Limmud conference in South Africa conjures up memories of the past

At Limmud in Johannesburg I had occasion to listen to and to chat with Denis Goldberg, one of the speakers at the conference.

Denis Goldberg speaking at the Edinburgh World Justice Festival in 2013 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Denis Goldberg speaking at the Edinburgh World Justice Festival in 2013
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It was about five on the afternoon of a cold and wet winter’s day in London at the end of 1972 or in early 1973. We were part of a crowd milling around the entrance to the Baker Street tube round the corner from the Marylebone  Road entrance. I glanced up and, catching his eye, I saw him. While nothing could have been more different for him, to me it seemed that he had not changed these past eight years.
“John!” Though I’m not sure whether he returned the recognition, he acknowledged my call and, responding both to my delight and to my invitation to a cuppa, we were soon chatting away. It was not a long encounter.  Both of us had our destinations.On the way down the escalator I reminded him of our opposing parts in Max Frisch’s play, The Fireraisers, the play that Peter Rodda had directed in April 1963.
1964 was the year of Mandela’s latest arrest and of the Rivonia Trial. The trial was in June. For my BA degree I was majoring in Social Anthropology at the Port Elizabeth branch of Rhodes University. John Laredo was our “Socanth” professor. Peter Rodda was the English poetry lecturer in PE and local chairman of the Liberal Party, the party of Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC, and of  Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country, the party that Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had recently banned. In Peter’s play I was one of the two arsonists, John played the part of the academic whose words  advocate revolution while carefully steering clear of the violence. 
“Your cigar, Herr Biedermann!” I announce as we enter his house at the beginning of  the play, set in 1930s Germany but represented by Frisch as anytime-anyplace and intended by Peter and John to point a finger at 1960s’ South Africa.  In the course of the dialogue we tell Biedermann that we’ll blow up his house, the action has us rolling barrels of gunpowder into his attic; and then he provides us with the match to finish the job.  I have a photo of the cast  showing Peter directing, John in cap and gown, looking on aghast.
“I disassociate myself,” were your words, all that you say in the play, I now remind him. “It was you who was the activist, “we who simply spoke the words.”  At that time there were those on campus whom some of us suspected as police informers.  Rehearsals were now and again attended by uninvited observers.  As the events of that year unfolded it became more than ever clear to us that this was the stance that  our teachers were taking against the abomination that was South Africa in those years.  A sharp rejoinder, with daggers drawn.
For the plot thickened in the autumn of the next year, 1964, just prior to the Rivonia Trial. The leaves were falling.  One day on campus  that winter I must have had a “dawn patrol,” because I was there fairly early that morning. There was a lot of activity.
One or two of the university staff – I seem to recall that Bromberger of Economic  History was one of them – were very busy carrying files out of Laredo’s office next to the refectory in the “Snake-pit,” until recently part of the premises of the municipal Museum and Snake-Garden on Bird Street that then, for a few years, became the site of the local Rhodes branch. Much movement. Then, a little later that day, John was being marched towards the gate, plain-clothes gents on either side of him.
Volkswagens in the car park.  That was the last I saw of him till that rainy day in London.   
John was taken under the 90 day detention-without-trial law, extended for him until he stood trial a little later for “passing explosives to Africans.” At that time subversive activity hardly ever resulted in death or even injury.  Typically one would now and again read of  damage to an electricity pylon somewhere on the Garden Route road between PE and Cape Town. He was sentenced to five years solitary, a term of confinement that he served in Pretoria. 
Mandela and other black Africans would serve their life sentences at Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.  Apartheid South Africa would never mix white and black Africans.  
Peter was taken but released after 90 days.  John’s wife Ursula Marx was lecturing  to us in the English department.  Her subject was the English novel, one of which was Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent. Set in turn-of-the-century London the novel’s protagonist is a horrible abhorrence who blows up innocents.   There’s an existential irony in this coincidence of fact with fiction. 
Stories were doing the rounds on campus about the prisoners and how they were faring.  It was said that  Ursula, kept completely in the dark about John’s activities, was livid. Had he considered their three children? Would she stick by him? Of course she did. 
Rumor had it that, strong as an ox mentally, John stood up to the torture. 
Peter collapsed, they said, to the extent that his partner had to feed him.  I met up with him in London in the seventies, also by chance, twice. On one occasion I found him behind the counter at Foyles, one of the capital’s main bookstores.  On another we were in the audience at the Young Vic, a theatre in the West End.
PORT ELIZABETH is built on a hill so that if you go down Bird Street towards the city for about half a mile you come to the crest of the hill which, descending  steeply but gradually, brings you at sea level to a wide rectangular complex of buildings.  This complex contains the city hall and a large  Post Office.  It is a sturdy structure, built after the city’s creation with the arrival of the  1820 British settlers. These were the families of  returning soldiers,  unemployable at home at the time of  their return  from the Napoleonic Wars.    The building reeks of Empire, architecturally a replica of Melbourne’s city hall in Swanston Street and – I daresay – of  buildings put up worldwide  in the staid and solid imperious cities of the early Victorian empire. 
Turning left at the bottom of the hill into Main Street, the road forms  a semi-circle around a fountain in front of the city hall.   That was where, at half-past-midday on a Friday afternoon a few weeks after their detention,  twelve of us - about 6% of the local student body - took up our positions a little back from the road, at ten yard intervals from each other. 
The banner I carried was typical of those held by my fellow demonstrators. “Education, not Tyranny,” it declared.  A few short minutes later the Volkswagens arrived from the police station around the corner.  As we were in contravention of the law against obstructing traffic, they said, they ordered us to clear off.  I learned later from my brother, a local attorney who dealt professionally with the police, that they had opened files on each of us.  Most of us were concerned about the worry that the report in that night’s Evening Post might cause to our  folks.  The Post’s journalist agreed to my request that he keep our names out of his story.  
1964 was also the year both  of my final BA examinations and of the closure of Rhodes’s PE branch, expelled from the city and replaced the next year by the Afrikaner-dominated University of Port Elizabeth.  The exams were due to begin in the second week of December.  Towards the  end of November, on the day of the chancellor’s weekly visit from Grahamstown (seat of the main campus, some eighty miles from PE)  he opened his door to an officer of the law, who ordered him to instruct the 12 of us. 
We were to be summoned either to appear in court on the day that our exams were scheduled to begin,  or to pay a ten rand admission- of- guilt fine.  With 10 rand (worth about 5 pounds sterling at that time) that paltry figure was, of course, meant to encourage us to cave in.  As if – in the state of  pre-exam tension that we all felt – we needed any further prodding. 
For a little over five decades I knew nothing more about the fates of these two Rhodes teachers. Then, in August 2016, my wife Leah and I flew from Australia to South Africa for a couple of weeks  to join cousin Ivan’s 70th birthday celebration at the Wanderers cricket ground.  I took the opportunity of my stay in the Republic to immerse myself thoroughly in its concerns and, altering the direction of my reading, to delve into some of the most recent relevant writing.  Over one of the weekends, at Limmud in Johannesburg – a jamboree of learning on subjects related to Jews and their issues –  I had occasion to listen to and to chat with Denis Goldberg, one of the speakers at the conference. 
Goldberg, who was born on April 11, 1933, was one of the eight defendants, the only white and Jew among them, who were given life sentences at the Rivonia trial. The others, besides Mandela, included Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu. Goldberg sat for 22 years in the same Pretoria prison where Laredo served his sentence.
He told me what I could so easily have found out, if I’d had the savvy, by googling “John Laredo.” The item there is a lengthy obituary inserted by King’s College, London, where he graduated MA in the mid-1950s.  Born into an Afrikaner family, John died suddenly in Leeds on October 1, 2000 after a lifetime fighting apartheid in South Africa and England. After the end of apartheid, however, he and his partner, Ailsa, returned to South Africa and were honored by an invitation to lunch with President Mandela. Interviewing Goldberg could, of course, provide more intimate detail, as can the volume dedicated to him by his friends and fellows: Denis Goldberg: Freedom Fighter and Humanist (edited by David Kenvyn; Johannesburg: Lilieslief, 2014).

For anyone aiming at immersion in the subject, William Gummede’s republication of Mandela’s writings: Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2013) is recommended. For the most recent research I found Kenneth S. Broun’s Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa (Oxford: OUP, 2012) an excellent read.  For balance, Richard Steyn’s Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2015) brought me up to date on the story of a hero of my younger days.
For those who can make it, the Liliesleaf Farm Museum in Rivonia has achieved international acclaim and was declared a world heritage site. A half day’s visit gives you a feel for the underground struggle conducted by the ANC at the farm.
The writer was local chairman of NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students. He holds master’s degrees from Tel Aviv University and Monash University and is a fellow of the Institute of Historical Research in London.