Denis Goldberg – a man of hope 1933 – 2020

Monday, 11 May 2020

My earliest recollection of Denis was a story I was told of when his wife, Esme, and children came to London in the mid 60s. I had just started Elfins in Wimbledon and learnt about him and his role in rising up against apartheid in South Africa and the subsequent Rivonia trial. Even at this young age I was made aware of the inequalities in life based on race which has stayed with me to this day. Esme and their two children were involved in the Woodcraft Folk in North London and I recall the Folk’s actions against the South African regime by banning South African goods from camps. Even though it was written clearly on food order forms to the Co-op, the occasional crate of oranges would somehow get through only to be duly returned. As a teenager, I took part in anti-apartheid rallies in London and joined the picket line outside South Africa House narrowly avoiding being arrested as those around me were.

After Denis’ release from prison he attended the Woodcraft Folk’s Annual Conference at Loughborough University and kept us all spell-bound by his inspirational address. Even after 22 years in prison he was not bitter or jaded. He was as determined as ever to see an end to racial discrimination in South Africa and would spend as long as necessary working within the ANC to achieve this. His motivational speech left me in awe of such a great orator who really believed in equality, tolerance and mutual respect.

Doug Bourn, National Secretary of the Woodcraft Folk (1983 – 1990) and now Professor of Development Education University College London – Institute of Education said of Denis:

‘I had the great privilege to meet and get to know Denis during the 1980s upon his release from prison. He made an important contribution to the Folk in reminding us all of the importance of international friendship and solidarity. It was a result of his inspiration that many of us began to encourage and support more international solidarity activities and exchanges. He was also conscious of the important role the Folk had played for his family during his time in prison’

SOMAFCO (Solomon Mahlungu Freedom College) was the ANC’s educational institution set up in Tanzania for exiles from South Africa which the Woodcraft Folk regularly sent education equipment to. At the International Camp at Weston Park in 1988, our village comprised of Central Brighton + Hove and Portsmouth Districts alongside a small delegation from SOMAFCO – six students and their teacher - David. My dear friend, Sarah Susman, had raised much of the money to bring the group over and amongst them was an 11 year old called Tshepiso. I was able to go to SOMAFCO later on that year and meet up with the students and David during their Christmas holidays. Unfortunately Denis was never to visit SOMAFCO but it gave us a focal point for many discussions in the years to come.

Denis was elected President of the Woodcraft Folk in the late 80s, a position that he accepted reluctantly as he was not into self-grandiosity and immediately made it clear that he would not be a hands-on President. I was Chair of National Council 1992 – 1995 and although Denis did not attend many meetings, he and I became firm friends, offering his support and enthusiasm when requested. During this time, South Africa eventually had its first multi-racial elections which saw Nelson Mandela lead the ANC to victory and Denis’ dream towards racial equality take off. Closer to home, international work continued to flourish and at the International Camp in 1995 in the New Forest which Denis visited for a few days he was amazed at how 3500 people could live together supporting the values and principles he held so dear to him.

In the same year, Community HEART was launched at South Africa House. It seemed really odd attending an event in a building which I had picketed years earlier! The project which was supported by the Woodcraft Folk was designed to assist other initiatives in health, education and training in the newly emerging South Africa. The Folk’s response was an initiative called a book and 10p where people were asked to donate a book to help stock schools and libraries and the 10p was to cover the shipping costs. I recall a couple of fun-packed Sundays unloading boxes into Denis and Esme’s already bulging garage!

Over the next few years, Denis and I were to meet up at book launches, Co-op Congress, Burn’s night suppers and the like even though he had moved initially to Germany and then back to his native South Africa. When we met he was always keen to share his latest ideas with me including one based on using art and music as a medium for promoting social equality, hence his idea for his latest project, the House of Hope. Whilst here Sarah Susman, Tshepiso and her son, Mpho, visited. She said:

“We felt privileged to be able to interview Denis Goldberg in 2015 for the Woodcraft Heritage Project, and that interview is now stored in the British Library. The interview took place in Denis' home in CapeTown and he was, as ever, knowledgeable, perceptive and even Grandfatherly and it was a truly memorable occasion. The photo is of Mpho Theledi who accompanied me and his Mother Tshepiso Mokoena on our visit to see Denis. Mpho also interviewed Denis and I think his interview has also been stored at the British library along with mine. Denis is holding the picture that Mpho gave him afterwards. He insisted on taking us out to lunch afterwards and he had a long chat with Tshepiso who attended the Somafco school many years ago”.

Denis did not live to see the building of the House of Hope but his legacy will ensure that it does happen in Hout Bay where he chose to live out his days. His memory will be one of a new South Africa where people come together to enjoy their lives.
Anyone who met Denis could not fail to notice his keen sense of humour, his optimistic approach to new ideas, his politeness (even if he didn’t agree with you!), his humility and his love of humankind. To quote himself:
“Never ever give up hope! Never! Ever!”

Rest in Peace, my friend.

Adrienne Lowe – Chair, National Council 1992 – 1995, now Adur District.