Table Mountain and the curved spine of hills associated with it define the city of Cape Town. The prevailing summer and winter winds, from the south east and northwest respectively, had carved the two bays that first attracted European seafarers to the peninsula over centuries. “The fairest Cape”, Sir Francis Drake had called it, testifying to the natural beauty that is still remarked even in our day. But the name it was given by Bartholomew Diaz, Cape of Good Hope, has proved the more durable over time
It was in the shadow of this mountain that first the Dutch, and then the English, established a permanent European presence in Southern Africa. It is the site of South Africa’s first modern city that served as Europe’s gateway to the Indian Ocean for well nigh four centuries prior to the opening of the Suez Canal. The city’s position as a significant port along the west - east sea-trade routes lent it an extremely cosmopolitan character from its earliest days. Though undoubtedly African, like the other historic African port cities: Cairo, Tunis, Mogadishu, Mombasa and Dar-as-salaam, Cape Town evolved as a melting pot with ingredients from virtually every coastal region of the world.
After driving off the indigenous herders, former seamen and soldiers from Europe settled along the banks of the Liesbeek River. Slaves, political prisoners and war captives from the islands of the Indian Ocean, West Africa and the Indonesian archipelago were imported to serve them. Religious dissenters, adventurers, runaways, reprobates and others from Europe, the Caribbean, the Americas and Asia found refuge and made homes in and around Cape Town, intermixing, marrying and merging with indigenous Africans and immigrants who had preceded them, giving the city that evolved over some three centuries its unique features.
Demographically Cape Town differed from the rest of South Africa. The majority community are the outcome of this cosmopolitanism – usually called Coloureds, to distinguish them from the majority African community.
The sand dunes and plains around Cape Town had been the sites of the first armed clashes between Black and White in South Africa. The first conflicts between the European settlers and the colonial authorities in their mother countries broke out at the Cape of Good Hope, as did the numerous revolts, incidental and noteworthy, mounted by the slaves who produced the social goods that sustained the city. One can discern the important lines of fracture, race and class that were to define the future of all Southern Africa in the colonial society that was taking shape in the Cape of Good Hope by the mid-18th century. Remnants of the almond hedge the DEIC planted to mark the first frontier are still visible along the upper reaches of the Liesbeek River; the farm Driekoppen, takes its name from the three heads of rebel slaves that were impaled at its gates; in the middle of Table Bay is Robben Island which served as place of banishment and incarceration for African indigenes, Indonesian and Malayan princes and Afrikaner farmers who resisted British rule.
For close to two centuries the city was the entry point to South Africa of all knowledge, ideas, values and technologies imported from other parts of the world. South Africa’s first Muslim community was established at the Cape of Good Hope. It was through Table Bay too that the skill of wine-making first entered our country. Cape Town is also the mother city of South African journalism where South Africa’s first newspapers were published.
It was in this city that two Jewish Communists, Sam and Annie Goldberg, from London’s East end settled during the 1920s. Their second son, Denis, was born there in 1933. Compared to the fast-paced boomtown of the interior, Johannesburg, the Cape Town of the 1920s was regarded as an interesting, but rather sleepy port city. In certain respects its peculiar history marked it out as different from South Africa’s other cities. Though racial segregation had its origins in the city, it had a reputation for being more liberal. The human geography of the city was not as definitively racialised as that of Johannesburg and Durban. Coloured and African male property-owners and professionals still enjoyed the franchise up to the level of the provincial government, though, like other Blacks, they were debarred from the national parliament. Black councillors had served on the municipal council since the turn of the 20th century.
It was in this environment that I first encountered Denis Goldberg during the late 1950s, a decade during which Cape Town experienced significant alteration.
The changes that the city was to witness were heralded by the electoral victory of the National Party(NP), with its platform of apartheid, during the 1948 elections. Though it did not command the highest number of votes cast, a formula agreed on during the South African convention where the White electorate had negotiated the Union in 1909, weighted rural at the expense of urban constituencies. The swing in favour of the National Party among White voters was so massive that General Smuts, South Africa’s wartime Premier and a famous international figure, lost his seat, Standerton, to a relatively unknown NP candidate.
Among the first measures the newly elected NP undertook was to segregate all state-owned public transport in Cape Town. This action had an interesting catalysing impact on the politics of the city for the next four decades.
A united front of all Black and anti-racist political bodies was almost immediately convened. The Train Apartheid Resistance Campaign (TARC) brought together the African National Congress(ANC), the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA),the African Peoples Organisation (APO), the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department (Anti-CAD), the Cape Indian Assembly, The Fourth International Organisation of South Africa (FIOSA), the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA), the Springbok Legion and a host of smaller civic bodies. Significantly, no organisations identified as White or with an overwhelming White membership supported the campaign.
Mobilising support through leafleting, public meetings and rallies, the TARC felt confident enough after a few weeks to call for a civil disobedience campaign to make the segregation regulations unworkable. A collective decision to gradually build up the numbers of people prepared to defy the law was pre-empted when a speaker representing the Anti-CAD, excited by the unprecedented turnout at a mass rally on the Grand Parade, led the charge to board the trains. The ill-prepared boarding by crowds of people who had made no solid commitment to break the new laws, ended in chaos when the police intervened. The crowd became indecisive, then gradually dwindled, leaving the much reduced number of die-hards to face the music alone. The arrest of its leaders brought the campaign to an ignominious halt. By January 1949, it had petered out and the only sign of its previous existence was the ensuing court case which ended with the leading figures being fined.
The NP’s agenda in the Western Cape was to put an end to its past reputation of “liberalism” by rigorous application of existing racist laws, ordinances and regulations and by the enactment of new ones of its own creation. The NP offensive was multi-pronged. Within the first three years of winning office it had legislated the abolition of the Coloured vote; illegalised all sexual contact across the colour line; made the residential segregation of the races a central state policy; illegalised the CPSA that had its headquarters in Cape Town and a host of political activities it statutorily defined as “Communist”.
Those first three years of NP government, and the response of the Black political formations as well as that of the White parliamentary opposition, set the tone for Cape Town politics for that entire decade. The fanatical racist social engineering of the NP came as a shock to especially the Coloured citizens of Cape Town, who had lived under a relatively mild regime of flexibly enforced segregation that had permitted racially integrated neighbourhoods in all parts of the city, large pockets of Africans to live outside the locations and townships imposed in the rest of the country, as well as non-segregated city-owned facilities in a library service, town halls, recreational areas and markets.
The 1948 TARC had a predictive dimension. Smarting from both its precipitate action and the political defeat it had led too, the leadership of the Anti-CAD and the TLSA, concluded that limited political campaigns, towards intermediate goals were tactically unwise and strategically futile. From then on, to them it was either the revolutionary crisis or nothing! Both bodies abstained from all mass political campaigns conducted during that decade and after, confining themselves exclusively to public meetings. Thus the onslaught on the Coloured vote, which commenced with legislation in 1951, met with virtually no organised opposition from amongst the Coloured community itself. Defence of the Coloured vote was taken up by the White opposition parties, the United Party (UP), the Dominion Party and the Labour Party. Under the banner of the Torch Commando, a coalition led by a charismatic former RAF fighter pilot, “Sailor” Malan, it took to the streets in torch-lit manifestations and parades. Its activities reached their peak in 1952 in anticipation of the 1953 elections.
Attempts to mobilise opposition among the Coloured community were dispirited and weak. A Franchise Action Council, inspired by members of the APO and adherents of the ANC, drew little support. A call for a general strike in 1951 fell on deaf ears. Cape Town’s response to the Defiance Campaign of 1951 was equally hesitant. Except for a handful of militants, the campaign drew very limited support in Cape Town, with no participation from the majority Coloured community.
After 1953 the issue of the Coloured vote was taken up by a new body, initially comprising White women, the Black Sash, who staged a long-running picket outside parliament while the bill was being debated. After 1961 the Black Sash evolved in the direction of the mainstream of the struggle for freedom.
Given the city’s history of continuous intercourse with Europe and the rest of the world, every political, social, intellectual and cultural current in Europe found an echo in Cape Town. The work of the world’s leading progressive playwrights could regularly be seen in Cape Town theatres, a proliferation of political clubs and discussion societies - the Africa Club, the Forum Club, the New Era Fellowship and later, the Modern Youth Society debated every topic under the sun. Cape Town also housed the head offices of three important weeklies – The Guardian/New Age, associated with the CPSA and the ANC; the Torch, associated with the Anti-CAD; and after 1955, Contact, associated with the Liberal Party. A host of formal and informal publications of every variety, produced on mimeograph machines and small printing presses were also signs of an intellectually vibrant movement.
The Modern Youth Society was an outgrowth of a body of a similar name on the campus of the University of Cape Town, the Modern World Society. Left-wing students had formed this body to replace the Students Socialist Party (SSP) after the banning of the CPSA in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Unlike its campus equivalent, Modern Youth Society (MYS) was open to all young people
Its purpose was to try to create a space where White and Black youth could interact as equals in an otherwise extremely segregated society. Its core activities were of course political – the society’s very existence constituted a political action – but it also sought to attract young people through sporting and other activities. MYS imparted a host of skills to its members and those who came into its milieu. Youth from the Black communities, who might otherwise not have been exposed to them, learnt techniques such as silk-screen printing, designing banners and posters, cutting mimeograph stencils, all of which are important organisational skills. Because its primary purpose was political, MYS held regular programmes to train its members as public speakers. At the camps and picnics it organised, political debates and discussions that continued late into the night , the articulate and vocal were able to hone their skills while learning from the better read and more experienced.
Apart from the events unfolding inside South Africa itself in the 1950s, the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the Korean War, the Battle of Dienbienphu in Vietnam , the Suez Crisis, the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the Independence of Ghana, the launch of the first earth-orbiting satellite, all found space in the animated discussions on international affairs. In the MYS we learned to appreciate that though daily life in South Africa might not seem to confirm it, the oppressed people (and bodies like ourselves) were part of the dominant tide in world history, which was sweeping away the past of colonialism, apartheid and racism. MYS was able to attract into its ranks comrades from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Kenya, Namibia as well as visiting students from Europe. Through its agency intricate networks of liberation fighters within the region and beyond were established. Small delegations, sent to international festivals helped broaden these to take in Europe and Asia.
By the time I and my peer group arrived in MYS, Denis Goldberg was already considered among the older, more experienced members. With an aptitude to working with his hands, he invariably played the role of instructor, teaching others the skills and technique we would be called upon to use.
Cape Town’s demographic profile however also made for a curious politics. Because the city did not experience the weight of African nationalist consciousness that was sweeping the country during that decade, we in Cape Town were constantly wrestling with the national question. There was an influential tendency to underestimate the importance of nationalism in the left wing circles of Cape Town. An abstract commitment to non-racism tempted Cape Town lefties into scholastic debates about the biological validity of “race” as a category, when the daily experience of the majority of South Africans demonstrated that it was a political reality.
As the decade wound down, it became clear that those who sought to position themselves outside of a national movement would render themselves politically irrelevant. By 1961 the political abstention of the Anti-CAD and TLSA leadership had morphed into active opposition to the mainstream of the liberation movement. Bodies like the Forum Club and its offspring, the Cape Debating Society, though very erudite, could not proceed from debate to political action. After the complete disenfranchisement of the Coloured propertied classes in 1958, the APO disintegrated and degenerated into a friendly society.
The Sharpeville massacre and the smaller scale incident at Langa on 21st March 1960 was the decisive watershed for the struggle for freedom and democracy, but also personally for Denis Goldberg and his family. They triggered the decision to constitute a military wing of the liberation movement which launched Denis Goldberg on the road to Rivonia.
As the only White amongst those convicted in the Rivonia Trial, Denis Goldberg will always have a unique place in that story. These memoirs offer the reader an insight into an important chapter in the history of our struggle from a different viewpoint because the racist dogmas of apartheid dictated that he would be incarcerated apart from his Black comrades and colleagues. That segregation denied him both the companionship and the counsel of his fellow accused. His was consequently an exceedingly lonely sojourn. But, true to himself and the cause he had espoused from his youth, he bore it with courage and an immense dignity.
Z. Pallo Jordan.