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‘My First Time Meeting Denis Goldberg’

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Denis Goldberg; image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

This FORBES AFRICA photojournalist reflects on that moment when the late struggle hero recounted to him what turned him into a South African revolutionary.

It was in 2017 that I, a 29-year-old FORBES AFRICA photojournalist from Dobsonville, in the sprawling Soweto township of Johannesburg, landed in Cape Town, The Mother City, for the first time.

There were more firsts in store: my first trip to the infamous Long Street in the city for beer and banter with the locals. It was a long night, to be followed the next morning, with my meeting, for the first time, with the legendary Denis Goldberg of the 1963 Rivonia Trial.   

The apartheid struggle veteran and hero had escaped the death sentence, along with former South African President, Nelson Mandela. Goldberg was the man who had excitedly shouted, “It’s life, life is wonderful”, after receiving his life sentence verdict.

I was to meet Goldberg at the Castle of Good Hope to speak about his then lawyer, Bram Fischer. It was a windy morning and sprinting towards the castle, I couldn’t keep a South African veteran waiting.

I was on time, and as he walked towards me, I remember asking myself, ‘why wasn’t this man smoking a pipe and talking to us from his veranda at his home in Hout Bay’?

Our conversation lasted longer than expected; his stories were captivating as they took me to that time and space in my country before democracy.

And then, he took me to his childhood when he recalled vividly, his teacher, Miss Cook.

“Miss Cook was blonde, brilliant, and beautiful, with lovely perfume. I was madly in love at the age of six. But we had a kid in the class that looked different and spoke funny. One morning, Miss Cook’s watch had disappeared from her desk and she was very upset, but she used it to educate us because we blamed Noelen. She got us to understand that we were blaming Noelen not because we saw him [take the watch], but because he was different. He was an outcast, his clothes were dirty; it was a school for white boys in 1939,” recalled Goldberg.

That incident changed his life; it helped turn him into a revolutionary, he said.

Goldberg was in prison for over two decades.

Sadly, the veteran, aged 87, died in South Africa last week. That windy morning in Cape Town will forever be etched on my mental camera.

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