I had some idea that there were negotiations going on for my release and I had some sense that somehow my daughter was involved. In 1985 the regime offered all political prisoners, including the Rivonia trialists, release from prison under the specific condition that they give up the armed struggle. That was an extremely complicated and potentially explosive matter for us.
Going back a bit in time: Hillary Kuny told me she wanted to submit a memorandum to the Government calling for my release. I said I could not myself beg for my freedom alone, nor that of all my comrades. Her personal memorandum to the Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetzee, follows:
MEMORANDUM BY HILLARY KUNY IN REGARD TO DENNIS (sic) THEODORE GOLDBERG 23 August 1982
1. I have been requested to set out in this memorandum the basis and the reasons for a plea for clemency which is to be addressed to the HONOURABLE the MINISTER of JUSTICE in regard to Dennis Theodore Goldberg, who is at present serving a sentence of life imprisonment in the Maximum Security Prison, Pretoria.
2. This memorandum is being presented, not at the request or on the instructions of Mr. Goldberg, but at the request of Mr. Reuben Sive, Member of Parliament for Bezuidenhout, and at my own behest. I submit that I am suitably qualified to advance a plea for clemency on behalf of Mr. Goldberg since I have been visiting him regularly since 1970 and, at present, am his only regular visitor.
3. I am 46 years of age, married to Denis Allister Kuny, an advocate practicing in Johannesburg, and have three children. I am at present engaged on a thesis for my M.A. degree in Clinical Psychology through the University of Witwatersrand.
4. Prior to Mr. Goldberg’s incarceration in 1963, I had never known him and, in fact, first met him during 1970 when I was requested by a person who had been imprisoned with Mr. Goldberg and who was released in1970, to visit him. At that stage Mr. Goldberg only received visits from his elderly father, and had expressed the wish to be visited by other persons, if possible. I was approached because I was considered to be an appropriate person, having regard particularly to the fact that I make contact with people easily and because of my interest in psychology. For a number of years I visited in the company of Mr. Goldberg’s elderly father, whom I would convey from Johannesburg to Pretoria for this purpose. From time to time other persons were also permitted to visit Mr. Goldberg, but permission was withdrawn in respect of some of these persons and a number of other persons who have applied for permission to visit have been refused such permission. Mr. Goldberg’s father died towards the end of 1979 and his only relative in South Africa is a brother who resides in Cape Town and who has visited Mr. Goldberg on three occasions during the past 19 years.
5. I should at this point say something about Mr. Goldberg himself and his circumstances. He is now 49 years of age. He has been incarcerated since July 1963, when he was detained during the Rivonia Raid. In June 1964, after having been one of the accused in the well-known Rivonia Trial in Pretoria, he was convicted of sabotage and was, together with other accused with whom he was charged, sentenced to life imprisonment. Since that time he has been serving his sentence in one or other of the prisons in Pretoria. He is today the longest serving White political prisoner in South Africa and the only White political prisoner to have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mr. Goldberg is a civil engineer by profession, an occupation which he practiced prior to his imprisonment. While in prison he has studied constantly and has obtained a B.A. degree, a degree in Library Sciences and is at present studying for a law degree. You will, of course, be aware of the fact that only in recent years have prisoners been permitted to study for post-graduate degrees.
6. Mr. Goldberg is a man of the highest intellect and has, through his studies and reading during the past 19 years, greatly widened his interests.
7. With this background of a broader education in various fields, Mr. Goldberg is a person who could participate constructively and usefully in the society from which he has, for the past 19 years, been excluded. At the age of 49 he is still young enough to be able to make an adjustment to re-entry into society and to be able to make use of his education, knowledge and skills. I fear, however, that unless he is released from prison in the foreseeable future, his ability to do so will diminish and his very real talents will be lost to society.
8. I appreciate that the offence for which Mr. Goldberg was convicted in 1964 was a very serious one. In making representations for clemency to be exercised on his behalf and, if possible, for his release from prison in the foreseeable future, I do not suggest that such conduct can be condoned or that, should such clemency be exercised, it be seen in that light. Mr. Goldberg has, however, paid the incalculable price of 19 of the most vital and productive years of his life. These years can never be restored to him, but it is submitted that to the extent that the Honourable Minister has the power to do so, he should place a limit on the sentence which Mr. Goldberg is serving and give serious consideration to the question of remission so as to enable him to end the latter years of his life as a useful and productive member of society.
9. During the period that I have visited Mr. Goldberg, his spirits have fluctuated and there have been times when he has maintained some hope that the interminable life sentence which he is undergoing might be converted at some time into a finite sentence. The aspect which he has found the most difficult to come to terms with is the fact that there is no light at the end of the tunnel; that with the previous-stated policy that political prisoners would not be entitled to any remission or parole, it has seemed to him that he is destined to spend the rest of his life in prison. This prospect, as can well be imagined, is tragic and awesome and has led Mr. Goldberg from time to time to a point of despondency and despair. In the light of the recently-stated change of policy in this regard, he has allowed himself to at least contemplate the possibility that the authorities might be prepared to relax their attitude towards his sentence on personal and humanitarian grounds. In recent years I have noticed a distinct deterioration in his spirits and his resolve to keep going in a situation which has hitherto offered no hope. I believe that unless clemency is exercised on his behalf, Mr. Goldberg may deteriorate and decline to a point beyond redemption.
10. Although this plea is not based upon legal grounds or intended to incorporate legal submissions, I feel it would not be out of place to point to the following: (a) That Mr. Goldberg was not found by the Court to have been a member of the National High Command of the African National Congress and that he did not participate in the drawing up of Operation Mayibuye or take part in any policy decisions. He was merely a technical adviser. This clearly distinguished him from a number of the other accused who were in more senior positions in the African National Congress and who were sentenced to life imprisonment. In this regard his sentence should be compared with that of Ian David Kitson who was sentenced to a period of 20 years’ imprisonment at the end of 1964 in a trial in the Johannesburg Supreme Court, that came to be known as the “Little Rivonia Trial”. Kitson was found in that trial to be a member of the National High Command at the time when acts of sabotage were being carried out and that he had participated in such activities after the Rivonia Trial had been held, whereas Mr. Goldberg had not been found to be party to any decision to proceed with armed struggle. Kitson’s sentence of 20 years is therefore in stark contrast to the life sentence imposed upon Mr. Goldberg. (b) In terms of the new Internal Security Act which came into operation on the 2nd July 1982, the maximum penalty in respect of a conviction for sabotage is 20 years’ imprisonment, whereas in terms of Section under which Mr. Goldberg was convicted the maximum sentence was the death penalty. The Legislature has therefore, in its wisdom, seen fit to reduce the maximum penalty for acts of sabotage committed after the commencement of the new Act and it would therefore be equitable if recognition and consideration be given to this fact in reviewing the sentence which Mr. Goldberg is at present serving.
11. In conclusion, I would like to say that I have not discussed the contents of this memorandum with Mr. Goldberg nor have I been prompted by him in any way in setting out its contents. I am doing so because I have become a friend of Mr. Goldberg and have acquired respect for him. I am convinced in my own mind that over the years he has mellowed, and that while in prison his outlook has broadened and matured.Two years earlier the kibbutz on which my daughter lived set up a committee to try to obtain her father’s release from prison. They asked Herut Lapid, who had set up a committee of the Kibbutz Movement that tried to get Jewish prisoners released from prison in whatever countries they were. Now he tried to speak to Malcolm Rifkind, the British Minister of Defence. Lapid made use of every imaginable political contact in Britain, using his Jewishness and my Jewish origins, even though I held no religious belief and was not only not a Zionist but anti-Zionist. This energetic and astute man wanted to get a copy of my daughter Hilly’s letter to Margaret Thatcher to give to President P W Botha who was soon to visit Britain. In the end seven copies of the letter were handed over by British personalities. In the letter Hilly pleaded for her Daddy to be allowed to join her on her kibbutz where she would look after me. Though she was 30 years old it was a little daughter’s plea that implicitly portrayed me as old and feeble and my life was over. She did not consult me and if she had I would have opposed such a letter being sent. I have no idea how Mr. Botha reacted to the letter and as far as I know neither my daughter nor Herut received any reply to the letter. But the very fact that the Prime Minister of Britain handed over the letter must have conveyed some implicit message about the treatment of political prisoners to Mr. Botha.
For three years Esmé tried to see Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was the Member of Parliament for the East Finchley constituency in London, where she lived. Twice appointments were cancelled at the last minute. The third time Mrs Thatcher really was too busy: she had taken Britain to war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands or, more probably, over potential undersea oil reserves. The question, Dear Reader, is: did she go to war simply to justify her not helping to gain the freedom of an ANC comrade of Nelson Mandela? Or was it simply that British Prime Ministers all have the urge to achieve their Churchillian moment of fame as a war leader?
Herut had intended to see me in December of 1984, but broke his arm and therefore couldn’t fly to South Africa. I subsequently heard from Solly Smith, ANC Chief Representative in Britain, that he personally passed on the ANC’s agreement to the International Defence and Aid Fund making money available for Herut’s efforts to get me out of prison. The Defence and Aid Fund was founded by the Anglican Canon John Collins in the 1950s for the legal defence of anti-apartheid activists. This was a clear indication that the ANC saw Herut’s initiative in a positive light
This was a very difficult time for me. I needed to consult with my Rivonia trial comrades but they were far away in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and I was refused permission to meet with them. I therefore had to gather together and interpret the concealed hints of my organisation, the ANC. For example: Bubbles Thorne, a dear friend and comrade with whom I organised in the Modern Youth Society, had been to London. On her way home to Cape Town she came to visit me. That she was allowed to visit was surprising because of the difficulties the authorities usually made when somebody asked to visit me. She said that the wish for me to be released was “authentic.” Esmé told me afterwards that they had spent a long time choosing that word to indicate to me that the highest levels of the ANC approved of the initiatives of my daughter and Herut Lapid. Esmé was herself undecided about it. She put no pressure on me to accept the terms of the release and to give up the armed struggle. Her attitude had been that if people wanted to negotiate for my release she would not try to stop them. But she could not be actively involved in getting just me released and not the others as well. Since the ANC was clearly but quietly backing the negotiation process, then she would go along with it. I am very proud of her for many things and especially for that recognition of the complexity of our situation.
Kathie Satchwell, a lawyer who took political cases, came to London after I was released. She told me that she had been asked by Thabo Mbeki while I was still in prison to tell me in some covert way through one of my younger comrades who was on trial that he was aware of what was happening and if I accepted an offer of release if it were made to me there would be no criticism from ANC headquarters. Now a High Court judge, Kathie says she passed the message to Roland Hunter, then on trial in Pretoria. We were in separate sections of the prison and Roland could not pass on the message to me. The story confirms that our leadership was involved behind the scenes in the negotiations for my release.
Letter from Kathie Satchwell: 13 March 2008
On one occasion when I was in London in the 1980s - but I cannot give you the exact year or month – all I do know is that it was definitely after the trial of Derek Hanekom and Roland Hunter – I met with Thabo Mbeki at some stage in this visit and he asked if I would be able to safely get a message into Pretoria Central Prison. My answer was in the affirmative because I knew that I had reason to be visiting one or more of the men who were there convicted since there was still room for consultations over possible appeals and I may have been meeting over the litigation for Carl to get married. Thabo asked if I could pass on a message to yourself. My recollection as to the exact wording is now hazy and, of course, has been corrupted by subsequent knowledge. The message was cryptic and I did not ask for details. It was along these lines – “Tell Denis Goldberg that if he receives an offer/ if he has to make a decision – there will be no criticism and we will understand”.
I must have gone in to the Prison within a couple of weeks. I saw Roland Hunter. The message was passed to him through the glass window – I held up lines of writing – and I am quite sure that Roland would have accurately conveyed whatever it was I had written down.
My subsequent understanding was that there were some negotiations by a man in Israel on your behalf and that these overlapped with or were overtaken by the PW Botha offer and that this led to confusion. I have always assumed it to be so because the message that I was to take was not for the other prisoners to whom the PW Botha’s offer was also made. But in this I may be wrong because I do not know all the facts.
However, I can quite categorically confirm that I was asked by Thabo – and not by anyone else – to get a message to you and that I was to let you know that the ANC/Movement would understand and not criticise a decision which you would shortly have to take.
I regret that I am so vague over dates and cannot pin down exactly which of my meetings it was with Thabo.
Hilly and Bubbles made me aware that release was in the air and that sharpened my wish to be free. It made me hear and see similar indications in the way the prison staff were treating me that there was some talk of my release. At Christmas in 1984 the Chief Medical Orderly, Major Buys, urged me not to have a prostate operation. He said I was too young for it because I might want to have children when I was outside again. The op would remove that possibility. I pressed him to say why he had come up with this information at that particular time. He repeated that I could have the op outside, if I wanted to. He was quite evasive but it seemed to me that Major Buys was implying that my release was imminent. The thought did cross my mind that an elaborate game of psychological pressure was being played. Major Buys seemed to me to be an unwilling participant in the charade. As I subsequently discovered the authorities were of course aware that Herut was due to visit me at that time so my guess was not a wild one.
When warders were searching my cell they remarked that everything was so tidy I would find it hard to find a woman to live with me. In answer to my retort that there are no women in the prison they said that I would soon see … But you also have to fight against being paranoid, of thinking that everything is an elaborate plot against you. There are so many hours in prison for your thoughts to go whirling around and around like a dog chasing its own tail. You really have to consciously break that vicious cycle of phantasy and despairing belief, otherwise you would destroy yourself.
From the sequence of events I suspect that what then happened was that Chester Crocker, US Under-Secretary of State for Southern Africa, met with the Foreign Minister Pik Botha on St Helena Island in January 1985. According to press reports, Crocker during a three-day meeting had demanded that South Africa find negotiated solutions to regional conflicts because that was what the United States and USSR were talking about. There was a window of opportunity as the Cold War seemed to be winding down. There was movement over Angola and Namibia. The United States wanted to get Cuba out of Africa and that required the end of the civil war in Angola. I believe that the US State Department gave South Africa to understand that the price for continued support of the apartheid regime was the release of the political prisoners. The US Government was itself under internal pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus to implement the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The US Government needed something from the South African government to satisfy important Congressional factions in the US itself.
Pik Botha returned to South Africa and within days President PW Botha made his announcement that he was prepared to release Nelson Mandela on certain conditions. The main one was that Nelson would have to go to live in the Transkei "homeland" under the protection of his nephew, Kaiser Daliwonga Matanzima, an active collaborator with the apartheid regime. The demand for a united South Africa and the total rejection of apartheid made that an impossible condition for Nelson Mandela to accept.
Urged by Helen Suzman in Parliament P W Botha extended the offer of release to other political prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment. It seemed to me they felt they had to get something in return to pacify the white electorate in South Africa. It seemed to be a desperate attitude of “Oh well, let’s see what political capital we can get out of this.” Then they slipped in the idea of undertakings by prisoners who would be released.
By then I must say, my view was that I was going to be released through the negotiations which pre-dated this offer. That created a conflict in my mind. Does the new situation supersede the old? I suspect that my thinking was shaped by a wish to get out to continue to fight. That was not so good for me because I wanted an unconditional release.
I had not reached the limits of my endurance, though I was very tired of imprisonment. I was finding it heavier to bear and more difficult to bounce back physically and find the will to fight back against the daily encroachments on our prison conditions. Had there been no offer of release I would not have begged for release. Had they tried to impose utterly humiliating conditions I would have rejected them. The main condition, put to me in a letter from the Government, was that I would not take part in violence for political ends - and that was not a statement repudiating my role in the armed struggle. It was not an apology for having been involved in taking up arms against the state. Nor was I saying that the armed struggle was wrong. I was simply saying that I would not be a soldier any more - and it took me days and nights to work that out. Part of the process of arriving at my decision was to write the following letter, which was handwritten and submitted 15 days before my eventual release on 28 February 1985.
D. T. Goldberg (2/82) Pretoria Security Prison 13 February 1985
The State President Mr. P. W. Botha
My response to your offer of release is concerned more with where our country is going than with my personal position.
The key element in the growing political crisis in our country is the representation of the black seventy per cent of our people in the central organs of government. The peaceful solution of political problems requires the creation of the conditions in which normal peaceful politics can be freely and meaningfully practised.
It is clear that any credible moves to resolve key political issues must involve the African National Congress, and its presently imprisoned leadership
The issue of the involvement of the ANC should not be reduced to a question of "face", of who backs down first. Unless we can by-pass this stance we cannot even begin to resolve the main problem of representation. There must therefore be mutual undertakings, for without them we are no nearer the peaceful resolution of the central issue of our time. Already I can see a deadlock in the making when there appeared to be a possibility of movement. In the belief that it is necessary to maintain the momentum I suggest that an "undertaking to participate in normal peaceful politics which can be freely and meaningfully practised," should be acceptable to you.
As I see it, your acceptance of this undertaking would signify your acceptance of its terms. The mutual undertaking and acceptance would help to create the required conditions, and would go a long way to achieving a political settlement of our country's political problems.
I call upon you to release the fine people with whom I was tried in the Rivonia Trial and other political prisoners, and to legalise the African National Congress. With these things achieved there would be a good prospect of attaining a peaceful settlement embodying the guarantees of the Freedom Charter for the rights of individuals, for national groups and for cultural groups in a United Democratic Republic of South Africa.
In what follows I have expanded on the foregoing summary of my approach. Those of us in prison for political offences involving armed struggle, especially those tried with me in the Rivonia Trial, have a passionate commitment to democracy. That is why we are in prison. We cannot accept a system which provides some form of democracy for the white minority, together with a complete denial of democratic rights to the majority of South Africans.
It was the determination of the White State to close every avenue of development towards a real democracy, by cracking down on peacefully expressed demands and protests that led to the decision to embark on a course of armed struggle. That decision was not lightly taken. It was a choice of last resort made long after there was a widespread demand by black people for protection against the armed might of the state.Where there is no democracy and no channel for the political demand for democracy it is the duty of democrats to participate in the struggle for democracy. As a white citizen of South Africa I could see that whites too were becoming less free, despite their enfranchisement. Freedom is truly indivisible.
The price of freedom for whites is the acknowledgement and implementation of the right of all the people of our country to enjoy the same democratic rights. Failing that, whites will find themselves ever less free as the struggle for a just and democratic South Africa is intensified.
The South Africa we wish to see is one in which our people can live together in peace and friendship; a South Africa in which the creative potential of our marvellously diverse peoples can be liberated for the material and cultural enrichment of us all. We know that despite their diverse cultural backgrounds, all the people in our country (i.e. the pre-balkanised territory of South Africa) want essentially the same things: to earn a living, to be together in their families, to see their children well fed and educated, to laugh a little...... Skin colour, in this fundamental sense, is irrelevant to our hopes and aspirations.
Does it matter that one cultural tradition prescribes stywe pap and tjops for enjoyment, while another specifies putu and the same cut of nyama, or that yet another prescribes yoghurt instead of amasi? [NOTE: Afrikaans: stywe pap = hard maize meal porridge or polenta = Xhosa: putu; tjops = chops; Xhosa: Nyama = meat]
I notice that in your address of 31 January, you did not refer to political rights for blacks, while in your address on the opening of parliament you did so. From memory of newspaper reports you said that possession of property rights did not confer political rights. That could be a very democratic proposition as it correctly excludes a property qualification to the right of franchise.
I suspect, however, that your proposition was profoundly undemocratic in that you were denying to black people the democratic rights which constitute the notion of citizenship. Mr Heunis (Minister of Constitutional Development) has recently said (again from memory) that your Cabinet constitutional committee has come to the conclusion that the exercise of political rights by what you call "urban blacks" through the euphemistically termed "homelands" is unacceptable to them. "Urban blacks" have no connection with the "homelands". Mr Heunis went on to say that your government accepted this conclusion, but nevertheless insisted that the political links to the "homelands" be retained. (This despite the clear rejection of the whole concept of the "homelands" as pseudo-independent States by black people.)
This is a prescriptive approach. It is not a democratic approach which takes into account the acknowledged standpoint of black people.
This gets to the heart of the matter. In your perpetual quest for cast- iron guarantees for the protection of the position of whites, and especially of Afrikaners, you are defeating your own purposes by denying democratic political rights to blacks. The ever lengthening delays in the implementation of a truly democratic system in our country (a State which will nevertheless come into being) results in growing frustration and anger. I fear these feelings may lead to the very dangers for whites which you are concerned to avoid.
I fear that if continued any longer the precedents you are setting in the treatment of whole groups of people, of black people in particular, and of individuals, are dangerous. Your precedents will make it more difficult for we who want to build our country for all our people, to prevent some people from invoking your precedents. It is my firm conviction that the only guarantee you have for the secure future of whites is in a South Africa in which everyone will have full democratic rights backed by the long-held commitment of the African National Congress to uphold those rights.
The ANC has always held that people are of equal worth regardless of the colour of their skins. Precisely for that reason it was, and is, possible for whites to give their wholehearted commitment to the ANC, as I did. I am convinced that the Freedom Charter, which is written into the constitution of the ANC, provides a solution in principle to the problems of our country. The guarantees it provides for the liberty of individuals, for national groups and cultural groups, are the basis for a peaceful South Africa. The Freedom Charter is insistent that the diversity of cultural and language traditions (which must, and does, include Afrikaans) must be respected and their development encouraged.
We have, as you remarked in your address, vast resources of every kind. You managed, however, to omit the greatest resource: the vast creative energies of our people which can be released only if they are free. Of necessity this requires the freedom to participate in all the central government organs of the State, for then they will have protection against the structural violence of our society and the arbitrary acts of government which drive black people off the land, out of jobs, and into barren lands of gross malnutrition. Their potential is stifled. Poverty-stricken people cannot fulfil the role to which you assign them: that of a market!
It will take generations to realise the full potential of the free people of a truly democratic South Africa. We need to make a start.
By redeploying the human, material, and financial resources at present used to prevent people from developing, we could make a significant start to the building of a new South Africa.
We envisage a South Africa which can meet the material and spiritual needs of our more than 30 million people within the original territory of South Africa. Let us stop using the armed forces and police, and the civil service, to bolster a way of life which we all know cannot survive. "Adapt or die!" you said. Let us use the resources wasted by these State organs to build anew. I have told you of our commitment to democracy. You have on occasion asserted your belief in a democratic society. Let us put our beliefs to the test. Let us have a real national convention to draw up a constitution which includes all the people of our country.
The informal toy forum you have proposed is not equal to any serious task. Not the least reason is that the participants in it will be your nominees, not elected delegates of all our people.
Let us call an election of delegates to a constituent assembly, with all adult persons having the right to vote for delegates.
It is clear from recent events, and from commentaries in the Press, both Afrikaans and English, that the credibility of any political moves to solve our problems requires the involvement of the African National Congress, and therefore the release of political prisoners, to participate freely in the political process.
In such circumstances I believe you would not have to fear the continuation of armed struggle. I would willingly participate in a non-violent political process such as I have outlined. (I believe that my comrades in Pollsmoor Prison and on the Island would also participate, but I have been refused permission to consult them on this memorandum.) I have complete confidence in the political judgment of the people of South Africa, provided that their opinions can be freely expressed in a genuinely free and fair election. Let us do this now before our infrastructure is destroyed; before our economy is damaged; before untold billions are wasted on a futile, Canute-like, attempt to stop an irresistible tide. Let us build on what has already been built, not destroy it. Let us do this now before even more lives are unnecessarily lost. We surely cannot allow our children to be shot down, nor people to be removed, especially if forcefully removed, nor detainees to die in detention, nor families to be split by the migrant labour system, in the name of policies which you now concede to have been wrong.
Let us make a start. Let us take a bold leap into the future. The choice is in your hands. You hold the keys to our prisons. When you have opened the doors and we are free again, the choice will be ours. The fact of the matter is that should anyone, ex-prisoner or not, contravene your laws on violent political action you have the power to impose the sanctions your laws provide. Our preference has always been for normal peaceful politics. The special circumstances described earlier forced us away from that path. The crux is surely to create the conditions in which normal peaceful politics can be freely and meaningfully practised. We should not allow this to become a question of "face"; of who backs down first. Unless there are mutual undertakings we cannot even begin to address the central political problems to find a peaceful settlement of them.
If we are to maintain the momentum of the process it seems to me that a mutual giving and acceptance of an "undertaking to participate in normal peaceful politics which can be freely and meaningfully practised" should be acceptable to you. I call upon you, in the interests of our country, in the interest of the great task ahead of us, to release the fine people with whom I was tried in the Rivonia Trial, and other political prisoners, and to legalize the African National Congress.
The great task I refer to is to work towards the political settlement of the problems of our country. We must achieve that political transformation from a system which separates our people and peoples from each other in great strife and growing bitterness, to a system which embodies the guarantees of the Freedom Charter for the rights of all individuals, for all national groups, and for all cultural groups, and in which all our people constitute a United Democratic Republic of South Africa.
Signed: D. T. Goldberg
[In 2009, I can look back and say that everything I asked for in this letter came about in five years. Well, almost everything. There were then four years of negotiations, murders and assassinations, mainly by the State, resulting in at least 10 000 to 12 000 deaths as the hardliners tried to turn the clock back! They failed; but at what an enormous cost in human life and sorrow. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission extracted a large amount of detail about State brutality under apartheid showing that our allegations had been correct.]
The effect of his broken arm was that Herut arrived when PW Botha had made his offer of release to Mandela. He told me he had come to fetch me from prison and he would not leave without me. All of his plans had been made before the PW Botha offer and I should not let the new situation interfere with what had been agreed. He was like a bulldozer. Herut said: “Even if I have to cut your throat, I’m taking you out of here, for your daughter’s sake on the Kibbutz.” My wife needed me … and so on. Hillary was allowed a contact visit together with Herut. She made no effort to persuade me to accept the offer of release or to dissuade me. I asked to see Nelson and my other comrades at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town but that was refused.
My brother came to see me and that seemed absurd that now, after all these years, he was concerned about me. Helen Suzman came with Minister of Police Vlok to persuade me to accept. Nelson refused the offer of release but I chose to accept because I thought the time had come to move things along. It was becoming increasingly clear that we would not be able to defeat apartheid South Africa in military conflict. It was equally clear that apartheid could not defeat the burning desire of our people to be free of apartheid racism. The Cold War was coming to an end because of the weakening of the Soviet economy and its ability to project its might around the world. The US also needed a respite from the cost of waging war either directly or through surrogates like Savimbi’s Unita in Angola. The US Congressional Black Caucus was becoming more vocal and determined to put pressure on its government to act against apartheid.
The United States and France, Germany and Britain were pressuring South Africa for change. They wanted a regional peace deal in Angola, Mozambique and Southern Africa as a whole. I believed the time to negotiate a peaceful settlement was at hand. Those were the objective factors. In addition, our first MK Manifesto in December 1961 had stated that we would be prepared to negotiate a political settlement if the apartheid regime would be prepared to negotiate in good faith.
My subjective opinions appear from my letter to PW Botha which outlined my attitude to political negotiations and conditions. The essential elements of the document I signed were that I personally would not use violence to achieve political ends and that I would not make myself liable to arrest. There were non-violent methods I could use to take the struggle further. My feelings about getting out were mixed. I’d been there nearly 22 years and, of course, I wanted to get out of prison, provided I did not have to repudiate the justice of our struggle or repudiate our armed struggle.
I felt that I had achieved quite a lot in prison. Whether I liked it or not, I had become a symbol of conscience, of resistance. I dislike the thought of being locked into being a symbol of something, an icon, which makes for rigidity. Living up to the iconography creates the risk of always living in the past. Younger comrades coming into prison told me, “Denis, don’t you know that meetings start with people like Samson Ndou, a leader in the Municipal Workers Union and in the United Democratic Front telling the audience, 'Our struggle is a non-racial struggle. There are people like Bram Fischer and Denis Goldberg, still in prison.
Some of my younger comrades said that because I was in prison with four life sentences I had made it easier for them to break with their privileged white past to take part in the liberation struggle at the risk of their freedom or their lives. “Life” is endless in legal terms; it goes on until you die. That was part of what made it easier for my younger comrades to put their lives on the line too. Being a symbol is one thing, and I suppose symbols are important, but by nature I am a doer, an activist. I’m not a sitter. I reckoned I’d been a symbol for long enough. I wanted to get out to do things.
I had been arguing this for years with my comrades, long before the offer of release was actually made and long before Herut Lapid came along to convince me that P W Botha's offer should be accepted because, he said, my daughter would be heartbroken if I rejected it.
One of the things that made my leaving easier was that my younger, and newer, comrades I was leaving behind in the prison accepted the idea that I should go. They said that there was so much to do to carry our struggle forward. Carl Niehaus smuggled a letter to me from a separate part of the prison. He said he admired me and wished that I had been his father. He thanked me for looking after him and helping him to settle in prison and for making our Christmas parties. These made that time of year more bearable, when our longing to be with our families was at its strongest.
Why have I written this? Some will say it is a kind of self-justification and perhaps it is, but my real reason is that I want to tell about a life in difficult times and to tell about difficulties as well as triumphs. It was easier to agree to be part of the armed struggle than it was, at age 52, to say I was now too old to be a soldier.