“Life is Wonderful!”

When the verdict was handed down in the Rivonia Trial, the defendants learned that they had escaped a death sentence.  Denis Goldberg’s mother was in the back of the courtroom and couldn’t hear the judge’s sentence.  Denis turned to her and said, “Life!  Life is wonderful!”

Denis Goldberg was arrested in 1963 at Liliesleaf Farm, the headquarters of the African National Congress.  The arrest of Denis and his comrades (as he calls them) led to the Rivonia Trial where he, along with Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life in prison.  As the only white man convicted was sent to Pretoria Central Prison.  Nelson Mandela and the other men were sent to Robben Island.  As a white man, his treatment was probably even harsher than that at Robben Island as he was seen as a traitor.

Unlike our visit to the Apartheid Museum earlier that day, Liliesleaf Farm is where it all happened.  In the Joburg suburb of Rivonia, African National Congress (ANC) sympathizer Arthur Goldreich had purchased Liliesleaf Farm as a safe house that served as the headquarters for the ANC in the early 60’s.  Liliesleaf was the home of Nelson Mandela for a time where he was “hired” as a day laborer under the pseudonym David Morsamayi.  At the time of the raid, the ANC knew that the authorities were closing in on them and were preparing to move to a new location, but they didn’t move soon enough.

Today Liliesleaf Farm is a museum.  You can tour the actual house where the arrests were made, listen to a radio broadcast of Nelson Mandela in the kitchen where he used to eat breakfast and peer into the small room where Mandela lived, hiding in plain site (I wasn’t able to visit Robben Island when I was in Capetown but I imagine this room wasn’t much bigger than his cell).  There is an actual museum building that has been built in the back that houses a small auditorium where we had the unique honor of hearing Denis Goldberg talk about his experiences and how they shaped his life.

Why a 31 year old man with two young children would celebrate a life sentence is a complicated story, one told much better by him in his recently published book, “The Mission, A Life for Freedom in South Africa”.  But what we did get to hear from this 79 year old man, 27 years free, was why he doesn’t regret a single one of his 7,904 days in prison and why if he had it to do all over again, he would do it the same way.

While Goldberg is Jewish, he wasn’t raised a religious man. What he is is a humanitarian.  Since he was a young kid in the Eastern Cape of South Africa he believed that what he saw happening to his fellow citizens was wrong and as a young white man it was wrong to sit back and let it happen.  His activities caused him to miss his own children’s childhoods, something he has suffered some resentment from them for doing.  But for him, it was worth sacrificing for his two children to save the lives of millions of others.

I share those same principles but can’t help but ask myself, if I were in the same situation, would I have the courage?  I’d like to say yes, but I just don’t know.  .

The South African Tourism Board promises “South Africa, and the things you experience here will change the way you see the world and the way you live your life; the you who leaves South Africa won’t be the same as the you who arrived.”  (watch video here) .  Promise kept.


What to know about Liliesleaf Farm:

07 George Avenue, Rivonia, 2128 Johannesburg, South Africa


Plan to spend at least an hour and a half to visit the museum as well as the home and outer buildings.  The exhibits are very interactive which makes it an interesting visit for younger kids.