Denis Goldberg: The Engineer whose aim was to build a new world

by Debbie Budlender, approved by the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust

The author, a highly respected activist and independent research consultant was for many years a specialist researcher with the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (Case). Among other roles, she is now also the manager of the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust which aims to soon open the struggle icon’s dream of a Denis Goldberg ‘House of Hope’ to share art and culture with the children and youth of the different communities of Hout Bay.

Tributes have poured in for Denis Theodore Goldberg (1933-2020), the former Rivonia trialist who spent 22 years in prison and who, on his release, simply carried on his life’s work for the ANC. A lover of the arts, a man of humour and intellect, an academic, and a ‘mensch’ who loved children, his dream to build a Denis Goldberg ‘House of Hope’ to share art and culture with the children and youth of the different communities of Hout Bay is about to be realised. The first building blocks could be laid within two to three months after his passing.

The messages that poured in after Denis’s death was announced on 30 April 2020 and the many tributes offered on print, broadcast and online, paint a picture of a man who was many things to a large number of diverse organisations and individuals, both in South Africa and beyond. Capturing his essence in a single tribute is difficult, if not impossible. We tried in our online memorial on 8 May to capture some of the diversity (the youtube recording of the proceedings can be found at: This tribute similarly tries to capture some of the unique and diverse mixes that made up Denis Goldberg.

Within the diversity, a range of common threads can be identified across the messages and tributes.

Denis was down-to-earth. He was an engineer to the core – someone who was prepared to give his all to get things done – and done thoroughly. The most obvious example of this was his preparedness, as a young white South African, to use his engineering skills and knowledge to create physical weapons that the ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto weSizwe, might use to help destroy apartheid. And, once this had happened, he would be able to build the houses, roads and bridges for all the people of South Africa, which had been his motivation for studying engineering.

Denis’s Mr Fix-It approach permeated his attitude to life – that obstacles existed to be overcome and that he would bring all his creativity, ingenuity and energy to playing his role in getting things to work properly and well. Further, the fact that no-one else had done something previously did not mean that he and those he worked with could not find a way to do it now; ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan. His engineer’s conception of the world surfaced in the way he engaged with other fields of endeavour – such as his understanding of the arts, and his theory on the roles of libraries in community development. The diagram below is from the thesis he wrote for his four-year librarianship degree, entitled: The Public Library as a Communicator of Information.

Denis was an intellectual. In his autobiography, A Life for Freedom: The Mission to End Racial Injustice in South Africa, he refers to his fellow prisoners, David Rabkin, Jeremy Cronin and Raymond Suttner, as the “Academics”. However, while he was in prison Denis completed studies across many disciplines. One could argue that he did so because there were few other options in prison. But that would not explain why Denis continued to read widely beyond these subjects – and in the arts in particular – after his release. Denis wanted to understand the world so he could change it. But he also wanted to understand the world to enjoy it to the full.

Denis was a talker, not a writer. In this Denis differed from a typical academic, who might well prefer writing a carefully constructed piece to talk. Denis loved to talk, and fortunately, there were many who loved to listen to him, and who were inspired by what they heard. In the words of Brian Filling, leader of the Scottish anti-apartheid movement and now of Action for Southern Africa Scotland:

Denis’s speaking style was neither that of a firebrand nor tub-thumper. His speeches were informative, gentle in tone, laced with humour, and inspired his audiences into action. He had people laughing out loud and then brought tears to their eyes not just in the same speech but sometimes in the same scenario if not the same sentence.

Denis was a dreamer. Denis believed in a better life for all. This “all” was not an abstract universal. Instead, it consisted, among others, of the children and youth of Imizamo Yethu, Hangberg and the Valley in Hout Bay, the suburb in which he spent the last decade and a half of his life. Denis understood that dreams do not come true without effort. He devoted much of the energy of his last years to creating opportunities in arts and sports for the young “all” of Hout Bay through support for other organisations and then through the establishment of the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation Trust and its arts and culture education centre, the Denis Goldberg House of Hope. In his will, Denis bequeathed the majority of his estate to this cause.

Denis was a principled pragmatist. Denis remained loyal to the ANC to the end. On cold days, he always wore his green, black and gold ANC knitted scarf when attending events at which he would speak. He did this regardless of the political leanings of the audience on that day. He was pleased and proud that the ANC bestowed upon him the Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe award, its highest honour awarded to those who have made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle.

Denis’s loyalty was to the values of the party and the vision encapsulated in the Freedom Charter, rather than to any and every practice that others might do under its banner. His speaking up against Jacob Zuma before many others did so was, therefore, to be expected. Further, his own political affiliation did not prevent his collaborating with people – including leaders – from other political parties. Instead, what was important for Denis was whether the person could help with the achievement of some part of his dream of a better world.

Denis’s humility. Denis was proud of what he had done, including that he had been one of those who stood alongside Nelson Mandela when he pronounced the famous words: “It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Denis would, however, emphasise that the real credit for finally bringing apartheid to an end belonged to the approximately two million people who campaigned under the banner of the United Democratic Front and trade union movement in the 1980s.

After 1994, Denis did not want a high-level (and well-paid) position within the new government and associated agencies. Instead, he spent the first years after he was released, while his first wife, Esme, was still alive, continuing the international work he had done for the ANC since his release. However, instead of garnering support for the anti-apartheid struggle, he was winning financial and other forms of support for the new democracy. On his return to South Africa, he spent several years using his engineering skills as an advisor to the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Ronnie Kasrils, and his successor, Buyelwa Sonjica. As an advisor, he did not spend his time in an office and at high-level meetings. Instead, he travelled the country finding out what was happening on the ground in the lives of ordinary people. Subsequently, he moved to Hout Bay where he immersed himself in community-based work.

Denis’s humour. The story goes that the lawyers for Denis and the other Rivonia Trialists were very anxious that when Denis gave evidence and was cross-examined, he would respond with his usual humorous quips, that this would be seen as disrespectful of the court, and that it would undermine the case of the group on trial. To the lawyers’ relief, Denis acquitted himself well and seriously on this occasion.

Giving evidence at the trial must have been one of the very few occasions on which Denis reined in his humour. The tributes and messages after his death are filled with anecdotes of his humour and sense of fun. He used humour in many different ways – to entertain, to get a message across in a non-confrontational way, to lighten a heavy moment, to mock himself, and perhaps also to hide difficult emotions. His humour was sometimes “naughty”, but it was never nasty.

Denis was a patron of the arts. Denis spent his last decades revelling in the arts, making up for a youth focused on political activism, followed by 22 years in a grey prison cell, and further decades garnering international support for a free and equal South Africa. His home in Hout Bay reflected his enjoyment of the visual arts. It was filled with more than 200 paintings and artefacts. His was not the usual collection of an art connoisseur. Instead, it was a graphic illustration of what he valued and loved about life. Many of the art works were created by emerging artists. Most were created by South Africans, and especially Western Cape artists. There is a concentration of art related to music, dance, workers and, in particular, producers of basic foods. Above all, there are bright colours, movement and energy.

Denis enjoyed children. Denis was adamant that he did not regret his participation in the struggle and would not if he had the option of choosing another path, do anything different. His primary regret was what his participation and, in particular, his imprisonment, meant for his family and family life. Denis missed the larger part of his daughter and son’s childhood years. They missed out on a father who loved engaging with children. This could be seen when he became President of the Woodcraft Folk, a progressive British children’s organisation in which his family had been active; in how he pretended to want the crayons all to himself when joining Hout Bay children in decorating paper bags in which they would take home the products they created at one of the Denis Goldberg House of Hope workshops; in the inclusion in his art collection of a tortoise created out of an egg box carton by a five-year-old who stayed in his Hout Bay house, and in his pleasure in watching children perform on stage.

Denis was a “mensch”. The word “mensch” was used many times in the tributes to Denis. In describing Denis in this way, people were recognising Denis’s humanity, his warmth, his living out of “ubuntu”, and his ability to move people at a very personal level. It is therefore not surprising that many of those sending messages wrote that they had cried when hearing of his passing and/or when watching and listening to the memorial.

Denis was not always easy. Denis’s commitment, energy and love of life could also manifest itself in an obstinacy – a reluctance to ask for, and accept, help if he could do something himself (but much less reluctance in garnering help for others), a determination to fulfil commitments even when he was ill and would face the consequences the following day, and foolhardiness that saw him drive alone in his car with his oxygen machine alongside him, even when he spent much of his remaining time in a wheelchair. Denis was also obstinate (or determined) to remain alive far beyond doctors’ predictions after receiving the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. In particular, he wanted to see the Denis Goldberg House of Hope become a concrete reality. For his obstinacy in the face of his predicted death, we and many others are grateful. And in June 2020, construction of the Denis Goldberg House of Hope is happening at last.

A better life for all, because #Life is Wonderful

Denis wanted two Brecht poems to be read out at his funeral. The first of these – Questions of a Worker who Reads History – was read by Karlind Govender during the on-line memorial. The second, The Carpet Weavers of Kujan-Bulak honour Lenin (Die Teppichweber von Kujan-Bulak ehren Lenin), encapsulate at least some of the characteristics described above – the pragmatic engineer who recognises that taking practical steps to improve the lives of poor people is the best way of showing respect for our political leaders and ideals.

The Carpet Weavers of Kujan-Bulak honour Lenin

Often and copiously honour has been done to Comrade Lenin.

There are busts and statues; cities and children are called after him,

Speeches are made in many languages.

There are meetings and demonstrations

From Shanghai to Chicago in Lenin’s honour.

But this is how the Carpet Weavers of Kujan Bulak honoured him in a little township in Southern Turkistan.

Every evening there, twenty-nine carpet weavers

Shaking with fever rise from their primitive looms.

Fever is rife. The railway station

Is full of the hum of mosquitos. A thick cloud

Rises from the swamp behind The Old Camel’s Graveyard.

But the railway train which

Every two weeks brings water and smoke, brings

The news also one day

That the day approaches for honouring Comrade Lenin.

And the people of Kujan Bulak decide

Poor people, carpet weavers,

That Comrade Lenin’s plaster bust shall also

Be put up in their locality.

Then as the collection is made for the bust

They all stand shaking with fever and offering

Their hard-earned Kopeks with trembling hands.

And the Red Army man Stepa Gamalev, who

Carefully counts and minutely watches,

Sees how ready they are to honour Lenin and he is glad

But he also sees their unsteady hands

And he suddenly proposes

That the money for the bust should be used for petroleum

To be poured on the swamp behind the Old Camel’s Graveyard

From where the mosquitos come, which

Carry the fever germ.

And so to fight the fever in Kujan Bulak thus

Honouring the dead but

Never to be forgetting

Comrade Lenin.

So it was decided.

On the day of the ceremony they carried

Their dented buckets, filled with black petroleum

One after the other

And poured it over the swamp.

And so they helped themselves by honouring Lenin and

Honoured him by helping themselves, and thus

They understood him well.

We have heard how the people of Kujan Bulak

Honoured Lenin. When in the evening

The petroleum had been bought and poured on the swamp,

A man who was at the meeting demanded

That a plaque be fixed on the railway station

Recording the events, and containing

Precise details of their altered plan and the exchange of the

Bust of Lenin for a barrel of fever-destroying oil.

And all this to honour Lenin.

And they still also

Put up the plaque.


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