The launch of Denis Goldberg’s memoir, The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa, was a profoundly moving event. Many a handkerchief dabbed many a moist eye in the Book Lounge as the author spoke with candour, humour and poignancy of his rich and remarkable life. Comrades in the audience included Albie Sachs, Pallo Jordan (who wrote the book’s foreword), Kader Asmal, Ronnie Kasrils and many others.
Book Lounge proprietor Mervyn Sloman opened the proceedings with a lovely quip: “Denis is a much-loved activist and a much-loved man in many people’s lives, and as of the last two months, he’s a much-respected author too!” Goldberg’s autobiography was published by the German publisher that focuses on South Africa, Assoziation A, as Der Auftrag. The English version, published by STE, is a welcome addition to the growing literature documenting the Struggle.
Goldberg was joined in conversation by Zubeida Jaffer, author of Love in the Time of Treason, who recalled her anxiety at having Goldberg as an unexpected dinner guest, some 20 years ago, when all she had on offer was frikkadels. “Was I surprised,” she said, “when Denis got all tearful and said, ‘This is exactly what I was hoping for – the Cape food!’”
She reflected on the curious timing of vuvuzelas bleating in the background while she read Goldberg’s book – the juxtaposition of the current jollity with the years of pain and sacrifice endured. “There was such a beauty that came through in the story,” she said, “and it deeply affected me. Sometimes, dealing with memories, it becomes very difficult and one prefers to block the emotion. But you brought back all the difficulties in prison, the relationship with your father and his sacrifices.
“What struck me was that here I am, a Cape Town woman, coming from a very different Cape Town from the city you inhabited, yet there were so many similarities between our connections and family values. With your parents, non-practising Jews, and mine, practising Muslims, I find myself asking: are we a certain type that chose to go in this direction, choosing to break down the doors and do the really meaningful work that had to be done?”
These questions prompted others: Was it all worth it? Could she have chosen a different path? “Reading this book, I see it was,” she said. “Mission accomplished, Denis!”
Jaffer mentioned the moment in the narrative where the author, then an awaiting trial prisoner, succeeded in slipping a block of chocolate to the shackled Nelson Mandela in court. After popping it in his mouth, Madiba nudged Goldberg for another block. Another nudge. Another block.
Citing Goldberg’s expressed anxiety about writing his life story, Jaffer referred to a prior conversation (“fight”, she said) with Albie Sachs concerning their shared reticence about writing of the individual experience. “We think we can’t speak of our own experience because we feel it’s a collective experience. Yet we can’t begin to tell the collective story – Albie has now convinced me on this – without telling the individual stories. This book is a major contribution to that.”
Before engaging with Jaffer on the topic of his memoir, Goldberg called for a moment’s silence in honour of Letitia Malindi, who passed the previous Sunday. True to form, he concluded this solemn moment by opening his eyes and saying, “You know what happens when you close your eyes? They give you a Bible and take your land…”
Goldberg read from the preface, saying it was time after 22 years in prison and 24 years thereafter, to tell the story of his life. “It’s taken a long time to find my voice,” he said. “Although friends will tell you that once I get going, it’s hard for me to stop. I felt it was big-headed to write about myself, despite having been asked to tell the story.” He spoke of wanting to tell about the people and events that shaped his thinking and his existence. There was a crackle in his voice as he spoke of his happy childhood which did not preclude an awareness of the systematic brutality and deep inequality that existed in the country. In a powerful commentary, he said, “I’m lucky to have loved and to have been loved.” When asked how you stay married to somebody for 46 years, his first wife quipped: “It’s easy. Send him to prison for 22 of them!”
Goldberg quoted from a poem of Bertolt Brecht: “‘We who wanted to make a world where man would be a helper to man did not ourselves have time for kindness.’ Now I have time for beauty and sorry, anger, ugliness, humour, art and kindness.”
His memoir was originally going to be called Life is Wonderful – “because my mother who was old and couldn’t hear what the Rivonia Trial judge said on passing sentence, kept asking, ‘What is it? What is it?’ I said, ‘Life! Life is wonderful!’ But then, you see, there’s Looksmart Ngundle, political activist from the Eastern Cape, my field commander in MK. He was captured and tortured and killed. I just felt that my book had to start not with me, but with Looksmart. And so. And so…”
Goldberg broke down, recalling the trauma. Jaffer contained the space while the author composed himself, saying, “We think we’ve put it in a safe place but as soon as one talks about it, it hurts as bad.”
Goldberg recalled being asked to talk to the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, reporting on the torture he’d experienced 45 years earlier. “I thought I’d healed myself; I thought it was all over. Yet these memories leap out at the most unexpected moments. I’m not the only one who experiences that.”
One of the most poignant moments of the launch came when Goldberg recalled what it was like to sit next to Nelson Mandela on the judgment day of the Rivonia Trial: “It was very special to share the moment when Mandela dared the apartheid judge to hang him,” said Goldberg. Here are three video clips in which the author elaborates upon the moment:
- The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa by Denis Goldberg
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