I am one of the billions of people who have in the past few days reflected on the life and work of the late great Nelson Mandela. As I read the tributes paid to him and as we make preparations for a memorial service for him in Suva later this week, my thoughts went to a man who 13 years ago befriended me an shared his experience of working against Apartheid.
In 2000, during my stay in London, I was introduced to a 67-year old man named Denis Goldberg who was the founding director of an organization called Community HEART. Community H.E.A.R.T. (Health Education And Reconstruction Training) was set up in 1995 to support the people of Southern Africa, particularly South Africa, in their struggle to overcome the awful legacy of apartheid. We support self-help projects based on the hopes, aspirations and initiatives of local people and communities
Denis Goldberg was born in South Africa in 1933. He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1961. Together with Nelson Mandela, he was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to four times life in imprisonment. However, but even within the prison system apartheid existed and Denis was separated from his comrades (they were sent to Robben Island) and was sent to Pretoria Cental Prison.
After Denis’s release from prison, in 1986, he joined his wife Esme in London where she and their young children had had to flee in 1964. He continued to work to overcome the apartheid regime, travelling all over the world, including the United Nations, speaking about the injustice of apartheid. After his release in 1985, Denis lived in exile in Great Britain until his return to South Africa in 2002. He was a guest at the inaurguration of President Nelson Mandela in May 1994.
Last week, Denis spoke with Daniel Pelz of Deustche Welle about their joint struggle for freedom.
“I will remember Nelson Mandela as a great leader, but also as a friend. I especially admired his courage, his clarity of thinking and his ability to find answers for political problems. I remember having an argument with him about the nature of leadership. In my view, it needed to be collegial and not individual leadership. There were people who were getting angry with him for being a bit distant. He said that he was elected a leader and he was going to lead. We went around this argument a couple of times and I said "but you see what you've done in all your history, is that we've reached critical points and you and others have found new ways forward". That's my point. There comes a deadlock, there comes a need for a way forward and the need is to find the answer to persuade them and lead collectively. That's what he did.”
When asked how Mandela managed to keep a sense of joy and gentle firmness despite the many years he spent in prison, Denis replied:
“I can only talk of my own experience. We were convinced that what we had done was right: Fighting for equal rights for all in our country, between our country and other countries and between people everywhere. It's the only way to be a human being. It's not about me, it's not about you, it's about us. That's the over-riding principle that drove our generation and that drove him.”
Denis was asked if there were moments during the armed struggle before being sent to prison, where h, Mandela and other people thought of giving up.
“Were we prepared to give up? No. The manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) with Nelson Mandela as the first commander in chief said in effect: In the life of a people there come moments where there are two choices, to live on our knees or to stand and fight. Our decision was to fight. I once said to him: "What are we fighting for?" He said: "One person, one vote!".”
Denis was asked if Mandela ever shared with him any issues in his political career that he regretted.
“He didn't say that to me but in his autobiography he says somewhere that he's made mistakes. That he could have handled things differently. But he was fortunate. He had Walter Sisulu with him. At the end of Walter Sisulu's very long life, we knew that he could tell Nelson Mandela "wait let's think about this, let's consider whether there's another way, let's not be impatient, let's carry people with us". This helped him not make mistakes. He said so himself and he said that to me.”
According to Denis, Mandela was always very fortunate to have good advisors and greatly benefitted from their advice.
“To work with others is the essential thing, because then you get a collective input and a variety of views. But there are moments when a leader must lead. He did that when he began the negotiations (with the apartheid government). He was actually careful not to discuss that, because he knew his colleagues would have tried to stop him. But is a quality of leadership. He said he would negotiate about how to negotiate, but not about anything substantive.”
In an interview with Jewish News Online recently, Denis reflected on the first thing that Mandela said to him when he came of prison.
“The first thing he said to me was, ’hello boy, it’s a long time since we’ve seen each other’. It was just 25 years but that was his greeting.”
“I introduced my wife to him, he’d never met her before, and he responded very stiffly. I said ‘Nel, its my wife!’ So he bent down and said, ‘The boy’s looking good, you’re looking after him well.’”
“With all the cares of the world on his shoulders, he had time to think of saying that to my wife, with warmth and graciousness. The funeral is going to be a crazy massive state affair, but what I hope for is that afterwards we truly honour his memory and values about humanity.
“We have five Nobel peace prize winners out of one general of struggle, I don’t think we’ll ever do that again. I don’t like going to funerals but I will go to Nelson’s.
Denis suffered terribly in prison but has never renounced his politics or stopped fighting for the freedom of south Africa He says : “Prison made me a much stronger person, made me more aware of the capacity to endure, gave me an opportunity to read and study doing correspondence courses, I learnt to appreciate music more, read with greater understanding, and understood myself better. But 5 years would have been enough for that, 22 was too much, so irony and self-mockery are ways of dealing with the pain of it all.”
Earlier he told the BBC News World Service: "I'm saddened his life has come to an end. But it hasn't come to an end - he lives in our constitution, our society, he lives in the comradeship that he always talked about."