“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes” – Bertolt Brecht, Galileo
The awe-inspiring histories of South African freedom fighters have always struck me with a sense of courageous romanticism. Our history is filled with pages of women and men who, against all odds, suffering the depravities that one could only picture happening in a bygone era, raised their clenched fists in defiance against tyranny and oppression. One such hero was Denis Theodore Goldberg who died just under a year ago, a man who defied what Frantz Fanon characterised as cognitive dissonance by refusing to accept what 99% of the white population uncritically permitted under the apartheid regime.
I was born in 1986, a year after Goldberg had been released from prison after serving 22 years under the Sabotage and Suppression of Communism acts and a year after the PW Botha regime declared a State of Emergency, upping the oppressive ante by using extrajudicial brutality against those opposing apartheid. By this time, South Africa was experiencing an upsurge in grassroots-led, internal uprisings in African and coloured townships and communities, and its military would also suffer a decisive defeat in Angola two years later at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
Those brave individuals involved in the struggle against apartheid struck me to the core in my early days of existence, and when I moved to Hout Bay, a smallish fishing town (and now tourist hub) on the coast of Cape Town, I was overwhelmed with fascination to learn that Goldberg, a real-life Rivonia Trialist and anti-apartheid leader was living in Hangberg, traditionally a community of fishers who were forcibly removed, from the 1950s to 1980s, from the village and valley in Hout Bay and allotted land and housing adjacent to the Hout Bay Harbour.
I got hold of Denis’s landline number from a local branch leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP), who resided in Imizamo Yethu, the informal settlement in Hout Bay, and made my first attempt at contacting this man I had read about, but would never have imagined actually speaking to, let alone meeting.
It took me a couple of months or so to make contact with Denis. By this time, I had been elected as the local secretary of the SACP’s Ray Alexander branch, named after another hero of the struggle against apartheid. In those days I used to catch a local taxi, operated by entrepreneurial youths, who drove dilapidated vehicles referred to as skoro-skoros or amaphelas (loosely translated to cockroach in isiXhosa). The driver took me to Goldberg’s door for R10 and told me to send Ntate Goldberg his warm regards.
My first engagement with Denis lasted 3½ hours. He greeted me warmly with a hard slap on the back and a hearty “Hello Comrade!” He made me a cup of coffee and placed some Bakers biscuits on a plate for me to munch on. I sat nervously listening to his rebuttals of my ignorant and at times arrogant youthful exuberance. The man was an encyclopaedia of knowledge. He would draw reference to a range of themes, from entertainment and culture – throwing out some beautiful verses of Bertolt Brecht, scanning his memory for an anecdote or memory from his 22-year term in prison and then effortlessly drawing synthesis to his explanation by placing it within the current national, provincial and Hout Bay political, economic and social context.
Denis also had the most incredible way of infusing colourful expletives with sophisticated analysis, his sense of humour and deep chuckle from within defied the fact that the man had gone through so much loss, so much suffering. His house overlooked the community of Hangberg, and every now and then he would scan the dense array of houses, council apartments and bungalows and breathe a heavy sigh. Goldberg knew that there was still so much to be done; he felt deeply for the struggle of his community.
Needless to say, I was in complete awe. He gave me a copy of his memoir – The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa, stating that this book was a donation to our local SACP branch and inscribed “Dear SACP Ray Alexander Branch – the struggle continues”.
As time went on, Denis’ health deteriorated. I became more active in local and provincial politics, often ringing him up or paying him a visit to gauge his view on particularly tricky matters, one of which was my nomination to stand as a candidate for ward councillor in the local government elections. Without elaborating, Denis helped me understand the necessity of patience, the toxicity of power and populism and the need to listen and learn from the very people we were expected to lead.
In 2010, the community of Hangberg experienced an onslaught of police brutality and trauma. Denis, despite his ill-health, attended to the crisis and guided us through this tragedy, condemning the police’s atrocious acts of violence, lamenting the authorities’ lack of understanding and providing a platform for conciliation and peace. He was always forthright in condemning any malfeasance in the ANC, an organisation he loved, and, when the corruption and fraud rackets of the Zuma administration came to the fore, he spoke truth to power and made power truthful at a funeral event at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, honouring his friend and comrade, Uncle Kathy Kathrada, a fellow Rivonia Trialist.
I would later have the privilege of spending some time with Denis and his partner, Deidre, who cared for him immensely and, when she was unavailable, I would drive Denis to treatment and back and assist him with some household tasks. This was an immense honour; his health was taking its toll on his body, but his mind was so sharp, he continued to advise me on some aspects of my political work, always reminding me of where my loyalties lay – with the people and with our community.
Denis Goldberg’s legacy remains in Hout Bay, in the House of Hope, a centre of art, culture, music and sporting activities for impoverished children. He was awarded numerous honours both in South Africa and abroad and due to the Covid-19 pandemic was given a wonderful virtual appraisal by the president, his comrades, friends, and family.
My hope is that once conditions permit, we are able to hold a commemorative event that truly encapsulates the measure of the man and his sacrifices to our country. Until then, perhaps we can remember this giant in the fight against apartheid by, reinforcing one of his main political tenets – serving the community and the people with complete humility and understanding without any expectation of reward.
Thank you, Ntate Goldberg. DM