Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Day I Met An ANC Activist

I met and interviewed ANC political activist Denis Goldberg during a student rally in London on 15th February 1990, demonstrating against the student loans. It was a typical February day, overcast but dry and very cold. Myself and 2000 other young idealistic students (I was only 19 at the time) had already marched through the streets of the city of London before converging around a makeshift stage in Hyde Park.


Mr Goldberg was invited to speak to the crowd, not about student loans but about the recent developments in his home country of South Africa. A few days before, his leader and friend Nelson Mandela was released from Pretoria Prison, by President F.W. De Klerk. He must have been a little bit apprehensive about speaking to us since the speakers who preceded him (Labour MP Andrew Smith and Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes) had been booed and jeered off stage. Yet when his name was announced there was a roar of cheers. This humble unassuming man in his late fifties took to the stage and was greeted like a legendary rock star. I never knew who he was until one of the students in the crowd told me. I quickly realised that this would be my one chance to interview someone who played a part on what was soon to be the downfall of the Apartheid regime. His message, to start off with was simple;
“Mr Mandela asked me to say that the strings of the anti-apartheid movements and of the students were of tremendous support while he was in prison, believe me it was, I know too.”
Imagine what it must have felt like for a young person being delivered a message from Nelson Mandela. I know I felt a small shiver of excitement down my spine.

Mr Goldberg expressed a feeling of complacency following Mandela’s release which he saw as nothing more than a photo opportunity for President De Klerk to boost his credentials. With hindsight this must now seem a little disingenuous however if you consider that Mr Goldberg had been in prison for over twenty years and seen the torture and execution of his fellow countryman, perhaps he should be forgiven for expressing some cynicism. He was principally concerned however that those countries he saw as forced to impose sanctions (and in the case of Margaret Thatcher’s government, that may have been true) on South Africa, would now see De Klerk’s actions as reason enough to ease those sanctions. He called for continued pressure on De Klerk to make good on his promises, dismantle Apartheid and hold open elections for all. It is nice to look back at this knowing that all he had fought for came to being.

In my profile of him I made reference to Mr Goldberg’s recollection of being taunted by guards on the way to serving his four life sentences. This was taken from the speech at the demonstration during which he talked about the day of Mandela’s release and why it was so important that he walk from the prison and through the neighbouring villages.
“We saw tens of thousands of people ready again to welcome our great leader who had insisted upon walking out of the prison gates and we were told by the commentators that he wished to greet the people of the neighbouring towns, and I guess he did. But it was much more than that. When we arrived at the prison, after having been sentenced to four terms, if you please, of life imprisonment, prison guards and security police, said we would never walk out of the prisons again. We would leave when were carried out feet first in a coffin. Well Nelson Mandela after 27 years walked out of the prison on his two feet.”

After his speech I saw on opportunity to grab a few words from this great man. I was ready for the possibility that he might dismiss me since I was only a teenager and no doubt only had time for real reporters. I could not have been more wrong. I was the first to interview him and he was very accommodating. I placed my tape recorder between us and to this day I still remember shivering not just from the cold but feelings of intense nervousness conscious of this man before me and the journalists behind me, as I asked my first question. We spoke briefly about the reasons for De Klerk’s decisions and I asked him if he felt those reasons were genuine or just an opportunity to boost his public image. This was his reply:
“I think both things are true. He’s come to the point, because of sanctions, because of the pressures from inside our country that the system is in decline. As Nelson Mandela said “we can see it has failed” and he knows it has failed, De Klerk. What are his options? To go on shooting, to go on seeing the whole system collapse or does he release Nelson Mandela with the hope of genuine negotiations. From his point of view he has a vision of the future of South Africa. It’s not quite the vision of the ANC but we have to talk too many people have died.”

Later one of those reporters said to me that Mr Goldberg was very pleased that I wanted to speak with him as he had always valued the support and interest shown by young students. To say I was pleased with this would be an understatement.

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