Denis Goldberg - Hero of the struggle for South African liberation Part 2

Born 11 April 1933 - Died 29 April 2020

Exile, Campaigning, Return to South Africa

by Brian Filling

Denis Goldberg, along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and four others, was sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial in South Africa. The race laws of the apartheid system meant that Denis was sent to Pretoria prison as he was white while the others were sent to Robben Island. Following Denis’s release in 1985 after 22 years in an apartheid prison he came to Britain and worked in the African National Congress (ANC) office in London. He became a very effective spokesperson for the ANC addressing many thousands of people in the UK, Europe, North America and the United Nations about the struggle against apartheid and he had the same effect everywhere, inspiring audiences and capturing the media. I organised his first speaking tour of Scotland shortly after his release from prison in 1985 and he returned frequently over the next thirty years.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s campaign for the boycott of, and sanctions against, South Africa during the years of the Thatcher-led Tory government in Britain was boosted by Denis’s speeches and tireless campaigning. The campaign did not move Thatcher nor her Tory government but it drew thousands into the boycott movement and to solidarity with the African National Congress and the South African people. Trade Unions in Britain were staunch supporters of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Denis was a great favourite at the annual conferences of the Scottish Trade Union Congress and of UNISON, the UK public services trade union, which made him a life member, as did the Fire Brigades Union; and the Civil Service Union held wonderful ‘Nights for the ANC’ in Edinburgh.

Denis’s speaking style was neither that of a firebrand nor tub thumper. He had a great ability to condense complex ideas into short, sharp, accessible messages and his speeches were informative, gentle in tone, laced with humour, and inspired his audiences into action. He had people laughing out loud and then brought tears to their eyes as he vividly described apartheid and its horrific crimes. In a lecture he gave in Germany he spoke of the deaths of detainees under apartheid, “some were dropped into the deep Southern Ocean from helicopters, some were thrown into crocodile infested rivers to remove the evidence of the brutal illegality. Murder had become a sport for some ‘protectors of the state.’” (1)

He also enthusiastically took on the role of creating and distributing ANC merchandise, all of which carried the ANC logo or symbols. It was great publicity as thousands of people identified themselves publicly with the ANC and the merchandise raised a lot of much-needed funds.


The struggle against apartheid by the South African people, led by ANC, and supported by a worldwide solidarity movement, led to the release of the remaining Rivonia prisoners and eventually that of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990 after 27 years in prison. It took another four difficult years before the apartheid regime was forced to concede elections. ANC won the first democratic election overwhelmingly and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President on 10 May 1994.

At the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, I sat beside Denis and his wife, Esme, in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria listening to the Presidential address in what had been the government buildings of apartheid presidents - Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha and De Klerk. As we watched the South African air force fly-past overhead, with the new South African flag emblazoned on the wings of the planes, Denis remarked that he couldn’t quite believe that these planes were now on the side of the people rather than conducting mayhem on the Front-line states. Denis joked how, as he sat in his prison cell down the hill from Union buildings, he had attempted to do a ‘Uri Geller’ and bend the wings of the aeroplanes during the Apartheid-era Presidential fly-pasts while he was incarcerated. (2) All over the amphitheatre old friends and comrades were meeting, shaking hands, embracing, exchanging stories, rejoicing in their victory. Some who had travelled the world as exiles from apartheid had been sworn in the previous day as Members of Parliament in Cape Town. Some were about to become Cabinet Ministers. It was a momentous day. One of those emotional meetings was between Denis and his comrade, Andimba Toivo ja Toivo, now Minister of Energy in the recently liberated Namibia. They recalled when they had first met as young men in the Modern Youth Society, in the 1950s in Cape Town. (3) Andimba said that he couldn’t quite believe that he was standing with Denis in the citadel of apartheid watching the Presidential Inauguration of Nelson Mandela with whom he had spent 16 years on Robben Island while Denis had spent 22 years in Pretoria Central prison. 


The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain was dissolved on 29 October 1994, six months after the South African election, which signaled the end of apartheid. The successor organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), was immediately formed. The following day a thirty-three strong Scottish delegation departed from the UK for a ten-day visit to South Africa. Denis had been invited to join the delegation as a special friend of many people and organisations in Scotland. The delegation was given a tour of Parliament in Cape Town by a pleasant, but apartheid-trained, tour guide. After a few interjections by Denis the tour guide generously handed the tour over to him. Denis then proceeded to give the delegates a history of the building from an anti-apartheid perspective including describing the absurd tri-cameral parliament, which had given seats to Indian and Coloured members in separate chambers but not blacks, whilst retaining majority control for the Whites.

During the visit many meetings were held with the new leaders of the country including Cyril Ramaphosa. The meeting was running over time and we were due to visit the Cape Town Rape Crisis Centre. The women delegates left the meeting to avoid being late and then had a heated discussion as to whether men should be included in the visit. It was agreed that Denis, who had organised the visit to the Centre, and I, as leader of the delegation, should accompany the women. On arrival at the Centre, Denis was rapturously welcomed by the South African women who saw Denis as a great supporter of their work. In the discussions that followed they made the argument that men needed to be included in their campaign if the horrendous problem of rape was to be overcome in their society. Denis’s connection to, and support for, the Cape Town Rape Crisis Centre continued long after that visit including successfully bidding for large-scale funding from Comic Relief. 

Other highlights of the trip included meetings with Denis’s fellow Rivonia trialists. Govan Mbeki, then Deputy President of the Senate, hosted us in the members’ tearoom in Parliament in Cape Town. He recalled his visit to Scotland in 1990 to speak at our Sechaba International Conference and the fact that he was named after the first Principal of Lovedale Institution, William Govan, of Glasgow. He also talked about the huge issues facing the new South African Government and the struggle against apartheid which had led to his and Denis’s imprisonment.

Raymond Mhlaba, the new Premier of the Eastern Cape, met us in the government offices in Bisho in the Transkei. Raymond spoke about his and Denis’s arrest at Lilliesleaf farm thirty years before and the difficulties he and his Provincial Government were facing in bringing together part of the old Cape province with the apartheid Bantustans of the Transkei and Ciskei in one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. The meetings with Govan and Raymond underscored the fact that apartheid and colonialism had been a crime against humanity. The principles, courage, ability and optimism of these men, who had spent decades in prison, shone through as did their commitment to a non-racial South Africa.


As he was remaining in Britain to be with his family, Denis had decided to establish a charity, Community H.E.A.R.T. (Health, Education and Reconstruction Training) to assist with the reconstruction and development of his country. It was launched in the South African High Commission in London on 27 April 1995, the first anniversary of the first democratic election in South Africa, with Denis as Director and myself as chair of the Board. Denis worked extremely hard to make Community H.E.A.R.T. successful. He launched the “Book and Ten Pence Appeal” which involved the collection, sorting and packing of books, which were then sent by container to South Africa. This took him all over Britain, speaking to all kinds of audiences, from former members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement to a speaking tour round Edinburgh’s independent private schools. Three million books were eventually sent from the UK to South Africa. Not only did he travel extensively throughout Britain and Ireland but he combined it with the establishment of Community H.E.A.R.T. in Germany and regular speaking tours there.

I was requested by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) to approach Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison, to ask if he would accept an Honorary Doctorate from the university. He accepted on the understanding that the university agreed to assist with the reconstruction and development of the new South Africa. Denis, on behalf of ANC, visited the university to discuss how it could assist, and following those discussions, Professor David Walsh, Dean of the Faculty of Health, and myself visited South Africa just before the election of 1994. Denis introduced us to the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA) and there began a productive connection between the two universities. Community HEART through its fundraising provided a mobile clinic for the university. We also visited the University of the Transkei (UNITRA) in the Eastern Cape which led to that university adopting a problem-based nurse training curriculum assisted by GCU. Several senior university staff were seconded to UNITRA and MEDUNSA to assist with the development of the new programme and some of the South African staff undertook placements at Glasgow Caledonian University. This very positive and mutually beneficial partnership was facilitated and nurtured by Denis over the years.

At the end of one of our many visits to South Africa when we were returning to the UK Denis could not find his passport. We went to a police station in Johannesburg to report the loss and while we were waiting in the queue Denis remarked to me that there might be a difficulty as his South African Identity Card listed his last known address as “Pretoria Central Prison”. On hearing Denis’s explanation of the lost passport the desk officer took the Identity Card and disappeared into the back office. Some fifteen minutes later we were surrounded by a crowd of police men and women, who began toyi-toying! (4) After this celebration of one of their heroes we were informed that the missing passport would not be a problem and they would arrange the necessary travel documents.  

Not long before Denis died I was talking to him on the phone about GCU’s continuing work in South Africa. He was gratified to know that the university’s connection with South Africa was continuing with, for example, Vision Science students undertaking placements on the Phelopepha Heath train which traverses rural South Africa bringing much needed health care. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The students see more well-developed cataracts in their two weeks on the health train than they are likely to see during the whole of their course in Glasgow and their own eyes are opened to a wider world. The South African patients receive much-needed attention and treatment which otherwise would be unavailable in rural South Africa.    

Community H.E.A.R.T. held a number of very successful book launches in South Africa House with South African authors including Denis’s fellow Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada (Letters from Robben Island) and Luli Callinicos (The World that made Mandela). Denis’s autobiography, The Mission: a life for freedom in South Africa, was launched at large events in Glasgow, Manchester and London. (5)

Denis’s love of, and interest in, children was another of his characteristics. Becoming President of the Woodcraft Folk, a progressive children’s organisation in Britain, in which Esme and their children had been active members, was just one expression of this.

When Denis’s wife, Esme, died in 2000 Denis asked me to conduct a rationalist commemoration of her life at the funeral in London. It was quite an event as it brought together Denis and Esme’s family, many of Esme’s friends of all age groups from many different parts of the world, British and South African comrades and friends. It was not long afterwards that their daughter, Hilly, died. It was a hard time emotionally and Denis was exhausted by the work with Community H.E.A.R.T. It was time for a new start. Denis retired as Director of Community H.E.A.R.T. and was elevated to the position of Honorary President.


Denis returned to South Africa in 2002 with his new wife, Edelgard, as he had been appointed Special Adviser to the Minister of Water and Forestry Affairs, Ronnie Kasrils. (6) He enjoyed this role as it took him all over the country and allowed him to meet, hear the concerns and take action to provide clean water and sanitation for thousands of people deprived by the apartheid system. Denis and Edelgard eventually settled in Hout Bay near Cape Town. Denis hosted braais for visiting delegations from Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) UK, often in the evening of their first day after visiting Robben Island. There could have been no better introduction to South Africa, its history and the challenges it faced, than an “audience” with Denis. Denis retired from his work in the department of Water and Forestry Affairs in 2006 and devoted his energies to work in the Hout Bay community including becoming a Patron of the Kronendal Music Academy. He also continued to deliver lectures and to comment on current affairs in South Africa as well as visiting Britain on many occasions.    

On 4 August 2011 Denis and the Lord Provost unveiled a plaque in Glasgow City Chambers to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela receiving the Freedom of the City, the first city in the world to bestow the honour, while he was still incarcerated on Robben Island in 1981. To coincide with this event the Lord Provost and the City Council sponsored the publication of The Glasgow Mandela Story. In the Foreword Denis wrote “Glasgow was my launching pad into the warm atmosphere of Scottish hospitality, comradeship and the forming of friendships that have endured to this day.” (7)

Following Denis’s return to South Africa I visited Denis in Hout Bay on many occasions. Staying with Denis in his house surrounded by his art collection was like living in a wonderful art gallery. Denis was justly proud of his art collection which he bequeathed to his House of Hope. (8) This is a project which aims to bring together the different communities of Hout Bay, still separated geographically, as one of the legacies of apartheid. The House of Hope will provide space for community activities including music, arts and culture.

During the Zuma Presidency, Denis and many others became deeply concerned with the problems of opportunism, corruption and self-enrichment bedeviling the African National Congress. In 2016 a press release, signed by 101 ANC veterans, was issued. The first three signatories on the list were the three surviving Rivonia trialists, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg.

The press release read in part, “The trust between the ANC and communities‚ built over up over so many years‚ is now severely under threat. Communities that have looked to the ANC for leadership and who we should serve‚ increasingly see self-enrichment‚ corruption‚ nepotism and the abuse of power - the moral high ground that the ANC enjoyed is being lost.

As stalwarts and long serving members of the ANC we have a profound responsibility to the movement and the country to ensure that the principles and values of the ANC are not destroyed. We believe that the overwhelming majority of our citizens embrace the values of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution of our country and share this view.”

Jacob Zuma was replaced as ANC President by Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2017 and was recalled by the ANC as President of the country in February 2018. Cyril Ramaphosa was then elected President of South Africa.


While on a speaking tour in Germany in 2018 Denis became ill and returned to South Africa where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He bore his terminal illness bravely and continued with his activities. During his illness, although unable to travel, Denis continued his connection with Britain and became one of the Patrons of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation whose aims are to create a statue of Mandela in Glasgow and to conduct educational activities about apartheid, Mandela, his life and struggle and his connection with Glasgow, Scotland and the UK. (9)

On one of his last visits to the UK, the City of Glasgow College presented Denis with their inaugural Global Scholar award. Denis was accompanied by his son, David, his grandchildren and myself. In his acceptance speech Denis talked about the meaning of ‘humanity’.

 “I have looked at people in class conflict between owners and workers and the middle people, very well paid, who do the work of maintaining disunity and inequality among people in those conflicts and wondered about what it is to be human…To be scholars, to try to understand our world in isolated academic ivory towers is to deny our innate human equality. Knowledge is for me and many millions of people, a guide to action…Understanding the world is not enough. As human beings in society, we are called upon by our humanity to change the world, to make it a place of greater equality…What I have learned through good times and bad, is that to be human, in the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘We must so live our lives that we respect and advance the freedom of others.’”

Denis Goldberg certainly lived his life in that way.

Brian Filling is Honorary Consul for South Africa in Scotland and Chair of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation. He was Chair of the Scottish Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1976-1994. 


(1) Denis presented a paper “South Africa, the transition to democracy and the banning of torture” on 25 June 2009 at the Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf, Germany. The paper was published in The Socialist Correspondent, p.24, Issue 6, Autumn 2009.

(2) Uri Geller is an illusionist and self-proclaimed psychic, famous for his spoon-bending.

(3) For Denis and Andimba’s activities in the Modern Youth Society see, Denis Goldberg: Hero of the struggle for South African Liberation, Part I: Background, Rivonia Trial, Prison, The Socialist Correspondent, Issue 38.

(4) Toyi-toyi is a South African dance associated with protest and struggle.

(5) A review by Tony Dykes of The Mission: a life for freedom in South Africa, pub. STE, South Africa, 2010, can be found in The Socialist Correspondent, issue 9, Summer 2010.

(6) Edelgard Nkobi was the widow of Zenzo Nkobi, the eldest son of Thomas Nkobi, Treasurer General of ANC. Zenzo was the photographer of the Zimbabwean liberation movement (ZAPU). Edelgard and Denis worked on cataloguing his archive when they were together in Hout Bay, Cape Town. Edelgard was German and was instrumental in the creation of Community Heart in Germany.

(7) Filling, Brian, The Glasgow Mandela Story, Preface, p.5, pub. ACTSA Scotland and Glasgow City Council, 2011; 3rd edition, pub. ACTSA Scotland and South African Seasons, e-book, Kindle, 2016.

(8) Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation House of Hope: and

(9) Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation,

Denis Goldberg

Honours and Awards

1988    Albert Luthuli African Peace Award presented by a group of 12 US organisations.

1997    Glasgow Caledonian University Honorary Degree.

2000    MEDUNSA (now Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University) Honorary Degree.

2009    South African National Order of Luthuli “for his commitment to the struggle against apartheid and service to the people of South Africa.”

2010    German Cross of the Order of Merit presented by the Federal Republic of Germany.

2012    South African Military Veterans Medal.

Mahatma Gandi Satyagraha Peace Award.

City of Glasgow College Global Scholar Award.

2016    Freedom of the City of London (with the other surviving Rivonia Trialists and their defence team).

2018    Heriot Watt University (Edinburgh) Honorary Degree.

2019    Isitwalande Seaparankoe (the highest honour of the African National Congress).

University of Cape Town Honorary Degree.

Denis Goldberg with Brian Filling at Glasgow Transport Museum 2013. The locomotive in the background was built in Glasgow and spent its working life in South Africa. the display describes apartheid and explains that black people were prohibited from driving trains and many other jobs on the railway.

Denis Goldberg with the banner 'Nelson Mandela - Freeman of Glasgow' created in 1981 by the artist Jim Cathcart on the occaision of Mandela being awarded the Freedom of the city while he was still in prison. Glasgow was the first city to do this.