By Linda Bordoni
Following 87-year-old Denis Goldberg’s death on 29 April, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the country’s flags to fly at half-mast to observe four days of national mourning.
Ramaphosa, himself one of Goldberg’s companions during the long fight for democracy in South Africa, pointed out that his “revolutionary contribution reinforced the non-racial character of the Struggle and of the country’s democratic dispensation.”
Many others, including Anglican Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace prize winner, Desmond Tutu, have raised their voices to honour a man whose great sense of justice drove him to fight injustice in his country at great personal cost.
History books, media footage and articles tell of how, in the early 1950’s, Goldberg joined the underground African National Congress’ struggle for equality and of how this led to his arrest and conviction at the famed Rivonia Treason Trial, along with Nelson Mandela and ten others.
They also tell how Denis Goldberg spent 22 years in jail, and how, after his release in 1985, he continued to campaign against the apartheid system from London until the system was fully abolished with the 1994 election in South Africa.
I spoke to South Africa’s Ambassador to the Holy See, George Johannes, who spent years in exile in London with Goldberg during some of the darkest times of South Africa’s history.
Ambassador Johannes told me that although Denis Goldberg was of the Jewish faith, he always held the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church in high esteem, quoting from it on many occasions and upholding its values as his own.
He was a man who was prepared to sacrifice all in his battle to affirm human dignity and the need for the common good. His concern for social justice, explained the Ambassador, was at the root of his determination to fight oppression and exploitation.
Johannes said that Goldberg did not shy away from comparing South Africa’s “Freedom Charter” to the Social Doctrine of the Church, a document he would refer to for its unequalled treasure of wisdom about building a just society.
One trait of Goldberg’s that the Ambassador remembers well, was his capacity to empathize, to be moved to compassion. He told me that Goldberg would suffer and cry when told of the cruel things being done to his companions who were still in jail, or were being apprehended by security forces back home.
Those London years came to an end for both men and their ways parted, but Ambassador Johannes said they always kept in touch and Goldberg was thrilled for Johannes’ appointment at the Holy See.
During one of their exchanges, a conversation took place about Pope Francis’ Encyclical ‘Laudato Sì’ when it was first released: “It was clear that Goldberg was extremely interested,” Johannes added, “So I sent him a copy.”
“He fell in love with it!” he said, “When he called to thank me for the gift, he told me it contained his philosophy!”