid.

Denis could not discuss the offer with his fellow Rivonia trialists who were on Robben Island. He received a message from one of his visitors who had been in London that the ANC would not oppose his accepting the offer. Kathy Satchwell, who was the lawyer for other political prisoners, was also asked to get this message to Denis.

“On one occasion when I was in London in the 1980s…. I [was] asked if I would be able to safely get a message into Pretoria Central Prison. I was asked to get a message to [Denis] and I was to let [him] know that the ANC/Movement would understand and not criticise a decision which [he] would shortly have to take.”
<quote-source>- Letter from Kathy Satchwell to Denis, 13 March 2008<quote-source>

Accepting the offer of release

28 February 1985

After deep thought, Denis agreed to sign a document stating that he personally would not engage in violent struggle. But he did not reject others using violence as one of the weapons against apartheid. Denis later recalled in his 2010 autobiography that to accept this condition, <block-quote>“was not a statement repudiating my role in the armed struggle. It was not an apology for having been involved in taking up arms against the state. Nor was I saying that the armed struggle was wrong. I was simply saying that I would not be a soldier any more – and it took me days and nights to work that out.”<block-quote> Denis’ release from prison after 22 years was reported around the world.

“There was controversy when Denis was released in 1985 before any of the others sentenced in the Rivonia Trial. (18 months before Govan Mbeki, 4 years before Walter Sisulu and others; last was Nelson Mandela in 1990.) Under the leadership of OR Tambo, the ANC adopted the view that Denis was a member of the liberation movement who had served with honour and would be welcomed back into our ranks.”
<quote-source>- Z Pallo Jordan, ‘Denis Goldberg and the Modern Youth Society’ in Kenvyn D (ed). Denis Goldberg: Freedom Fighter and Humanist, 2014: 31<quote-source>

Part of the audience at an Anti-Apartheid rally in Trafalgar Square, London, at which Denis spoke soon after his arrival in London.

Denis speaking at an Anti-Apartheid rally in Trafalgar Square soon after his arrival in London in 1985.

‍Here are the headlines  from articles in London’s Sunday Tribune and the New York Times.

Denis with Hillary Kuny at Jan Smuts (now OR Tambo) airport on his way into exile. Hillary was allowed to take Denis shopping to buy this suit before he was released.

“My personal contact with Arthur [Goldreich – who was the owner of Liliesleaf] was renewed when I was released from prison in 1985 and went to Israel to visit my daughter who lived on a kibbutz at that time. On arriving in Israel I was driven away from the airport and found myself at Arthur’s home in Herzliyya, near Tel Aviv. On arrival he remarked with pride that the last house I had been in when we were arrested was his home, and the first house I was entering after my release was also his home. I responded with a question: “Is it safe this time?”
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg<quote-source>
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Reunited with his family

28 February 1985

After his release, Denis went straight to the Kibbutz in Israel where Hilary was living. Esme came over from London to meet him as well. She had been allowed to visit twice in 22 years.  Denis and Esme then returned to London where Esme had settled when she and their children had gone into exile. David lived close by and Hilary later returned to London where she ran a nursery school. Denis said that going to live in London was like coming home for him, while going to prison had been going into exile.

Esme and Denis reunited after 22 years in which they had seen each other only twice, in non-contact visits.

Denis with his grandchildren, Jane, Katie and Jack.

David’s daughters, Katie and Jane, with their aunt Hilary and cousin Jack when he was only twelve hours old.

Denis reunited with his son, David.

Link to the coming home video.

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The London Mission of the ANC

1985 onwards

This photo shows Denis mobilising support in Germany. The banner says: ‘No business with apartheid’.

Denis started working for the London Mission very soon after his release. He became an official spokesperson for the ANC, and travelled to many countries mobilising support for a free South Africa.

“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.”
<quote-source>- Brian Filling, leader of the Scottish anti-apartheid movement<quote-source>

These are pages from one of the many passports he had over the years until he returned to South Africa.

Meeting in Italy. Banner reads, ‘Against all Racism: Walls torn down. Walls still to be torn down.’

Denis with Gillian Nilsson in Lund, Sweden - meeting organised by ABF (Workers Education Association).

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First democratic elections

27 April 1994

All adult South Africans had the opportunity to vote in the first democratic elections in the country. The majority of the votes were for the ANC, and Nelson Mandela became the first President of the “new” South Africa.

Denis and Esme visited South Africa in 1994. While here, they attended a luncheon organised at the time of Mandela’s inauguration to honour veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Denis and Esme did not stay in South Africa. Esme wanted to continue with the life she had built in London, and Denis wanted to be with her. He established the Community H.E.A.R.T. (Health, Education and Reconstruction Training) organisations in the UK and Germany to raise funds to support development in South Africa.

Denis’s return to South Africa


Denis and his second wife, Edelgard, at the registry office for their marriage in April 2002.

In 2000, Esme Goldberg died, followed two years later by the death of their daughter, Hilary Goldberg. After their deaths, Denis at last returned to live in South Africa.

In 2002, he married his second wife, Edelgard Nkobi. They lived in Pretoria and he worked as advisor to Minister Ronnie Kasrils, and then Minister Buyelwa Sonjica.

“When I first met Denis in 2003, I interviewed him for a film [on the Rivonia Trial].  He greeted me with all the warmth and charisma of his powerful, liberated soul.  He was a knock-out. A combination of brilliant intellect, healthy and sardonic scepticism and immense humour … There were times when he was immensely moved by his own account and, of course, all of us privileged enough to be watching him in the garage outside his home in Pretoria … were moved in equal measure. The depth of his gaze. By turns grave, or sparkling, suddenly, gleeful at a private joy. His careful pauses. The way he knew how to unfold a story, like a great and venerated actor. ”
<quote-source>- Pascale Lamche, filmmaker<quote-source>

Just after I arrived back in SA in 2002 to take up a post as Special Adviser to Ronnie, Kasrils, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, I attended the Millennium Development Goals Conference in Johannesburg. The supply of clean water to all communities was a key element of the MDGs. A competition was held among high school students to depict the meaning of water. I bid for 4 of the winning pictures. The proceeds went to a water related charity. For this young artist there are many meanings attached to water: transport, water life and leisure activity.

Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, President Nelson Mandela, Denis Goldberg when they were the only Rivonia survivors.

Nelson Mandela, George Bizos and Denis Goldberg enjoying an Athol Fugard play put on at Robben Island in 2005.

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Moving to Hout Bay


Denis’s house in Hout Bay was designed by Jo Noero, the same architect who designed the Denis Goldberg House of Hope.

Denis and Edelgard moved to live in Hout Bay, Cape Town, the city in which he was born.

“Through Esme’s work as a physiotherapist and then as a rent-a-granny when her hands were so painful from arthritis, and as a den mother for hundreds of young people who lived in her house at various times, Esme was eventually able to buy a house in London. She left it to me when she died. It was five times the worth it had been when she bought it… Esme’s bequest to me … enabled me to build my house in Cape Town …  It is a tribute to Esme who made this work of art possible.
My house is also beautiful because I later married Edelgard Nkobi who had wonderful taste and the determination to make our home beautiful without being ostentatious.
The only thing [my two wives] did wrong was to die before me and leave me with nice things but without them, for they were the nicest of all.”
<quote-source>- Denis Goldberg<quote-source>

Denis as a patron of the arts

Paul Trewhela’s portrait of Denis Goldberg, 2002.

To make up for his 22 years in a grey cell, Denis’s home in Hout Bay was filled with more than 200 paintings and artefacts. These art works are now displayed in the Denis Goldberg House of Hope. Many artists also made portraits of Denis over the years.

Continued political involvement

Although he was officially retired, Denis continued to play a public role. He was an active member of the local ANC branch, and an ANC branch in Gauteng was named after him. Denis had strong principles. He remained loyal to the ANC to the end. His loyalty was to the values of the party and the Freedom Charter. He was one of the first to speak up against Jacob Zuma.

In January 2019, President Ramaphosa announced that Denis was to receive the Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe award, which is the highest award given by the ANC.

The Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust (DGLFT) and the Denis Goldberg House of Hope (DGHOH)


Denis, Guy Redman of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport, and Merle Hodges of the Hout Bay Museum Board of Trustees turn the sod/s for the DGHOH while Jonty Dreyer, Museum Director, looks on – April 2019. These three partners all play important roles.

Denis founded the DGLFT which then gave birth to, and raised funds for, the DGHOH. Building began in 2020. As Denis wrote in the conclusion to his autobiography: <block-quote>“For me, personally the work continues within my community to try to realise in practice the vision we had that our children shall not be hungry, shall be well cared for, go to school, have jobs to go to and to be able to laugh a little.”<block-quote>

“Denis was a dreamer. He understood that dreams do not come true without effort. He devoted much of the energy of his last years to creating opportunities in the arts and sports areas for the young people of Hout Bay. His will bequeathed most of his estate to the Denis Goldberg House of Hope.”
<quote-source>- Debbie Budlender<quote-source>

Here Denis is participating in a DGHOH holiday programme that took place in 2019. Fundraising video produced by Michelle Marshall of the Urdang Academy.

This is Denis’s self-portrait when he joined the children in decorating the bags in which they would take home all the things they created over the three days.

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Cancer diagnosis

June 2017

Denis at home after his diagnosis. Photo by Halden Krog.

Denis is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer and told he has only three to six months left to live. On the eve of his 85th birthday, he said that he was “still full of life”. He stayed alive long enough to see the site of the Denis Goldberg House of Hope handed over to the builders for them to start their work.

“Denis’s commitment, energy and love of life sometimes made him obstinate. But he used humour to entertain, to get a message across in a non-confrontational way, to lighten a heavy moment, to mock himself, and perhaps also to hide difficult emotions. His humour was sometimes “naughty”, but it was never nasty. He referred to his own death as “shuffling off to Buffalo” based on Shakespeare’s  phrase ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’.”
<quote-source>- Debbie Budlender<quote-source>

Nelson Mandela dies


Nelson Mandela with Denis Goldberg.

Mandela used to call Denis “boy” because Denis was much younger than him. Denis liked this because during the apartheid years white people often referred to adult black men as “boys”.

Denis commenting on Madiba’s death in an interview with The Cape Times.

Honorary doctorates

11 April 2019

Denis with Andrew Mlangeni, on receiving one of five honorary degrees – this one from Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town.

Denis was awarded one of his five honorary doctorates by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology on his 86th birthday. The University organised a large cake for the celebration lunch.

Denis receiving his honorary degree at Glasgow Caledonian University. Courtesy of GCU.

Denis at the Hout Bay museum dressed up to receive his honorary doctorate from Heriot Watts University, Scotland. He was too ill to travel to Edinburgh so two top officials from the university came to Cape Town instead.

Denis receiving his honorary degree at the University of Cape Town with Royston Pillay, the Registrar of UCT.

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Denis dies

29 April 2020

Denis died just before midnight on 29 April. Tributes from across the world poured in. He is survived by his son David, two granddaughters and a grandson who all live in England.

“Denis Goldberg was a mensch, a human being of the highest integrity and honour who eschewed personal aggrandisement and consumptiveness. (In Yiddish, the word mensch means a person of integrity and honour, someone noble who should be emulated.) His lifetime contribution to South Africa and its people was second to none. His passing, conducted with customary courage and grace, feels as if the nation has lost part of its soul.”
<quote-source>- The Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in its tribute to Denis<quote-source>
“Many people across the world cried when they heard he had died.”
<quote-source>- Debbie Budlender<quote-source>

Denis outside of Parliament in Denis’s last year of life.

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