We spent an evening with Denis Goldberg and Christo Brand yesterday.
Who they? Well, Goldberg was one of the guys sentenced in the Rivonia Trial in 1964 alongside Nelson Mandela and eight others, and Brand was the prison officer charged with looking after Mandela on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor Prison.
Their memories and stories of Apartheid from different sides were compelling, and it was strangely disturbing that Goldberg, as a commander in Umkhonto we Sizwe, would likely have considered Brand a legitimate target for assassination back in the day. But there was none of that last night.
Brand’s memories – while very interesting – were solely of his time Mandela (and if you’re not going to click through on the link above, then I should perhaps mention that they became good friends, despite their circumstances), with limited extra insight into “The Man”.
Thus, Goldberg was the star of the show, telling us of his childhood influences, his communist parents and the freedom fighters in Europe in World War II, of his inception into the MK, detailing the trial and his time in prison. He also accentuated the leadership qualities of Mandela, but reminded us that the ANC’s struggle against Apartheid was a joint effort and that Mandela’s greatest strength was recognising that many people had a part to play.
Despite being 83, he has an incredibly sharp mind and very dry sense of humour. His tales were factual, but obviously deeply personal too. It was a privilege to hear him speak.
When the opportunity for questions came, they were more on the politics of today than back then – he’d spoken of the past. He came down hard on Zuma and his lying and corruption, but reminded us how much the ANC and South Africa had achieved in the last 23 years, “although they could have done better”. He took the fact that the ANC – his ANC – might not get a majority in the 2019 elections as a triumph that the democracy that they had fought for was working. He warned the audience not to moan about the “polarisation and lack of dialogue” in recent global politics, but rather to become active and do something about it.
I wanted to ask lots. Questions about when or if he felt that terrorism was ever justifiable (especially given the events just a couple of hours earlier in London), about whether he felt that children should necessarily follow their parents’ political views (he did), after all, surely:
Thou shalt choose a political party based on their policies, as opposed to just going with who your family’s always supported; they are not a football team. [link]
Questions about whether he saw that the “collaborative leadership” he had described in Mandela’s ANC anywhere else in the world, and who – if anyone – he saw demonstrating good leadership in South Africa.
And then – given that he had declared himself “left of everyone in the room”, and given that we were all still tiptoeing around the eggshells of the thorny Israeli elephant in the room – maybe a slightly tongue in cheek question about what had gone wrong in Venezuela. Why would he continue to follow and promote a system that clearly has failed given every opportunity to succeed in its purest form?
I’m not quite sure how that would have gone down.
There simply wasn’t the time. Next time. Maybe.
But see here, the thing is, Goldberg is 83 and is one of just three of the Rivonia trialists still with us (Ahmed Kathrada (87) and Andrew Mlangeni (91) being the other two). There might not be a next time.
I learned a lot of things last night, but maybe that’s another important lesson to take home: act while you still can.