tribute denis goldberg

Dear Comrade Commander-in-Chief

I thought I would recall our first meeting after your release.

The ANC flew Esmé and me from London to Stockholm to meet you soon after the start of your world travels. It was, I must admit, disappointing not to have been able to meet you immediately when you went to our ANC headquarters in Lusaka, but life's like that.

During your release I'd been in the ITN television studio in London commenting on the live television coverage and the background to the Rivonia trial. When you stopped the car bringing you out of the prison just inside the prison gates and walked out into freedom hand in hand with Winnie, I recalled on television the remarks of the head of the Prison Security Service on the day we were sentenced to life imprisonment. We were all returned to the Pretoria Prison where we had been held throughout the trial. He angrily stated, "You should all have been sentenced to death." He vengefully added, "You will never walk out of here on your own feet. You will go out of here feet first in a coffin!" I had been released to walk outside five years earlier, in 1985.

I also remarked on how much I longed to see you and return to South Africa. After all, we had not seen each other since the day we were sentenced to life imprisonment together in the Rivonia trial, on June 12 1964.

We comrades parted that day with our usual low key, "Goodnight. See you in the morning." The prison authorities had assured us and our lawyers that we would all meet together the next day to discuss an appeal against our life sentences. But, next morning, there was no sign of our lawyers. On the prison grapevine I heard that you and our comrades had been flown to Robben Island. White politicals were kept separately in Pretoria, 1 000 miles from the Island. Eventually, a special prison was built for us. It had 52 cells. I do not know if the authorities were optimists or pessimists, but there were never more than 22 white politicals at any one time in the prison they built for us. Usually there were only six to 10 of us "in residence".

But back to Sweden in 1990: I was with a group of ANC comrades who drove down together from Stockholm to Arlanda International Airport some 30km outside the city. You were flying in that day together with Winnie and an entourage of South African activists who served as your shield and advisers on your travels. You were coming to Sweden on a State visit, as guests of the Swedish government that carried on the policies of the late, great Prime Minister Olaf Palme. That first reception was to take place on the tarmac, with a receiving line and an enclosure for Swedish anti-apartheid supporters. The protocol and security were something to behold. The Swedish government were not only showering you with great honour, they were making damn sure that nothing would go wrong. They, like everyone else, were making sure that no crazy individual or agent of apartheid fanatics would be able to harm you. All the formality and double-checking added to the tension in the air which vied with the excitement and hope of literally millions of people in Sweden and the many hundreds of people on the tarmac. The plane touched down. It rolled to its appointed standing place, the door opened, steps were pushed into place, and the carefully arranged line of dignitaries, anti-apartheid movement officials, ANC members and others lost its precision as we all pushed forward. The line was curved, I am not tall, and I could not see where you were. Then the press photographers and television crews heralded your advance down the line by backing into us and shouldering us aside.

Suddenly, from amidst the melee, there you were in front of me. We shook hands. You held both of my hands and I held yours. Silence. You, my older friend and comrade, stood in front of me. You looked tired and gaunt. Receiving lines are a bit like hell. They press in on one. "Hello, Nel," I said, "We've not met since the day we were sentenced." "That's right. You look good, Boy," he replied, and embraced me. Without too much thought I took off my ANC scarf and placed it round his neck. Winnie followed him. She did not recognise me. Not surprisingly, for we had not really known each other, and I had become fatter and a lot balder in the 26 years since the trial. "I'm Denis Goldberg," I said. "It's wonderful to see you," she replied. She was absolutely radiant in the excited atmosphere of the arrival. Holding my hands and leaning away from me as if to see me better she said, "Oh! I had forgotten that face of yours. How wonderful to see you."

The formal proceedings were over and so we got back into the ANC's minibus for the trip in convoy to the Haga Palace halfway back to Stockholm. What a wild ride it was with the Swedish police security teams and cars belting along the highway to make it difficult for intruders. Our minibus was not built for, and did not look as though it should have been, part of a convoy of sleek black state limousines.

What a crush there was at the formal reception. It was very moving to see Oliver Tambo, recovering from a stroke, glowing with the pleasure of his first meeting with you, Nelson. You had not met for 30 years since OR had left South Africa in 1960 to establish the external mission of the ANC. You two friends, comrades in the ANC, partners in the first law practice opened by black South Africans, were back together again. There you sat in adjacent armchairs as we well-wishers stopped first to greet OR and then you. You were in a much more relaxed mood, laughing and smiling and clearly revelling in being with close friends. You exchanged delightful stories with Wolfie Kodesh, who'd housed you and cared for you for a large part of the time that you'd been underground in Johannesburg before you were captured in September 1962.

After the initial excitement I felt a new sense of completeness. Now all the comrades I had been sentenced with were out of prison and I had met all of you.

Meeting you was quite different from my meeting with Walter Sisulu and the other Rivonia comrades when we met, also in Stockholm, a month earlier. Then we'd met in less formal circumstances at a dinner for ANC members. I had arrived more or less directly from the airport together with Father Huddleston, Sipho Pityana, Horst Kleinschmidt, Mendi Msimang and a few others. As we walked into the large room where the dinner was being held, we entered into a series of embraces and handshakes. Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Matso aledi came out from behind their tables. As we embraced there were cries from each of us, "Is it really you, Andrew? Really you, Elias?" "Is it really you, Denis?" and over and over again as I met Govan Mbeki, Wilton Mkwayi and Raymond Mhlaba. There was a welling over, an eruption, of emotion on meeting these comrades with whom we'd shared so much during our trial, and after, even though we were racially segregated in prison for so many years.

Eventually I made my way over to Walter Sisulu, saying, "Walter, I must touch you." To which he replied, "And I must touch you, Denis," holding out his hand. We held hands while he asked me, after 26 years, how we had been caught. That was his first question but I wanted to recall what had happened just before we had arrived at the Rivonia farm on the day of our arrest, July 11 1963.

On the way in the minibus I was driving, one of my comrades had asked what we should name the new smallholding, a 10-acre farm we had bought because it was no longer safe to live at Rivonia. I suggested that we should call it SHUFISA. "What's it mean?" several had responded. It sounded African, they said, but it was not a real word. I'd explained that if Eisenhower could name his headquarters SHAEFE for Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, we could call our hideaway Supreme Headquarters United Front in South Africa. This was greeted with howls of laughter, but "Walter," I told him now, "you said that you weren't sure that it was correct to speak about a united front! But I want to tell you now, 27 years later, we do have a united front!" He really laughed out loud, but almost in wonderment asked if I could really remember what had happened on that day just before we had been arrested.

The day after you had arrived in Stockholm, Esmé also arrived there to join me in meeting you and Winnie. Her first meeting with you took place in another line-up when you and a group of ANC members went to lay a wreath at Olof Palme's grave.

You greeted me with, "You're here again, Boy," and moved on to greet Esmé. You shook her hand and made the kind of stiff response usual when meeting someone you don't know. "I'm pleased to meet you," you said. "Nel," I said, "This is Esmé, my wife." "Oh!" you replied, bending down from your great height to embrace her. Later she told me that you said to her that she must have been looking after me well, "Because the boy looks good."

You really are a warm-hearted, generous friend and comrade. It was and continues to be an honour to serve with you as comrades in arms in our great struggle for human dignity in our country. With the warmest comradely greetings, Denis Goldberg, Rivonia Accused No. 3
(2003)