Denis Goldberg


In his twenty-two years in prison, Denis Goldberg had a lot of time to reflect on what South Africa could be.

Long gone are the days of making bombs for violent civil uprisings and plotting to overthrow the apartheid state. But decades after his arrest, trial, and more than two decades later, his release, Goldberg hasn’t stopped striving for a fairer, more cohesive South Africa for all—because despite a change in the political landscape, there’s still so much to fight back against.

“Racism is not dead,” he said. “Racism remains in the minds of people who fear change, who fear giving up absolute or relative privilege.”

He lives in Hout Bay, a town about two dozen kilometers south of central Cape Town. From his living room overlooking the sweeping harbor, Goldberg can see the juxtaposition of economically prosperous white neighborhoods with the informal settlements of Hangberg and Imizamo Yethu, communities rife with crime and drug use and without the developed infrastructure and resources available to the wealthiest Capetonians.

Denis Goldberg's home in Hout Bay.

Denis Goldberg's home in Hout Bay.

This isn’t yet the South Africa he and his fellow anti-apartheid activists had envisioned when they risked their lives to build a better future for it.

Originally a leader of the white anti-apartheid Congress of Democrats, which allied with the African National Congress, Goldberg’s known as one of apartheid’s fiercest and most famous opponents. Because he had formal training as a civil engineer, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the ANC, recruited him in the early 1960s as a technical officer to make weapons for an organized uprising. And he felt that he couldn’t refuse.

“The injustice of [apartheid], the imprisonment, the denial of rights and dignity shaped my existence and my need to be a part of it,” he said. “And if you don't speak out against it and act against it, you’re a part of it. And if you’re a part of it, that goes against the grain and the conscience.”

Before the insurgents could make their move, though, they were arrested at Umkhonto we Sizwe’s headquarters in Rivonia, a suburb just north of Johannesburg. For eight months, beginning in October 1963, Goldberg sat on trial as third accused alongside Nelson Mandela, who was number one accused. In what is commonly known as the Rivonia Trial, Goldberg was the only white man convicted and sentenced, being handed down four life sentences before being released from his prison in Pretoria 22 years later.

The octogenarian activist was essential in explaining the country’s history and context—where today’s persisting attitudes and inequalities came from and how the ideal of a truly democratic South Africa has taken shape so far.

He said the racial divisions that characterize the city now stretch back into the country’s early history of colonialism even far before they became legalized under apartheid. A marked system of divide and rule kept people apart—Native Africans, divided into tribes, Indians brought in to grow sugar in the late 19th century, and the multiethnic Cape Coloured populations—always with whites as the dominant group in the societal hierarchy.

Goldberg’s whiteness was always a theme in his own fight against the apartheid state. He was born to white communist Jewish parents, he said, and grew up in a household surrounded by people of all races and social classes. For him, joining in the armed struggle for equality was only natural, but others didn’t always see it that way.

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“There were always some people who would question me, whites, of course, who would think I was a traitor. But some black, coloured, and Indian people would say, ‘Maybe we can trust him; maybe we can’t,’” he said. “But we socialized as well. Our kids played on the beach together. There were some places where we could be together, consciously defying the apartheid social practices and laws because we believed people should be able to meet.”

Goldberg laments the fact that he never learned to speak a native African language, which he thought would have helped him more to build solidarity and intimate connections with his compatriots in the apartheid struggle. He laments that so many of these same barriers—linguistic, social, economic—exist still between groups living so close to one another.

Specifically, the widening rift in wealth distribution is a serious threat to the integrity of the new South Africa, Goldberg explained.

“Even though we said we would combat the gap between rich and poor, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider since 1994, when the ANC became the governing party,” he said. “There are plenty of black South Africans, millions, who have become extremely wealthy in a very short time, as in other countries through their connection to government. And the gap between rich and poor has grown. We speak out against it, those of us who have the courage to do so.”

This economic inequality is just one of the symptoms of a lasting racial legacy, Goldberg said. Social perceptions and biases also trickle throughout communities across South Africa and persist from the apartheid era.

Inside the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Inside the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

“I think everybody who grew up under apartheid and even now is scarred by those relationships. Very deep in our psyches. For the white oppressor, the sense of a smug superiority, that I’m entitled to my privilege… and for the oppressed, still today, [we see] the indignity of what was done to forefathers and mothers and what is still being done to people today.”

He said that profound societal change is a remarkably slow process, especially in a country like his own. The deinstitutionalization of racism has left the country without a clear action plan to combat something so deeply entrenched in culture.

“It’s very difficult to change mindsets that have been imposed for hundreds of years of segregation. And practical life opportunities in a staged system of whites having virtually unfettered rights under the law, limited by law, to coloured people having lesser rights, Indians even less, and Africans virtually no rights,” he said. “Even though the legal system has changed, the mental attitude is going to take generations to overcome.”

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But for all the talk about the dismal state of racial dynamics in the country, the 84-year-old won’t resign himself to believing the future is forever bleak.

There’s a collective, communal spirit, he says, that’s realized in cultural expression. He thinks there’s a beauty in telling and celebrating the stories of everyday South Africans’ lives as they’re being lived, as the art saturating the walls of his house illustrates.

“There’s a riot of color and presentation of people in the new South Africa, where people are treated with respect, even if they are just sellers of tomatoes or whatever. The artists I’ve found are ones who treat them as real people, not with pity or not as patronizing and not for the tourist industry to make them look glamorous or weeping. They’re just real people getting on with their lives.”

Real people who, Goldberg expressed, can do so much with the right opportunity. Even though his political battle with the apartheid state ended decades ago, he’s been a vocal and active social campaigner ever since, always pushing the country and the people in it to embrace their potential.

Goldberg supports a music school that teaches more than 150 students in Hout Bay. And his legacy foundation will inherit his entire art collection when he dies, which, along with a coordinated international fundraising effort, will finance the construction of an art and culture training center in the community.

“If we’re going to build a non-racial cohesive community, we need to make music together, we need to paint together, need to speak each other’s languages, need to have international musicians coming to our performing arts center, which we will build as well when we have the money,” he said.

He believes he has reason to keep his dream alive. Goldberg expressed that a changing tide, however slow, shows that the promise of a new South Africa isn’t so far out of reach.

“More and more people hold their heads up [and say], ‘I am not inferior. I am capable, and I see it on television every day. The experts on economics, on art, on culture, on music, on cooking—they’re not just white anymore on our television.’ Kids from all sorts of schools singing and dancing, and you can imagine the mother saying, ‘That’s my child. That’s my child,’ like parents do everywhere. But it’s representative of our country, which I think is remarkable.”