hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein


The Guardian (UK) Newspaper Obituary

Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, who has died aged 82, was one of the most influential and dedicated of the small group of white revolutionaries who supported the black liberation movement in South Africa.

He played a crucial role in drafting the 1954 African National Congress (ANC) freedom charter, which remained its central, though ambiguous, policy statement during the years of exile and imprisonment of its leaders. He coined the document's opening slogan "Let us speak of freedom", and gave its contradictory demands a sense of bold purpose with stirring phrases like "the people shall govern" and "all shall be equal before the law".

In 1956, Bernstein was among 150 people charged - and acquitted - in the so-called treason trial. Seven years later, he was arrested again, this time with Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders, and charged with plotting revolution. In the subsequent Rivonia trial, Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were jailed for life, though Bernstein was eventually acquitted. He and his wife then spent 25 years as banned people, only returning to South Africa in 1990, when the ANC was, itself, un-banned.

Bernstein's life story was the more moving because he was a private and reticent person with broad interests, and without an obvious political temperament. Unusually self-effacing, and with a gentle charm, he could easily have achieved success in his first career as an architect; and he was a sensitive and highly articulate writer, as he revealed in his candid memoir Memory Against Forgetting (1999). He was, quite simply, impelled to left wing protest by his sense of outrage at the segregation and oppression of black people.

Bernstein's parents, Jewish immigrants to South Africa, both died when he was eight, and were not politically-minded. He attended Hilton College, a private school in Natal, and read architecture from 1937 to 1941 at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He was briefly a member of the South African Labour Party - then an all-white party supporting segregation, which taught him a lot about political careerism. He joined the South African Communist party (SACP) in 1938, together with Hilda Watts, the courageous campaigner from England whom he later married, and with whom he had four children.

Rusty soon showed his efficiency as a full-time party official; but he lacked, he thought, the outgoing style and rhetoric to inspire others, and became impatient with the party bureaucracy. He joined the South African army in 1943 as a gunner, and served in north Africa and Italy until 1946.

Back in Johannesburg after the war, he became immersed again in communist activity, and wrote the bulletins for the momentous 1946 strike of black miners, which was brutally suppressed, and for which he was charged with sedition. He worked in an architects' firm, where he designed South Africa's first drive-in cinema; but he was disillusioned by ugly, new, all-white office-blocks, and more concerned about the wretched slums and shack towns growing up in the black townships.

Soon after the Nationalist party, pledged to apartheid, took power in Pretoria in 1948, the communists were harassed and restricted; when the party was banned in 1950, Rusty and his colleagues went underground. As the only multi-racial party, the SACP acquired a heroic reputation among blacks, in the forefront in the fight against racism; and the quiet and thoughtful Bernstein's were always welcoming to the black ANC leaders, including the firebrand Mandela.

Rusty remained unobtrusive: he was never a great orator, and preferred listening to talking. In retrospect, he thought the flourishes of the freedom charter were overblown, and worried that it had drifted out of the ANC's control. But its generalised statements effectively rallied a wide range of supporters, without being too specific about socialism or nationalisation, beyond the much-disputed phrase: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white".

Restricted by bans and harassment, in 1955 Rusty resigned from his lucrative architectural partnership. He and Hilda were now totally committed to the struggle; the treason trial he faced the following year continued off-and-on for four years; after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, both he and Hilda were detained for five months, then banned, and put under house arrest.

During the day, however, Rusty was able to escape to the secret resistance headquarters in a farm at Rivonia, outside Johannesburg, where the ANC leaders, including Mandela, were plotting a rash new military stage of revolution. Rusty was worried about the recklessness and gung-ho spirit, and sceptical of the military thinking. But he was committed to his colleagues, and when the police raided the farm, he was caught and charged with planning revolution and sabotage.

He then endured a long, tense trial, and the disclosure of embarrassing documents about the rash adventure, knowing that he might be sentenced to death. Although found not guilty in 1964, he was quickly rearrested and put back in prison, before being released on bail.

Rusty and Hilda now decided they must finally escape, and, helped by loyal friends, they slipped out of their house at night and were driven over the Botswana border, eventually making their way, via Zambia and Tanzania, to Britain.

In exile, the Bernstein's were joined by their supportive family, while Rusty worked as an architect in London. After 17 years, he retired, first to Herefordshire, and then to Kidlington, near Oxford, where he and Hilda lived in a small, modern house filled with African artefacts. For a time, Rusty conducted seminars in Moscow and taught briefly at the ANC college in Tanzania; Hilda wrote vivid books about their experience in the struggle.

It was not until 1990, when the ANC was un-banned and Mandela was released, that they could return home. Four years later, Rusty stood with the other Rivonia veterans on the terrace of the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to celebrate the first democratic South African government, under President Mandela. "We are, perhaps, the luckiest generation on earth," he wrote, "for we have seen the peaceful triumph of the cause to which we have devoted our lives."

Back in England, Rusty continued to be respected for his integrity and sacrifice. His memoirs - too little publicised - provide one of the most revealing and readable accounts of the South African struggle, full of humour, wry irony and significant detail. It is a story not just of heroic resistance to ruthless persecution, but of a warm individual, with a strong and talented family, who faced a challenge to their whole livelihood which they could not evade.

Bernstein is survived by Hilda and his four children.

Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein, architect and freedom fighter, born March 5 1920; died June 23 2002

Reprinted without the kind permission of the Guardian Newspaper. Long may they forgive me.