Denis Goldberg, anti-apartheid campaigner

Born: April 11, 1933;

Died: April 29, 2020.

DENIS Goldberg, who has died aged 87, was a South African anti-apartheid campaigner who stood trial alongside Nelson Mandela in 1964 and spent 22 years in prison.

He was one of the country’s most prominent white activists but the racism of the regime extended to prison: his fellow accused were sent to the notorious Robben Island, but as a white man Goldberg was separated and imprisoned in Pretoria instead.

Born in Cape Town in 1933, he had been a member of the Communist party as a young man and joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1961 to oppose the apartheid regime. Much of his political philosophy came from his Lithuanian Jewish parents – his father Sam, who was a lorry driver, and his mother Annie, a seamstress.

He originally intended to be an engineer, and graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Cape Town. However, by the late 1950s he was heavily involved in radical politics and after he and his mother were detained without trial for several months, he struggled to find any work.

When the armed wing was launched Goldberg became involved in its activities, but by 1963 the police were watching him closely and he decided to flee the country. It was while waiting for passage out of South Africa at a hide-out in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb, that the police arrested him.

The subsequent court case became known as the Rivonia Trial. Standing trial with several others, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Goldberg was convicted on sabotage charges and sentenced to life imprisonment after the judge declined to impose the death sentence. He was the only white man to be convicted and, at 31, the youngest of the defendants.

Being white, he was not sent to Robben Island along with black political prisoners like Mandela, in keeping with the apartheid regime’s philosophy that the country’s different races should not mix. Instead, he was jailed in the capital, Pretoria, where he spent most of the time in solitary confinement.

While he was awaiting trial, his wife Esmé Bodenstein was also arrested, and spent 38 days being interrogated. Following her release she left for the UK with their children, Hilary and David.

Esme was only allowed to see her husband twice during the whole of his 22-year sentence, although his children were allowed to see him more regularly. He was eventually released in 1985, five years ahead of Mandela, after agreeing with the government not to take part in political violence. The British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind had also appealed for Goldberg’s release.

After his release, Goldberg and his family moved to London, where he worked with the Woodcraft Folk, an organisation for children and young people. He also set up a charity, Community Heart, which raised funds for projects in southern Africa and continued his campaign against apartheid, which eventually ended with Mandela’s victory in the country’s first free elections in 1994.

Jess Cawley, a former Woodcraft Folk chair of council, said Goldberg was notable for “the sheer humility of a man who shunned fame but was one of the best orators I’ve ever heard when on the world stage. Always with a word of encouragement and the discipline of a true comrade ready to make a huge sacrifice for the cause of his beloved country. It was an honour to know him.”

Goldberg returned to South Africa in 2002 and settled back in Cape Town where he became a special advisor to the department of water affairs. He was also involved in the establishment of the arts centre, House of Hope, in Cape Town.

In more recent years, he had criticised failures by the now-ruling ANC to lift enough South Africans out of poverty. He was especially critical of former President Jacob Zuma, who faces several inquiries over corruption allegations during and before his time in office. However, Goldberg said he could never bring himself to vote for any party other than the ANC.

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa was among those who paid tribute to Goldberg: “His commitment to ethical leadership was unflinching and even during his advanced age he formed part of the movement of veterans of the struggle calling for reassertion of moral centre of society. We will hold him in our thoughts and prayers as we say farewell at a time when we are not allowed to gather in numbers to say our goodbyes.

“He dedicated his life to achieving the better life we enjoy today and his revolutionary contribution reinforced the non-racial character of our struggle and of our democratic dispensation.”

Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang described Goldberg as a member of a generation of leadership which shaped the country’s history in profound ways. Radio host and author Eusebius McKaiser declared:“A giant has fallen.”

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “For all his years in apartheid prison, for all his sacrifices, [he] was a man of deep humanity and generosity”.

In 2009 Goldberg was awarded South Africa’s Order of Luthuli (silver). Esme died in 2000 and two years later Goldberg married Edelgard Nkobi, a journalist. He is survived by David and four grandchildren.