Denis Goldberg was born in 1933 in Cape Town, to a family already deeply committed to radical politics. Like Albie Sachs, he grew up in a family that welcomed people of all races into their house. His parents, Sam and Annie Goldberg, were both born in London — the children of Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to England in the latter half of the 19th century. Sam and Annie had been politically active communists while living to London, and took up active roles in the SACP upon moving to South Africa. His parents, Denis says, brought their class consciousness and organising ability with them. He remembers that during his childhood, though happy, he was filled with a deep awareness of the inequalities of the world around him, and what that meant for millions of others whose lived were marred by the systematic brutality of inequality.
Though his parents were atheists, Denis was nonetheless raised as a Jew. Beyond that, he remembers that his father read the newspaper with him in the evenings, and took him to the library to borrow books. This, along with the fact that his parents and their comrades would support workers on strike — whether they were white or black — contributed to his early interest in politics.
In March 1950, aged 16, Denis began a Civil Engineering degree at UCT. In his final year, he met Esme Bodenstein, who herself came from a family active in the Communist Party. Esme was was the daughter of a Johannesburg political activist, Minnie Bodenstein, a fund-raiser for the CPSA, and for Umzebenzi, the Guardian, and other left-wing publications. Minnie worked with Tillie First, Ruth First’s mother. Esme was a committee member of the non-racial Modern Youth Society, which she encouraged Denis to join, and later of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). They married in 1954, and in 1957, Denis joined the SACP.
Photograph of some members of the Federation of South African Women, Esme Goldberg at far right, 1955. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)
Though Esme subsequently went to England in exile with a number of other comrades, Denis stayed and became the technical officer of Umkhonto we Sizwe when it was founded in 1961, helping to organise an MK training camp outside Cape Town. In the July 11 1963 raid on Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, Denis, along with Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Rusty Bernstein was arrested, and became a defendant in the Rivonia Trial, charged with offences under the Sabotage Act. He was found guilty, and sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment.
While Denis was in prison, Esme’s house in London provided a haven for many South African political refugees.
In 1985, Goldberg's daughter Hilary was living on a kibbutz in Israel, which had set up a committee to try and obtain her father’s release from prison. Denis’ comrades imprisoned on Robben Island managed to convey to him that the ANC, including those on Robben Island, approved of the release initiative that was underway. The government offered to release Goldberg on the condition that he would not take part in violence for political ends. Denis agreed not to be a soldier anymore, but he did not repudiate his earlier involvement or the need for an armed struggle. He went into exile in London with his family and resumed his work in the ANC in its London office, continuing to campaign against apartheid until the system was fully disbanded with the 1994 democratic elections.