A lesson in fighting apartheid from a Jewish South African dissident

Denis Goldberg, who passed away on April 29, reminded Palestinians that the world has seen their kind of oppression before — and that it can be beaten.

Denis Goldberg and Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy of Debbie Yazbek)
Denis Goldberg and Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy of Debbie Yazbek)

Denis Goldberg, the Jewish South African anti-apartheid activist, died last week on April 29, just two weeks after his 87th birthday.

I had the fortune of seeing Goldberg speak at Oxford University in February 2014, thanks to a friend who I was visiting at the time. The event itself was just under two hours, yet it remains one of the fondest and most profound moments of my political education.

An engineer by training and a longtime member of the African National Congress, Goldberg was a leading technical officer making weapons for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing. He was arrested and charged alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and other leaders at the Rivonia Trial in 1963-4, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Goldberg, of course, was sent to a white prison in Pretoria, his black comrades to Robben Island near Cape Town.

After 22 years behind bars, Goldberg was released in 1985, due in part to a campaign by a group of Israeli activists, including his daughter Hilary who lived in a kibbutz, working to free Jewish prisoners worldwide. The campaign helped press Israel and the U.K. to intervene for his release, coupled with Goldberg’s own letter to South African president P.W. Botha.

Exiling himself to London instead (Goldberg was a fierce critic of Zionism, Israel’s policies against the Palestinians, and its relations with Pretoria), he continued to lobby on the ANC’s behalf. After South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, Goldberg pursued philanthropic ventures alongside his political activism.

A voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Edendale Township in Pietermaritz. April 1, 1994. (UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger)
A voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Edendale Township in Pietermaritz. April 1, 1994. (UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger)

Goldberg was at Oxford to deliver an annual lecture in honor of Bram Fischer, the white communist lawyer who led the legal team that represented the Rivonia defendants. Fischer himself would eventually be sentenced to life incarceration for his communist activism, dying of cancer nine years later while still a prisoner.

The tribute was beautiful, interweaving stories of Fischer’s politics, his athleticism, his musical tastes, his angered expressions, and his humility. Goldberg’s famed humor flickered throughout his speech; recounting an English peasant revolt in 1381 as an example of class struggle, he quipped “You know it pays to go to prison — you get time to read and find out history!”

His voice would shake at times, taking a moment’s pause as emotion for his lost friend hit him. Thanking Fischer and the legal team for “literally” saving his life and those of his comrades, he looked up to the audience and said, “It sure is nice to report to you about it tonight.”

What struck me most, though, was Goldberg’s recounting of the dilemmas he and the Rivonia defendants faced in arguing before a white apartheid court.

Charged with crimes of sabotage, the leaders were almost certain they would be issued the death penalty. Still, they opted not to appeal if it was handed down. Their primary goal in the courtroom was not to save themselves, but to tackle the regime head-on. “The state wanted a show trial,” Goldberg explained. “… we had to turn it around to show that it was the apartheid state that was the source of violence and brutality. In other words, we had to demonstrate the state’s terrorism.”

Fischer was fully aligned with this political strategy, but urged the defendants to pursue an appeal if needed. He insisted that it would at least help to buy time — not only for the lives of the defendants, but to allow international pressure to ramp up further against the apartheid government (near the trial’s ending, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 190 urging states to “exert all their influence” on Pretoria to help free the political prisoners).

Segregated beach at Stranofontein near Cape Town. January 1, 1985. (UN Photo/A Tannenbaum)
Segregated beach at Stranofontein near Cape Town. January 1, 1985. (UN Photo/A Tannenbaum)

To everyone’s surprise, the court ultimately chose imprisonment, which the defendants decided not to appeal so as not to press their luck for the worse. Besides, they had accomplished their chief objective: their defense at the Rivonia Trial was a milestone in turning the global tide against apartheid. It was a reminder, noted Goldberg, that “Our future was more bound up in the politics of South Africa than in some isolated concept of law and justice or injustice.”

Sitting in the audience, I clung to every word of Goldberg’s speech.

The dilemmas he had raised were mirror reflections of how Palestinians experience Israel’s legal regime, both as citizens under civil law and as occupied subjects under military law.

Far from being a check on state power, Israeli courts, like in South Africa, have been key architects and enablers of land seizures, racist legislation, family separation, military impunity, and much more. And although Israel’s laws are arguably more nuanced than apartheid South Africa’s, they effectively achieve the same purpose: the supremacy and privilege of one group over others.

Goldberg agreed. Like many leaders of the fight against South African apartheid, he asserted that “There is no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state… I cannot allow in my name the same kind of oppression to go on.”

Israel did not have to be a precise copy of South Africa to carry out apartheid, he argued, and the fact that some Palestinians had Israeli citizenship, including the right to vote, did not change that fact. “It’s simple: the dominant group excludes the indigenous people from their equal rights within the borders of Israel itself and in the occupied territories, in breach of international law,” he said.

It is little wonder that Palestinian lawyers and activists have long turned to the South African experience for answers in their own struggle. What could we gain from a legal system inherently designed to oppress us? Would engaging with the courts merely bolster the state’s claim to being a “democracy” that allows due process? These questions are not unique to our context, and yet, over seven decades later, Palestinians have still borne little fruit from their efforts.

Palestinian, foreign, and Israeli activists try to block an Israeli bulldozer preparing for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, July 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Palestinian, foreign, and Israeli activists try to block an Israeli bulldozer preparing for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, July 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

During the Q&A, I was able to ask Goldberg about the similar challenges we faced with using the law in Palestine-Israel, and what advice he would give us. Goldberg essentially replied that a state, first and foremost, always seeks to “reproduce itself,” and the law is a manifestation of that purpose. Law on its own cannot liberate a people from an oppressive regime, and there are no immediate victories in a people’s struggle, least of all in a courtroom.

Still, when used critically and wisely, the law can be an important tool to combat the state. Whether it is about defending people from vicious practices or demanding basic needs from the government, the inches of ground that we save or gain can sometimes make a difference — if not now, then maybe tomorrow, and if not in the courtroom, then perhaps elsewhere. Indeed, had the Rivonia defendants not used the court to their advantage, they would have certainly been executed. Mandela would have never lived to become president; the Rivonia prisoners would have never seen apartheid fall.

Fischer’s own career epitomized that legal philosophy. “As an officer of the court, he was sworn to uphold the laws of the apartheid state,” Goldberg remarked in his tribute, “but as a revolutionary, he used the courts to further the revolutionary overthrow of the system.” During his own trial before his imprisonment, Fischer told the court in his defense that “when the law is immoral, one must obey a higher law in the interest of justice.” This, for Goldberg, draws “a distinction between justice and decisions of courts established to preserve the state.”

I had heard this lesson many times before in Palestine-Israel and around the globe, but to hear it directly from this legendary political prisoner gave it an unparalleled weight. Like other anti-apartheid leaders who have now passed — including Mandela, Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo — Goldberg was a living embodiment of a political struggle that stretched for decades, that required dedication and adaptation, failures as much as victories, humility not gratification. He was a reminder that, for all the harrowing experiences Palestinians have faced, the world has seen this kind of oppression before — and it can be beaten.