When my friend, the brilliant author and movie maker, Onyeka Nwelue, invited me to the Nigeria Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) in Victoria Island, last Saturday, for an event the details of which he would not divulge on phone, I obliged, imagining it an opportunity to catch up, not having seen him in a while. Little did I know that it would be an opportunity of a life time and one that would make an impression on me that will last for as long as I live.
Oblivious of what the event was about, I sauntered in, in my jean and t-shirt only to find that it was the 50th birthday ceremony of Professor Leslye Amede Obiora, Nigeria’s former Minister of Solid Minerals (among many other accomplishments) cum commemorative lecture in honour of her late dad, Barrister S.B.C Obiora. Feeling out of place, I very nearly left. I am glad I decided otherwise for it would have been an opportunity to stand before greatness, lost.
One of the guest speakers at the event, which had in attendance such dignitaries as Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (who gave the commemoratory toast), Cornelius Adebayo, Arthur Mbanefo, Professor Pat Utomi, among others was Denis Goldberg. Anyone who is familiar with the South African struggle for freedom against apartheid, as well as the life of Nelson Mandela, who we coincidentally are celebrating, will understand my excitement.
Denis Goldberg is the “Accused No. 3” in the epochal Rivonia Trial. Mandela was “Accused No. 1”. Rivonia Trial was the celebrated 1963/1964 trial and subsequent sentencing to life imprisonment of ten leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) on 221 counts of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government in South Africa. Dr Goldberg, who is now eighty, spent twenty two years in prison before his release in 1985.
Quite naturally, especially following the death of the leader of that group, Nelson Mandela, who passed on the very night Dr Goldberg arrived in Nigeria for a number of speaking events, his talk that evening was about their struggle against apartheid, how he got involved, his relationship with Nelson Mandela and what lessons the world, especially her leaders who are right now making arrangements to flock South Africa for Mandela’s burial, must learn from his life.
Listening first hand to a survivor of the apartheid struggle, a contemporary of Mandela, left an impression that more than a thousand books or movies could ever manage. For close to an hour Dr Goldberg held us spell bound as he regaled us with tales that left goose bumps, that made you stop, think and marvel at the share capacity of the human mind to persist against all odds when there is a will and then made you shudder at the dearth of such bravery and die-hard commitment to the course of humanity in present day leaders.
What is most instructive about Dr Denis Goldberg is that he is white. He was the only white member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the underground armed wing of the struggle) to be arrested and sentenced in the Rivonia Trial to life imprisonment. He was from a privileged background and as a white South African he had entirely nothing to worry about at that time. Indeed he had no business engaging in the fight against white minority rule and all the inconveniences including threat to life that came with it. But even as a very young man, he knew there was something intrinsically wrong with apartheid and even though it favoured his race, he set out to do something about it because of a deep belief in the right of all human beings regardless of colour or creed to live free.
In an account that does well to remind us that everyone has a role to play – those up front and those behind the scenes and each is no less as important as the other, Dr Goldberg told us of how as a civil engineer, but being someone who was pretty shy of public speaking, he performed ancillary duties for the struggle, setting up podiums, publishing and circulating documents written by others and ultimately signing up to join the armed wing of the struggle which ultimately led to his arrest along with the others.
After his release in 1985, Dr Goldberg went on exile to London where he continued to work in the London office of the ANC, representing the body at various levels including the Anti-Apartheid Committee of the United Nations amongst others.
That Dr Goldberg and his comrades are heroes is a fact nobody can dispute. They present to humanity all over the globe excellent examples of how to truly live especially in a world threatened by extreme inequality, mediocre leadership and hate. Dr Goldberg particularly teaches us how injustice to one is injustice to all and the need for us to act wherever we observe injustice whether we are affected or not. If his colour could not deter him from standing shoulder to shoulder with black South Africans, then why should we continue to let mundane issues as states of origin and creed to obscure our judgment of every issue and influence our actions?
As the world continues to celebrate Nelson Mandela, the lessons his life and those of his comrades provides us must not be lost on us. It is sad unfortunately to note that many young Nigerians, who ought to know better, are perpetually condemned to remaining ignorant on these matters because of our very poor sense of history and an abysmal attitude towards reading.