Denis Goldberg - Hero of the struggle for South African liberation

by Brian Filling

Denis Goldberg - Born 11 April 1933 - Died 29 April 2020

Part 1: Background, Rivonia Trial, Prison. 

Denis Goldberg was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Apartheid state along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and five others in the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial. Separated from the others because he was white, he served 22 years in Pretoria Central Prison before being released in 1985.

After his release Denis went into exile in Britain where he became a very effective spokesperson for the African National Congress (ANC). Following his release in 1985, I organised his first speaking tour of Scotland and I remember the media insisting that he stood outside the venue behind the iron bars on the windows, looking in for the photographs. Denis obliged and in his characteristically jocular style commented, “it is better looking in than out!”

Remaining in Britain to be with his family after the end of apartheid in 1994 Denis founded the charity, Community H.E.A.R.T. (Community Health, Education and Reconstruction Training) in 1995 to assist with the building of the new South Africa with himself as Director and myself as Chair of the organisation.

Returning to South Africa in 2002 Denis became Special Adviser to the Minister of Water and Forestry Affairs, Ronnie Kasrils. His last years were spent defending the ANC’s non-racial stance, criticising corruption and the Zuma Presidency, promoting his House of Hope and supporting Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid.


Denis was the son of Sam and Annie Goldberg, both born in London, the children of Lithuanian Jews. Annie was a member of the Socialist Sunday School during her childhood in Hackney and she and Sam were both members of the Communist Party. They emigrated to South Africa in the late 1920’s. Growing up in South Africa with Communist parents Denis recounts his first day at school and their advice: “They told me that I should not get upset if other children or teachers called me ‘Kaffirboetie’ (‘Nigger lover’ is the easiest awful translation), Commie or Jewboy. Of course, I knew we were different because none of the people who lived around us had black and coloured friends who visited them and had dinner in their homes. Nor did other kids sit on the front of their Dad’s truck leading the May Day parade with flags flying while the band on the back played songs for the people of all colours marching behind.” (1)

Denis went to university to study engineering at sixteen years of age and in his final year met Esme Bodenstein, the daughter of Minnie Bodenstein, a political activist in the Communist Party. Esme took Denis to meetings of the Modern Youth Society, a non-racial organisation bringing students and young workers from all races together. Denis and Esme married in 1953 and they had two children, Hilary, always known as “Hilly”, and David.


The Namibian, Andimba Toivo ja Toivo, was a member of the Modern Youth Society in Cape Town, and he and Denis became friends and comrades. When the South African government denied Chief Hosea Kutako from putting the case of the Namibian people to the United Nations Special Committee on South West Africa (now Namibia), Andimba asked Denis to help him send a tape-recorded message to the UN Special Committee. It was not easy to get a tape recorder in those days but Denis secured one and made a tape-recorded letter to fictitious friends in America, which included some jazz music. Andimba recorded his statement in the middle of the music. His statement included outrage at the South African illegal occupation of Namibia and its imposition of apartheid laws and policies. To avoid it being discovered by the apartheid authorities the tape was secreted in a pocket in the inner pages of the book, Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS), and sent to New York. I am sure RLS would have appreciated that! The book and the tape were waved around at the UN Special Committee hearings by the Namibian, Mburumba Kerina. The incident showed the world that the apartheid regime was determined to hide its administration of Namibia as a colony. The picture of Mhurumba Kerina waving the book and tape appeared in the South African press. 

Andimba was declared an illegal immigrant, given 72 hours to leave Cape Town and removed to Namibia where he was placed under severe restrictions.  Andimba became a founder of the Ovambo People’s Organisation, which soon after became the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) and he assisted in the launch of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). In 1968 he was jailed for his activities. Denis was already in prison by that time. (2)


From the Modern Youth Society Denis joined the Congress of Democrats, allied to the African National Congress. He was very active in organising for the Congress of the People held in 1955 at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted by the 3000 delegates attending. He was invited to join the underground South African Communist Party in 1957. The newly re-organised Party was functioning again after the Communist Party of South Africa had been banned under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950.

On 21 March 1960, 69 peaceful protesters against the Pass Laws were shot down in the Sharpeville Massacre. This led to the ANC calling for a stay-at-home on 28 March. There was a massive response and the apartheid government declared a State of Emergency on 30 March. The ANC and the Pan African Congress (PAC) were banned. Denis was arrested and held in detention for four months. Denis’s mother, Annie, was also arrested and held in the women’s section of the same prison.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of organisations, it had come to the end of the road for peaceful protest. Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation, abbreviated to MK) was launched on 16 December 1961 to mount an armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Denis was one of the first to join MK. One of the earliest training camps was held at Mamre in the Western Cape with Denis as Camp Commander and Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle as Field Commander. Here they taught politics as well as practical things like the fundamentals of electric circuits so that explosives could be set off at a distance. Looksmart led units which sabotaged telephone and telegraph lines. The events were not spectacular but did lead to communications blackouts over widespread areas. This drew in many police officers from neighbouring towns to patrol a large area around Cape Town. They were beginning to achieve one of the aims of guerrilla forces and stretch the state’s security services.  

A group trained at Mamre tried to leave the country secretly for further training outside South Africa but were caught 2,000 miles away at the Bechuanaland (now Botswana) border. Under interrogation one of the group divulged Looksmart’s address. Unfortunately, Looksmart had taken ill and had been unable to move to a safe house as planned and so was arrested. He died in police custody. When Denis learned of Looksmart’s murder he took it very badly. In his autobiography Denis wrote that Looksmart, “played such an important role in my life and without whom any account of my part in the South African struggle would be meaningless.” (3) and (4)

Following the establishment of MK there were over 100 acts of sabotage and the apartheid government introduced new laws including the 90-day law and the Sabotage Act. The 90-day law enabled the security police to detain people for 90 days without bringing them before a court of law. Denis went underground and moved secretly to Johannesburg where he worked for MK as Technical Officer. He helped set up the radio transmitter which allowed Walter Sisulu in hiding to address the people on 26 June 1963 to show that despite the draconian laws and the banning of the ANC there was still an active resistance inside the country.


On 11 July 1963 the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe and some advisers were arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia. Their trial became known as the Rivonia Trial. The whites arrested were separated from the blacks. Nelson Mandela was already in prison having been convicted for calling the nationwide strike and unlawfully leaving the country. (5) Others arrested on the same day included Arthur Goldreich, when he returned from work to Lilliesleaf, and Harold Wolpe. Arthur and his family lived in the main house at Lilliesleaf and provided a ‘respectable’ front for the clandestine activity although Arthur secretly was the Logistics officer of MK. Arthur and Harold were held in Marshall Town police station but with the assistance of two Indians, Abdulhay “Charlie” Jassat and Mosie Moolah, who bribed a warder, they were all able to escape. (6) During the 90 days of detention in which the three whites, Denis, Rusty Bernstein and Bob Hepple were held in solitary confinement, Denis managed to escape. Using his engineering skills, he managed to open his cell, pulled himself onto the roof and jumped six metres to the ground. Unfortunately, he was spotted by a criminal prisoner who reported the escape to a warder and soon after he was caught. After a week of interrogation, he was returned to Pretoria Local prison and put in the cell next to Rusty Bernstein.

“The next morning he (Denis) is brought into the yard, dishevelled, unshaven and in chains. His ankles are shackled and connected by a heavy chain to a chain belt around his waist. He must either drag the spare length of chain along the ground behind him, or lift it up between his legs and carry it in his hands as he shuffles along splay-legged…it seems to me to be the ultimate expression of apartheid: a human being treated like a mad dog.” (7) Being shackled was the standard response to escapes from apartheid prison. He was kept in the leg irons for a month. However, as Rusty pointed out in his Memoir, Denis found a way of easing the pain. “Chains are left on day and night. Denis found nights intolerable and devised a way of picking the locks underneath his blankets and relocking them before dawn next morning.”  (8)

The 90 days detention came to an end with the beginning of the Rivonia Trial. Nelson Mandela was Accused No.1, Walter Sisulu Accused No.2 and Denis was Accused No.3. Bob Hepple, one of the ten accused, negotiated with the police to become a witness for the prosecution. He was released in order to give evidence as a state witness and then fled the country. The Defence opened with Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock which ended with the famous peroration:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (9)

It had been agreed that Nelson would make his speech from the dock to avoid interruption. This meant that he could not appear in the witness stand. Walter Sisulu took to the witness stand and was examined by the prosecution for four days. He turned in a brilliant performance, quietly and calmly explaining the history, aims and objectives of the African National Congress. Walter Sisulu was regarded by many as a ‘walking history of the ANC’.

Denis also took to the witness stand. As George Bizos, one of the defence lawyers, wrote in his memoir, Odyssey to Freedom,  “…matters did not look good for Denis from the moment the judge referred to him as ‘Sisulu’s clever friend’…Clearly the derisive expressions pulled by Denis when a prosecution witness contradicted himself, as well as his persistent though muted remarks to his co-accused had not escaped the judge. During our consultations with Denis, his answers were quick, flippant and humorous…Such behaviour would not go down well in court.”

The defence lawyers had concerns about putting him on the witness stand. Anyone who spent any time with Denis would know his irrepressible humour and would empathise with the defence lawyers’ concerns. However, as Bizos reported, “To our relief Denis was a satisfactory witness. He successfully avoided any witticisms and controlled his expressions” when under examination by the prosecution. (10)

Eight of the Rivonia trialists were sentenced to life imprisonment on 11 July 1964. (11) When the Judge’s verdict was given Denis’s mother didn’t hear the sentence, because of the courtroom clamour, so she asked Denis. He replied, “Life! Life is wonderful!” (12)


Due to the racist laws of apartheid Denis was separated from the others and served his time in Pretoria Central Prison. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoeledi and Andrew Mlangeni were sent to Robben Island. Esme and the children, Hilly and David, went into exile in Britain.

During his time in prison Denis like all prisoners suffered a lot but he also learned. He learned how to deal with warders, the prison system and his fellow political prisoners. He also studied, gaining two university degrees and was half way through a law degree when he was released. He led the long and eventually successful prisoners’ campaign to be allowed newspapers and magazines which after rejection at every level was eventually successful at the Supreme Court. The political prisoners were allowed newspapers in 1980, sixteen years after Denis was imprisoned.

Whilst in prison Denis’s mother died and he was refused permission to attend the funeral. When his father died Denis did not ask permission to attend the funeral as he did not want to give the authorities the pleasure of refusing him.

Bram Fischer, a member of a prominent Afrikaner family and a Communist (13), led the defence brilliantly in the Rivonia Trial. Shortly thereafter he went underground and when he was caught and sentenced, he joined Denis and the other white political prisoners in Pretoria Central prison. Bram became ill and was very badly treated by the prison authorities. Denis kept a diary of how Bram was ill-treated and he looked after and nursed him in the face of this cruel and inhumane treatment. (14) Denis was eventually allowed to stay in Bram’s cell during the night. Bram became so weak and was so emaciated that Denis could carry him to the chamber pot. For the final few weeks of his life Bram, with terminal cancer, was taken to his brother’s house, which was declared a prison by Act of the apartheid parliament. So, Bram died in prison.

Denis assisted in the escape of Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris by helping to make the keys to open cell doors, diverting the night warder and arranging the escape vehicle through his secret outside contacts. (15)

Denis was released in 1985 after 22 years in prison. His release caused controversy in some ANC circles as he had signed a document renouncing violence. However, when he re-joined the struggle to work for ANC in exile, he was given great support by O R Tambo and the whiff of criticism disappeared. Denis’s release was brought about by an Israeli, Herut Lapid, who worked for the release of Jewish prisoners around the world, and by Denis’s daughter, who was living in a kibbutz in Israel. Denis was deported to Israel and on arrival he stayed with Arthur Goldreich. In an article published in The Socialist Correspondent Denis reported that on arrival at Arthur’s home near Tel Aviv, Arthur  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.” Denis responded with a question: “Is it safe this time?” (16)

Denis, who was critical of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, left as soon as he could to join his family in Britain and to work for the African National Congress.

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 eof the  Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1976-1994.

Part 2 of this obituary, dealing with Denis’s life and continued struggle after his release from prison will be published in the next edition of The Socialist Correspondent.

(1) Goldberg, Denis, The Mission: a life for freedom in South Africa, p.40, pub. STE, 2010.

(2) Andimba Toivo ja Toivo was sentenced to 20 years, which he spent on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. He was released after 16 years and following Namibia’s successful armed struggle and the gaining of independence he became a Minister in the first independent government of Namibia in 1989.

(3) Goldberg, Denis, The Mission: a life for freedom in South Africa, p.16, pub STE, 2010.

(4) In 2007, following the end of apartheid, Looksmart’s remains were traced by a special unit in the National Prosecutions Authority and after DNA tests they were handed over to his family and Denis was invited by the family to speak at the memorial.

(5) The CIA tipped off the Apartheid regime about Mandela’s whereabouts leading to his arrest on 5 August 1962.

(6) Arthur Goldreich escaped from South Africa and went to live in Israel where he became a leader in the Israeli Anti-Apartheid Movement. Harold Wolpe went into exile in Britain. He returned to South Africa in 1990 and worked at the University of the Western Cape as well as working for the ANC.

(7) Bernstein, Rusty, Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a time in South African politics 1938-1964, p.251, 2nd edition, pub. Wits University Press, 2017.

(8) Ibid, Note 64, p.350.

(9) Mandela, Nelson, Statement from the dock at Rivonia Trial, 20 April 1964.

(10) Bizos, George, Odyssey to Freedom, p.265-266, pub. Random House, 2007.

(11) Rusty Bernstein was acquitted as the prosecutor had become so engrossed in his political confrontation with Rusty that he forgot to put issues of fact to Rusty. Rusty’s declaration that he had not done the things alleged in the indictment had therefore to stand. He was immediately re-arrested in the courtroom for being a member of a banned organisation, the Communist Party. However, he managed to secure bail and then fled the country for exile in Britain.

(12) Goldberg, Denis, The Mission: a life for freedom in South Africa, p. 371, pub. STE, 2010. “Life is Wonderful - Mandela’s unsung heroes.”, film directed by Sir Nick Stadlen.

(13) Bram Fischer’s father was Judge President of the Orange Free State and his grandfather was Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony and later a cabinet member in the Union of South Africa.

(14) Goldberg, Denis, p.174-176.

(15) Goldberg, Denis, p.192-209 Jenkin, Tim, Escape from Pretoria, pub. Mayibuye Books, 1987.

(16) Goldberg, Denis, Arthur Goldreich and the ANC’s secret HQ, p.23, Issue 13, Autumn 2011, The Socialist Correspondent.

Denis Goldberg

Sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia trail; Top row left to right: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Bottom row left to right: Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg w left to right

The Defence opened with Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock which ended with the famous peroration: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”