When the South African activist Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1983, there were six others with him. Only one of them was white. His name was Denis Goldberg.
Denis was the son of British Jews who immigrated to South Africa. He became a successful engineer and it wasn’t until he experienced life outside South Africa that he realized how unjust his country was. His compassion for his countrymen ran deep and he joined the African National Congress, a movement dedicated to ending apartheid. Their peaceful protests had ended in the spilling of Freedom Fighters’ blood, so their game plan had been revised. Denis’ engineering skills made him a most welcome member and he soon became an adept bomb-maker. “If you can build it, you can blow it” he quips.
At the age of 31, Denis’ activism was brought to an abrupt halt when he and his co-conspirators were betrayed. They were tried and barely escaped the death penalty. He was sent to Pretoria and the other six went to Robben Island. Even the prisons were segregated. He eventually served 22 years of his life sentence. When he was released, South Africa was still being ruled by the white minority.
Despite its tragic content, this is by no means a hard film to watch. In fact, it’s the opposite. It was made when Denis was 70 but he is still greatly imbued with his joie de vivre. He is also so underwhelmed by the magnitude of his sacrifice, it’s hard to find perspective. This in-suppressible aura is even more evident when he visits an old training camp with three fellow revolutionaries. They joke around and sing, but as they make light, Denis clasps hands with one of them. They don’t hold hands; they clasp, like rock climbers whose rope has fallen. The camera shows they let go of each other, but the truth is, they never do.
When Denis was sentenced, he asked his wife to take their young son and daughter to the U.K. to start a new life. When he finally got released, they were waiting, but they were as battered as him. His daughter, Hilary, speaks the least but says the most. “If he wanted to be an activist, he shouldn’t have got married and had children,” she rages. Her pain is clear, as is the fact that she’s the one who loved him most.
A question this film does ask, of course, is how the inhumanity of apartheid was allowed to survive for so long. Mandela was an international icon but was left to rot in his cell for decades, as was Denis. But some people refuse to get bitter, no matter what you throw at them. Denis’ response to South African apartheid was to sacrifice his life; the world’s was to boycott their grapes. And with a twinkle in his eye, he leaves it at that.
Denis Goldberg died in Cape Town in April 2020 at the age of 87.
A state funeral is planned.
Directed & Narrated by Marion Edmunds