Denis Goldberg has faced down death before. Half a century ago he sat in the dock with Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial, the court case that shaped modern South Africa. Both were expecting to be executed for their fight against apartheid. When the judge handed down a sentence of life imprisonment instead, he called out in joy to his anxious mother: “It’s life, and life is wonderful.” He confesses to being a born optimist.

Now 84, and facing in lung cancer an enemy even more implacable than the apartheid state, he is hoping to defy death for another short spell while he throws himself into one last campaign, to build a centre for the arts – to be called House of Hope – in his home town of Hout Bay.

It will have classrooms and offer free lessons to the town’s most disadvantaged children, plus a small performance room and Goldberg’s own collection of South African art. Cultural projects are an unexpected shift from a man who dedicated his life to political battles that played out on the international stage, becoming one of South Africa’s moral leaders in the process.

The only white man convicted at Rivonia with Mandela, on trial alongside Walter Sisulu and other heroes of the struggle to end white rule, Goldberg spent more than a quarter of his life in jail and after his release served the ANC in exile and then in government. Read more