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An Interview with South Africa's "Most Dangerous White Man" 50 Years On

At the Rivonia Trial in 1964, Denis Goldberg (along with Nelson Mandela) was jailed for life for trying to bring down the apartheid state. Half a century on, what has changed?
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Denis Goldberg speaking at the University of Johannesburg. Photograph by Meraj Chhaya.

50 years ago last June, South Africa held the Rivonia Trial in which Denis Goldberg along with seven other anti-apartheid activists, including, most famously, Nelson Mandela, were given life sentences for conspiracy to overthrow the state.

At the time, Goldberg was labelled "the most dangerous white man in South Africa." Brought up by Communist British émigré parents, Goldberg campaigned for the African National Congress (ANC) while a student at the University of Cape Town and joined its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in 1961. Following his conviction, he spent 22 years in Pretoria prison, and after he was released in 1985, went into exile in the UK. He returned to South Africa after the system of apartheid finally fell, a time of great joy and hope for the country.

However, 20 years on from the moment Nelson Mandela became president, many South Africans believe that not enough has changed. Unemployment is at 40% according some estimates; the country is the world's most economically unequal by some measures; and despite winning the recent election, discontent with the ruling ANC seems to be at its highest ever.

Think Africa Press caught up with Denis Goldberg to get his perspective on the issues facing South Africa today:

How do you feel about South Africa’s future post Mandela?

I’m very optimistic because we have a flourishing civil society that speaks out very loudly, and in parliament there’s a lot of opposition. We’ve just had a general election and a number of opposition parties won seats. Sad to say for me, the African National Congress got a reduced number of votes, but nevertheless managed to gain 62% and so is still the government, and is the government in 8 of the 9 provinces. Elections take place and they are clean and fair. I think this year's has been the best we’ve had so far, and they’ve been steadily improving. That's why I’m optimistic.

The elections suggested that the Democratic Alliance party is becoming increasingly popular while Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters got 25 MPs elected to parliament. Does that concern you?

Well, I live in a democracy, and if we, the ANC, don’t do the work right, the other parties are going to do better in elections, and that’s what happened. This is a vital living democracy and it’s absolutely essential that it should be like that. We, the ANC, make mistakes; that’s politics. It’s not something to be frightened of. I don’t like Mr Malema’s style of politics or his demagoguery, but he is raising important issues, ones the ANC tended to forget about or not give enough emphasis to. Whether Mr Malema will succeed in the next round of elections, we’ll see.

My optimism comes from the fact that I took part in a struggle to put an end to racial tyranny, of racism by law. That, we’ve achieved. There’s no guarantee that the movement for liberation will remain the party of government forever. The question is: are the policies progressive? And the answer is: Yes, absolutely. What’s been achieved in only 20 years − I stress only 20 years − is remarkable, though it’s not enough and we have to do better.

The ANC admitted recently that it has failed to reach its land reform targets. Do you think this has been a missed opportunity for redress?

We have a contradiction in our constitution. It guarantees two things: firstly, property rights − we cannot just take property without due process − and, secondly, it promises restitution of property. But how do you take the property away?

There are cities where skyscrapers have been built on land that used to belong to the original inhabitants. The tendency has been to pay cash and each claimant gets tuppence ha’penny − as in, not a real return. And in the rural areas, one of the biggest problems is disputed claims. For instance, in the Eastern Cape there is a large timber company which pays money into a trust fund for rental on the land because it was taken by conquest. But the question is: to whom does the land belong? Well, it belongs to many families of an extended tribal structure, and at a point when everything is ready to be signed off, some group says ‘but we were there before you’, and so the whole thing opens up again.

The money is accumulating in a trust fund held by the Ministry of Finance and because people are not getting the money, they are unhappy and think it is being stolen. The Supreme Court will not sign off until every single member of each family says its okay, and so hundreds of millions of rand accumulate. It’s not the fault of government, but for me this is one of the biggest problems.

Many observers feel that the Marikana platinum mine dispute has been yet another of the ANC’s missed opportunities for reform. What's your view on this?

The company says it cannot afford to pay higher wages, while the workers say they won’t work for the old wages. The miners have set a minimum level, persisted for months, and shown remarkable fortitude. They've also incurred a loss of earnings that they will never recover, no matter how much the wages are increased. But working conditions have changed, and a transformation of the economy from the apartheid economy − where millions of black people worked for low wages and whites worked for high wages − has happened. The whites used to have all the skilled jobs, but there are now black skilled people and black managers drawing higher salaries. However, the majority are still white. The issue still takes on racial overtones, but it is now as much a question of industrial class action and conflict. The mining companies, especially the precious mineral companies, choose to make their profits abroad, not in South Africa. There's the issue of transfer pricing, of where the profit is made. Is it made in the mining activity or is it made after refining? And this dispute is a case of how profits are allocated.

The simple answer given by economists in South Africa, especially the whites who grew up under apartheid, is that nothing can be changed. But it’s got to change − unless we are prepared to face a social upheaval like we’ve never seen before − and this tremendous strike by the platinum workers is a warning.

Two years ago when a branch of the ANC was named after me, I made a speech saying ‘close the gap between low paid workers and mega-paid skilled workers and managers, otherwise we’re in for a hard ride socially and will face a revolution'. Government and employers have got to understand the need for a rapid transformation of the economy. Managers and shareholders are going to have to reallocate where the surplus goes. And if they want to lose their mines, well, I’m quite sure that when they’ve been shut down and they’ve lost their value, local entrepreneurs will take them up and restart them on a different basis.

Can you offer any insights regarding the schism that split the main mineworkers union into two?

To enable collective bargaining to happen smoothly, our labour legislation gives the right to the majority union in any occupation − the majority union negotiates for all, and the minority unions have no place in terms of the law. And so at Marikana, where the massacre in 2012 took place, the mine owners refused to even talk with the minority union. It became very brutal and, I have to say for the record, some members of the new union, the AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union), killed six shop stewards from the main NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), the established union, as well as two policemen and two private security guards. I’ve always believed in worker’s unity − that’s where their strength lies − but to kill each other is not strengthening them, and yet the differences in attitude and determination to press ahead are so different between the two groups. You can’t say one’s right and one’s wrong. AMCU has alleged that NUM is in bed with the mine-owners. I don’t think that's true, but NUM were not militant enough.

There is an issue today of unions being run like big businesses where officials are paid like business managers − paid a million rand a year where workers are paid a hundred thousand, that sort of ratio. The accusation is that the top officials are forgetting what it’s like to be a low-paid worker. That allegation has been vehemently denied. I have no doubt, though, that the police went in to Marikana with the intention of teaching the miners a lesson. The miners were armed with machetes − they did hack bodies to pieces so the police had reason to fear − but to go in with automatic weapons set on rapid fire means there was no intention of just asserting control, but to kill. That’s a frightening aspect, and one of our greatest tragedies.

Unemployment is still a big issue. Do you think the ANC is doing enough to address this?

We inherited unemployment of over 50% because apartheid was based on unemployment of the mass of people. It’s now some 40% or so, though officially around 27%. The ANC government has created the National Development Plan for infrastructure which includes the training of people to do the work. Trained personnel is something that we seriously lack in every aspect of modern industry and commerce. Building roads and railways by bringing people from abroad is not enough; we have to train our people to do it.

Implementation though is the issue, and again there’s conflict between trade unions and government as to how this is going to be done. Government is basing its costs on traditional wage relations, but the unions are saying this process of infrastructure development has to be part of transforming the economy in the sense that workers have to take a bigger portion of the surpluses and investment funds.

I have to say that the ANC is very serious about infrastructure, housing, water and sanitation, but the backlog is so great due to the lack of trained personnel. Just about every ministry returns unspent money to the treasury. They can’t spend it because they lack trained workers. So what’s the answer? It’s time. And time makes people unhappy. They’re impatient; I understand it. But time is not something we can just dismiss.

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Comments

Insightful and honest on the challenges and opportunities; particularly like the ending, "So what's the answer? Time. And time makes people unhappy."Excellent interview in terms of interviewee choice, interview subject, and interviewer probing.