Tributes have poured in from across the world for Denis Goldberg, the veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigner who died on Wednesday aged 87. Goldberg was a close ally of the late Nelson Mandela, and one of the most prominent white anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. He spent 22 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the country’s brutal racist state. In the process, he became a vocal critic of Israel.
A statement from Goldberg’s family and the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust confirmed his death: “Denis Goldberg passed away just before midnight on Wednesday. His was a life well lived in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. We will miss him.”
Denis Goldberg was born into a Lithuanian Jewish family in 1933 in Cape Town. He studied civil engineering before joining the banned Communist party in 1957 and taking part in a campaign of non-violent resistance to the apartheid regime. His first run-in with the law came in 1960, during protests following the Sharpeville massacre, one of the worst episodes in South Africa’s history when 69 unarmed protestors were shot dead by South African police. Following his release from custody, he was spurred on by the brutality of the white South African police force to join the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), uMkhonto we Sizwe, co-founded by Mandela after Sharpeville.
In 1963 Goldberg was arrested a second time following a raid on his group’s hideout and charged with planning a “violent revolution” against the government. He was given a life sentence at the 1963-64 Rivonia Trial alongside Mandela and other defendants, including the late Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sisulu. He was jailed in Pretoria Central Prison, separated from his non-white comrades who were sent to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.
Following his release in 1985, Goldberg moved to London where he raised support for the struggle against white domination, returning to South Africa in 2002 after the fall of the apartheid regime. He became a powerful voice against racism and often shared his experience with journalists and activists alike.
“I understood that what was happening in South Africa with its racism was like the racism of Nazi Germany in Europe that we were supposed to be fighting against,” he told the University of Cape Town in 2019. “You have to be involved one way or another.” He explained that he came from a generation of activists who were prepared to put their lives on the line for freedom. “Freedom is more important than your own life. Nelson epitomised it. I in my own way did the same. I was happy to serve.”
Like so many of his colleagues in the anti-apartheid movement, Goldberg became a vocal critic of Israel and a stalwart supporter of the Palestinian cause. “There is no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state,” he said four years ago at an event discussing lessons to be learnt in the Palestine-Israel conflict from those who struggled against apartheid in South Africa.
Goldberg went on to say that having lived through the latter, he could not, as a Jew, allow the same kind of oppression to go on in his name in Israel. He recalled that some people question his description of Israel as an apartheid state, when it is not like South Africa was during the apartheid era; Israel, for example, has a number of Palestinian members of parliament and the Palestinians have equal rights. His response was clear and simple: “Well I say you don’t need to be like South Africa to be an apartheid state; there is a definition in international law through the UNESCO declaration on apartheid.”
In a video urging people not to go on propaganda trips to Israel, Denis Goldberg said that, “Going on free trips to Israel causes harm to the Palestinian people just as people who visited South Africa and broke the cultural and academic boycott against white South Africa, did harm to our movement.”
He also described the “enormous” lies propagated to defend Israel. “I’ve lived through South African apartheid and I saw it there as well.”
Goldberg added that not a single settlement is built by Israel that is not erected on the ruins of Palestinians homes, their livelihood and the livelihood of their children for generations to come. “This is outrageous, I cannot possibly support them.”
Denis Goldberg, born Cape Town, Union of South Africa, 11 April 1933. Died in Cape Town, Republic of South Africa, 29 April 2020.
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