Denis Goldberg: The Rivonia trialists' engineering mastermind

16 Jan 2019 - 14:30
From L-R: Ahmed Kathrada; Andrew Mlangeni; Nelson Mandela and Denis Goldberg.
From L-R: Ahmed Kathrada; Andrew Mlangeni; Nelson Mandela and Denis Goldberg, the youngest of the group. Photo: supplied.

Not only was Denis Goldberg the youngest member of the group that stood trial at Rivonia, but he was also the one with the greatest practical knowledge of engineering, in as far as its practical applications to the anti-apartheid movement were concerned. The Development and Alumni Department's Yusuf Omar was fortunate to sit down with Goldberg, discussing his role in the struggle, his memories of UCT’s engineering faculty and his plans to leave a legacy.

Born in 1933 in Cape Town to parents of strong left-wing ideology, Goldberg became a member of the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) and was recruited to the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961. In 1963, Goldberg was arrested at Rivonia alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada, by apartheid police, and was handed four life sentences in 1964.

Goldberg would eventually serve 22 years in prison and was the only Rivonia triallist to be incarcerated in Pretoria, in a whites-only jail. This saw him miss out not only on his children’s formative years, but he was denied any sense of solidarity with his comrades in the struggle, which he says added a layer of isolation to an already testing time.

Now, Goldberg has launched the House of Hope project in Hout Bay, where he resides. House of Hope is envisioned as a mecca for arts, culture and education for children from the area and its surrounds, and the Western Cape Provincial Government has agreed to provide land at the existing Hout Bay Museum.

YO: Why did you start the House of Hope Project and what do you hope to achieve with it?

DG: The House of Hope emerges as a name out of an idea of what to do with an extensive art collection, which you can see all around this house. I would say there are 200 significant pieces and there are a lot of works which modern curators would not distinguish between art and handicraft.

My original idea was when I shuffle off to buffalo, as they say, the stuff would be auctioned and support various NGOs in Hout Bay for young people. We live in a very divided South Africa. Hout Bay is a microcosm of South Africa.

Our Constitution enjoins us to build a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa and overcome the discrimination and injustices of the past. Various people said you can’t pack up the collection, as it represents a vision of South Africa and its people as it should be.

Our young people need to sing together, dance together, make poetry together. In other words, art and culture can play a leading role. But there’s no guarantee. In Hout Bay, my concept is an arts and culture centre where people speak each other’s languages, where they can do things together. That requires an institution, so an arts and culture education centre [makes perfect sense].

My two granddaughters, my son’s girls, are all capable people, highly regarded in their employment in the film industry. At one point they all worked for Warner Brothers. My grandson is a teacher and he has suddenly popped up as a leader. He’s a whiz on computers and websites and so on. He feels his school website is not good enough, so he simply made a new one. You do it because it’s necessary. This young man who studied sports medicine is a physical education teacher and is on an expert training group for improving the pedagogy of the school because he has an interest.

He doesn’t get paid for it. But it’s necessary. He’s also organising a rugby tour in South to play in the townships. I’m proud of the inheritance of leadership skills and social commitment that gets passed down somehow or other. Very nice.

YO: They did have a shining example…

DG: No. Very often children reject their parents’ activism because they feel embarrassed. “Why my Daddy?” In fact, my late daughter, said in a television interview after I was released that I had time for everybody’s children except her. She said: “Make no mistake, my father’s my hero, but you don’t have to love your heroes. I hate him. He wasn’t there for us when we needed him.”

It took four years of therapy for her for us to be able to argue like fathers and daughters do and then be able to talk to each other. It’s very painful. But we all struggled. All our children. You have famous daddies who stand out and it’s hard to live up to. I’m very fortunate, I have to say. Very fortunate. And that’s because of, I think, my mother, who grew my children, who grew their children, and that’s passed onto the great-grandchildren. That’s wonderful.

Denis Goldberg with the late Nelson Mandela. Photo: supplied.

YO: Can you recall your time as an engineering student at UCT?

DG: It was well into the seventies, well down the road to the end of apartheid before a black student came into civil engineering [at UCT]. We had a girl student – now that was shocking! Her father was very upset; he didn’t want her to do civil engineering as she might have to climb up ladders.

I was aware politically and socially of injustice, and the need to speak out against injustice. At UCT, all of these attitudes were reflected.

Many years later, I was sent on a design course by a company I worked for. We had an American civil engineer, and he said it’s exactly the same in the United States. Much of the work comes from government, so civil engineers tend to toe the line because they want to get the contracts, when in fact they could play an important role in changing the way society works.

But there’s a history to it. Civil engineering grows out of military engineering, because only kings and princes could build fortresses and earthworks and battle-works and so on and pay for it.