Obituary - Denis Goldberg DUniv



The University is saddened to hear of the passing of Denis Theodore Goldberg on 29th April 2020.

Denis was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Heriot-Watt University in 2018 in recognition of his immense and selfless contribution to civil society, to learning for all, and his outstanding contribution to democracy. 

Denis Goldberg was born in Cape Town in 1933 to Jewish immigrants from the UK. He graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1955. He was politically active from an early age, joining the South African Communist Party and later the African National Congress (ANC) to fight for human rights and to end Apartheid. 

He was one of the eight Rivonia Triallists, along with Nelson Mandela, who were convicted in 1964 of Sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. They had been expecting the death penalty.  Denis Goldberg was one of the founders of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. He had helped organise the first MK training camp inside South Africa, and was the MK’s technical officer. Goldberg was gaoled in the Whites Only Pretoria Central Prison. Nelson Mandela and the six others were sent to Robben Island.

During his 22 years in prison he took degrees in various subjects and was studying for a law degree at the time of his release in 1985. He went into exile in the UK, moving at first to London and then spending some time in Scotland working with the trade union movement. Very soon after, he had resumed his work for the ANC, working in their London Office and travelling widely to campaign against apartheid. With the repeal of apartheid legislation in 1991 and multiracial elections set for 1994, Denis was able to devote his energies to various charitable causes, most notably Community H.E.A.R.T. - established in 1995 to help improve the living conditions of black South Africans. 

He moved back to South Africa in 2002 and was appointed Special Adviser to the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry until 2004. 

His most recent initiative had been to establish the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation and launch an appeal to build the ‘House of Hope’ in Hout Bay, south of Cape Town, to support young people in various artistic, dramatic and musical endeavours. 

He maintained his political commitment and involvement to the end, being one of 101 long-standing ANC Members who wrote an open letter in 2016 calling for political change in South Africa and implicitly the resignation of Jacob Zuma.

He was awarded the Albert Luthuli medal by the American Peace Committee In 2009 and the German Federal Cross of Merit (1st class) in 2011. In 2010 he was made an honorary member of the trade union UNISON. In 2019 he was also awarded an Honorary Degree by his alma mater, the University of Cape Town, commenting that it was much different to when he was a student in the 1950s and the civil engineering students were among the least progressive and were often supporters of the Apartheid Regime.   

In 2010 he published his autobiography, The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa.

Because of his ill health, Denis Goldberg’s Honorary DUniv was awarded at a special ceremony in his hometown, at the Hout Bay Museum, in 2018. Denis was “capped” by Heriot-Watt Deputy Principal Professor Garry Pender; Professor Paul Jowitt gave the laureation. Denis was in a wheelchair, suffering from lung cancer. He’s probably the only person ever to graduate from Heriot Watt wearing his bedroom slippers!

The ceremony was filmed and shown to Heriot Watt’s civil engineering graduates in June 2019.