25 July 2013 The Jewish News


Nelson Mandela’s oldest friend, Denis Goldberg, was at the former President’s bedside last week to help mark his 95th birthday. Here, he tells Sharon Feinstein about their historic 52-year friendship
Nelson Mandela’s closest friend Denis Goldberg was invited to visit him to wish him a happy birthday and stimulate his mind, as he lies in bed bored, frustrated and unable to speak.

According to Goldberg, Mandela has made remarkable progress and is not in a vegetative state.

The Jewish social activist, who stood trial alongside Nelson and spent 22 years in a separate prison, was invited to see the man he calls “Nel” by wife Graca Michel, because she is desperate to stimulate her husband’s mind.

Speaking from his home in Cape Town after he returned from Mandela’s hospital bed in Pretoria, Denis told the Jewish News: “Graca told me she wanted to exercise his mind so she invited me and two of our remaining comrades to Nelson’s bedside.

“He couldn’t speak because he has a tube down through his voice box. But he responded to my voice by turning to me, opening his eyes and trying to mutter.

“It was very sad to see a once strong man laid so low by illness and age. But his wife reassured me that he is responding to treatment. There’s no organ failure, and they’re not even thinking of switching off the support they’re giving him, because there’s every possibility of a recovery.”

Denis added: “What Graca worries about most is how bored and frustrated he is, lying there not able to do anything. So she invited us to offer him some stimulation and I’m very grateful to her for it. When I arrived, the first thing I did was embrace her and ask how she is.

“I’ve nursed two wives with terminal illnesses and I know the burden. She’s a remarkably strong person, calm and dignified, and handles the pressure very well.

“After all, her first husband, the President of Mozambique, was murdered, then she marries another ex-president and has to nurse him.

a woman sends birthday wishes to her former President

“When I left him she took us aside and told us she’d wanted to invite us much earlier but Nelson looked so awful she didn’t want to give us a shock, so she waited until he looked so much better and then invited us. That shows her strength and consideration. It also shows that Nelson has definitely been responding to the treatment.

“There have been rumours that he’s in a vegetative state. He certainly was not, because he consciously responded to me. He is stable, not like the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who people have been comparing him to. Sharon had a stroke. Mandela has not.

“A document was presented to the court stating he was in a vegetative state only because they wanted to force the court to respond as if the matter were urgent.

“When the actual court application was made, that statement was omitted because it simply wasn’t true. There is no conflicting evidence. I know what I saw.”

Denis, 80, has been close to the man known as “Madiba” for 52 years, since they stood trial together and were sentenced – 25 years behind bars for Mandela and 22 for Denis.

He says of his close friend: “I will be so saddened when he passes. When he came out of prison the first thing he said to me was: ‘Hello boy, it’s a long time since we’ve seen each other.’ It had been 25 years and that was his greeting! I introduced my wife to him. Obviously, he’d never met her before, and he responded very stiffly.

Top: Denis Goldberg with his old friend. Left: a poster of Denis, Nelson and six of their comrades from the time of their trial. Right: wellwishers signing a black and white image of Mandela as a young man.

“I said: ‘Nel, it’s my wife!’ So he bent down and said to her: ‘The boy’s looking good. You’re looking after him well.’

“With all the cares of the world on his shoulders, he had time to think of saying that to my wife, with warmth and graciousness.”

Denis adds: “The funeral is going to be a crazy massive state affair. But what I hope for is that afterwards we truly honour his memory and values about humanity. After all, we have produced five Nobel peace prize winners out of our struggle.

“I don’t like going to funerals, but I will go to Nelson’s. His famous speech, when he said, ‘I am prepared to die’, will probably be central to the funeral. With that speech his comrade Oliver Tambo made Nelson the symbol of freedom in all of South Africa, and eventually the world. It was a brilliant campaign.

“His generosity of spirit has made him into Saint Madiba. He’s a great leader who was able to find new solutions – an icon because we needed icons.” Denis continues: “He calls me ‘boy’ because I’m 15 years younger than him, and I call him ‘Nel’. So, yes, we are very good friends.

“What’s remarkable about him is that a man born in a rural area in a traditional culture was able to break away, go to a big city and grow to understand how human beings think. When he said, ‘Liberation is not just about liberating the oppressed, but liberating the oppressor’, he showed his huge understanding of humanity.”

Denis is appalled at the behaviour of Mandela’s family, but says they have suffered terribly as the children of a global celebrity.

When Nelson’s wayward grandson, Mandla, decided to take on the chieftainship which Nelson himself had always shunned, Denis asked the great man why he had allowed it. He recalls: “Nelson looked at me and replied: ‘Oh Dennis, can you tell the young people what to do?”

Mandla has moved the graves of his parents so they will be laid to rest near a luxury hotel he’s building, but has been forced by the court to reverse this.

Denis said: “I know that Nelson Mandela’s children are not the only ones who are f***** up by the experience. None of us honoured our wives and children enough – the families who made it possible for us to fight in the struggle. That’s a real pity.

“So, yes, Nelson’s family are damaged and are behaving stupidly. But why should they be different to anyone else? Children of celebrities have a very tough time, let alone the children of a man of the stature of Mandela.

“His children are getting it all wrong. It’s sad and awful but I believe they will resolve it because there are now good people mediating between them.

“When I came out of prison my daughter was asked how she felt about me, and said: ‘My daddy’s my hero, but you don’t have to love your hero. I hate him. He was never there for me. It took four years and a lot of therapy for her to learn to accept him again.’ When my son, David, was 28, he asked me why I did things that took me away from them for so long, leaving him when he was only six.

“I said: ‘David, there were millions of children who couldn’t see their fathers because of the migrant labour system. I felt it was wrong to elevate you and your sister above so many millions of children so had to do something I thought was important and that makes us human.’ “He blubbed his eyes out and we embraced.

“That evening he took me aside and said he would look after his mother and sister and I should do what I had to do because my comrades, including Nelson, were still in prison and if I didn’t try and get them out I would have wasted 22 years.”

Denis suffered terribly in prison but has never renounced his politics or stopped fighting for the freedom of South Africa. He says: “Prison made me a much stronger person. It made me more aware of my capacity to endure, it gave me an opportunity to read and study doing correspondence courses. I learnt to appreciate music more, read with greater understanding, and understand myself better.

But five years would have been enough for that – 22 was too much. So irony and self-mockery are ways of dealing with the pain.”

Does he think South Africa will descend into bloodshed and revenge when Mandela dies.

He says: “When Mandela dies we shall mourn very deeply, but we will go on because the foundations of democracy have been well and truly laid. We shall try to uphold the solidarity and humanity that he has stood for.

He withdrew from South African politics to let others get on with taking the country he loves forward, so why should his legacy be swept aside and violence unleashed?”