JOHANNESBURG — Three silver-haired men sat together and recalled a court case 50 years ago that rocketed their friend and fellow freedom fighter to fame. To one man in the group that friend is simply "Nel."
To the rest of the world he is Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize winner, South Africa's former president, and a man who spent 27 years in jail for a cause he told a court in 1964 that he was prepared to die for.
Mandela, hospitalized since June 8, remains in critical condition. A grandson, Ndaba Mandela, said Tuesday that his grandfather is "very much alive" and responds when spoken to, though he is on life support in the form of mechanical ventilation. Mandela turns 95 on July 18.
Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of an event known in South African history as the Raid on Liliesleaf, a simple home in a Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia that served as the nerve center of activists seeking to overturn the white racist rule of South Africa's apartheid era. Those arrested in the raid were charged with sabotage. Mandela had already been convicted of separate charges and was later tried and sentenced with those from Liliesleaf.
Denis Goldberg, 80, was one of the grey-haired men recalling the raid at a memorial for the event Monday evening. South Africa's apartheid government, playing Cold War politics to win U.S. support, labeled those arrested as terrorists and communists. But Goldberg said the trial allowed those prosecuted in what became known as the Rivonia Trial to get their anti-apartheid views out to the public.
"It was a failed revolution at the time, but it was the spark that lit the flame," said Bob Hepple, who was arrested at Liliesleaf but fled to England and did not face trial. "It's great having a vision of freedom but you have to act to get freedom. It doesn't fall from the trees."
Mandela had previously traveled to Algeria to receive training for guerrilla warfare — violence that he never personally carried out but a strategy that he determined should be pursued by the African National Congress.
Writings discovered by the apartheid police in the Liliesleaf raid showed that Mandela had carefully pondered and endorsed the use of violence against apartheid.
"This was a thinking man. This was not a hot-headed leader," Goldberg said.
Goldberg is one of the select few family members and friends who have visited Mandela since he was hospitalized June 8. Goldberg's words last week that Mandela was conscious and responsive came in contradiction to papers filed in a Mandela family court case that described the former president as being in a vegetative state.
Goldberg and two contemporaries were invited to see Mandela by Graca Michel, Mandela's wife. Goldberg said that Graca sat the three down and told them what she thought they should know about Mandela's condition.
Goldberg retains the liberal feistiness that would have been required for a white man fighting for freedom for his black countrymen in the 1960s. He told Machel he would share the information about Mandela with the world. "I fought for democracy and I'm going to speak out," he said.
"And Graca Machel said, 'Yes, do that,'" Goldberg said.
Goldberg said it's sad to see an old friend — once a strong physical presence — lying in bed "with a tube down his throat." Mandela, he said, never addressed him by name. Goldberg is 15 years younger than the former president.
"For me he's Nel and I'm boy," Goldberg said.