In his last days, Nelson Mandela’s closest friend was invited to see him to stimulate his mind as he lay in bed bored, frustrated and unable to speak.
Denis Goldberg, who stood trial alongside Nelson and spent 22 years in a separate prison, was invited to see the man he calls ‘Nel‘ by wife Graca Michel, because she was desperate to stimulate her husband’s mind.
Speaking from his home in Cape Town after he returned from Mandela’s hospital bed in Pretoria, Denis told the Jewish News: “Graca told me she wanted to stimulate him and exercise his mind so she invited me and two of our remaining comrades to Nelson’s bedside. He couldn’t speak to me because he has a tube down through his voice box but he responded to my voice by turning to me, opening his eyes and trying to mutter.”
“It was very sad to see a once strong man laid so low by illness and age. What she [Graca] worries about most is how bored and frustrated he is lying there not able to do anything, and she invited us to offer him some stimulation and I’m very grateful to her for it .”
“When I arrived the first thing I did was embrace her and ask how she is. I’ve nursed two wives with terminal illnesses and I know the burden.”
“She’s a remarkably strong person, calm and dignified, and handles the pressure very well. After all her first husband, the President of Mozambique, was murdered, then she marries another ex President and has to nurse him.”
80-year-old Dennis has been close to the man known as Madiba for 52 years since they stood trial together and were sentenced to 25 years for Mandela and 22 for Dennis
He says of his close friend “When he came out of prison the first thing he said to me was, ‘hello boy, it’s a long time since we’ve seen each other’. It was just 25 years but that was his greeting.”
“I introduced my wife to him, he’d never met her before, and he responded very stiffly. I said ‘Nel, its my wife!’ So he bent down and said, ‘The boy’s looking good, you’re looking after him well.'”
“With all the cares of the world on his shoulders, he had time to think of saying that to my wife, with warmth and graciousness. The funeral is going to be a crazy massive state affair, but what I hope for is that afterwards we truly honour his memory and values about humanity.
“We have five Nobel peace prize winners out of one general of struggle, I don’t think we’ll ever do that again. I don’t like going to funerals but I will go to Nelson’s.
Denis is appalled at the behaviour of Mandela’s family but says they have suffered terribly as the children of a global celebrity. When Nelson’s wayward grandson, Mandla, decided to take on the chieftainship which Nelson himself had always shunned, Denis asked the great man why he had allowed it. He says : “Nelson looked at me and replied : “ Oh Dennis, can you tell the young people what to do?”
Denis suffered terribly in prison but has never renounced his politics or stopped fighting for the freedom of south Africa He says : “Prison made me a much stronger person, made me more aware of the capacity to endure, gave me an opportunity to read and study doing correspondence courses, I learnt to appreciate music more, read with greater understanding, and understood myself better. But 5 years would have been enough for that, 22 was too much, so irony and self mockery are ways of dealing with the pain of it all.”