“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.

To Be Free…

“You lost everything that looked like me, except your humanity”

When John Kani talks about what distinguishes whites from blacks, that is how he describes it.  That’s a powerful perspective, but even more powerful coming from a man who spent 51 of his 69 years as a black under apartheid rule.

To catch everyone up, I was in South Africa with AFAR magazine.  Launching in 2009 (who would have thought launching a magazine in ’09 was a good idea??), the mission of AFAR is to create a “brand that inspires and guides those who travel the world to connect with its people, experience their cultures, and understand their perspectives.”  The embodiment of that mission is what attracted me to AFAR magazine in the first place and what compelled me to join them in South Africa as part of AFARExperiences.  Having visited South Africa five years ago and fleeing Joburg immediately on arrival (based on the advice of others) I was intrigued by the opportunity to return and spend quality time in the city.

My adventure in Johannesburg began with a trip to the Apartheid Museum.  I expected a powerful experience, what I didn’t expect was that it would be housed in an amusement park.  Yes, the Apartheid Museum sits right inside the gates of Gold Reef City, in the shadow of a roller coaster.  While the locals see irony in the fact that the museum sits on a site where nothing actually happened, there is actually a logical explanation. When the developer wanted to build a casino there the government insisted on a cultural project being part of the development.  The Apartheid Museum was born.

True to their promise, AFAR did offer us a once in a lifetime experience.  The museum was closed to the public so we were able to explore the entire museum on our own.  And the tour ended with a talk by John Kani, a black South African playwright who won a Tony Award in the ‘70s for his performance in “The Island”, a play based on Robben Island.  John was born in 1943 in the Eastern Cape and spent most of his life living under, and fighting against Apartheid rule.

Listening to John Kani put the years since Apartheid in a whole new light for me.  I barely recalled that when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, as his release from prison was televised, no one knew which one he was.  No one had seen him in 27 years.  The only way people could identify him was by the woman by his side, the same woman who had been by his side all along, his wife Winnie.  How could a man so revered in his country, be so unrecognizable?  That’s how powerful the white government was.

After his release the attitude amongst non-whites was, now we are free, now is the time to seek revenge, kill the oppressors!  But Mandela said no, it’s not.  Mandela’s message was that now is the time to make South Africa the South Africa for all people black and white.

The problem was that those who had been fighting for their freedom all those years knew what freedom was, but they didn’t know about democracy.  That was something they would have to learn.  They came to accept that the only way to democracy was to accept that the problems of South Africa were everyone’s problems and as everyone’s problems they could only be solved together.  That acceptance led to an approach now known as truth and reconciliation and has been a model for conflict resolution all over the world.  Some say the Irish Peace Accord would never have been reached without it.

Kani believes South Africa is predestined for greatness and to achieve that greatness South Africans need to let go of the bad memories of the past and look to the future; “you can’t measure progress wearing the spectacles of the past”.  He looks at the 51 years he spent under apartheid rule as part of his “journey from the past to the present and a commitment to the future”.

Here in America we believe that we have mastered democracy.  After spending time in South Africa I would suggest that we might have a lot to learn from this young nation, only 18 years into their democracy.

Later that day we visited a place where things did happen, Liliesleaf Farm.  Liliesleaf, in the suburb of Rivonia was the headquarters of the ANC that was raided in 1963 leading to the Rivonia Trials and the sentencing of 10 ANC leaders to life in prison (including Nelson Mandela).  I’ll share that experience  in my next post.