Hilda Bernstein, wife of Rusty Bernstein
(Rivonia trial defendant), and author of 'No. 46 - Steve
Biko', died last month in Sea Point.
May 15, 1915 -
September 8, 2006
South African activist who
fought against apartheid and after being exiled
continued the struggle from London
BERNSTEIN was one of the last surviving leaders of
apartheid resistance in South Africa in the 1950s and
1960s. As the newly elected Afrikaner nationalist
government formalised racial segregation and flexed its
muscles, opposition leaders were either jailed or, like
Bernstein and her husband, forced into exile.
30 turbulent years in South Africa, Bernstein became an
important opposition figure, campaigning among fellow
whites and also organising resistance by anti-apartheid
women of all races.
Driven out of the country by
the threat to their own safety and the future of their
young family, Bernstein and her husband spent the next
30 years campaigning from Britain for an end to white
rule in Pretoria and returned in 1994 to help in the
election of their friend, Nelson Mandela, as South
Africa’s first black president.
born Hilda Schwarz in London in 1915 to Russian
immigrants. Her father, a Bolshevik, left the family to
return to his homeland when she was 10, and when she was
18 she emigrated to South Africa and worked in
advertising, publishing and journalism.
by the rise of fascism in Europe, she joined the youth
wing of the socialist South African Labour Party.
However, its attitude to the oppression of blacks was,
at best, ambiguous, and by 1940 she had joined the
non-racial Communist Party.
She rose quickly,
serving on a regional committee and the national
executive and in 1941 married a party colleague, Lionel
“Rusty” Bernstein, a quietly spoken architect five years
her junior. Two years later Hilda Bernstein was elected
to the Johannesburg City Council, its only communist
In 1946 she ended her term as a
councillor and was also convicted of helping an illegal
black mineworkers’ strike.
During the 1950s the
Communist Party was banned but its members, including
Bernstein’s husband, reorganised underground. In between
looking after her growing family, Bernstein continued
her political work and was a founder and national
secretary of the South African Peace Council. She had to
give this up after the Government banned her from being
a member of 26 organisations and from attending
meetings. However, she found enough ways around the
restrictions to help to set up the Federation of South
African Women and was an organiser of the massed Women’s
March to Pretoria in 1956.
In 1958 the grip
tightened further and Bernstein’s banning order was
extended to prevent her from writing or publishing.
Meanwhile, Rusty spent four years from 1956 in and out
of court as one of the 150 accused in the mammoth
Treason Trial, at the end of which all were acquitted.
In 1961 Hilda Bernstein was arrested and held
for five months without trial during the state of
emergency after the Sharpeville killings.
Government stepped up its efforts to crush the
opposition and banned several organisations, including
the African National Congress (ANC). Then, in 1963 it
put on trial ten of most senior activists, including
Rusty Bernstein. This was known as the Rivonia trial,
the name taken from the Johannesburg suburb where the
ANC leaders had been arrested. Rusty was the only one
acquitted but, as he left the dock where Mandela and the
others had been jailed for life, he was rearrested and
charged but then given bail.
A few days later
the security police came for Hilda Bernstein, but she
fled through the back door as they arrived at her house
and went into hiding.
Leaving their three
youngest children with their eldest daughter, the
Bernsteins were reunited in hiding and then fled north
into Bechuanaland (now Botswana). They arrived
eventually in London, where they were later joined by
all four children.
Bernstein wrote the
autobiographical The World that Was Ours (1967, revised
2004) and continued her political work, especially in
the women’s section of the ANC and also the
Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). Despite initial despair
at being wrenched from her adopted country, she took
full advantage of being free to write and speak in
She also began a new career as an
artist, with exhibitions of her etchings, drawings and
paintings being held in Britain, the US and Africa. Her
illustrations appeared in books and on book jackets and
on posters and cards for the AAM.
several books, including No 46 — Steve Biko (1978),
referring to Biko being the 46th person to die in
security police detention; Death Is Part of the Process
(1983), a political thriller; For Their Triumphs and for
Their Tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa (1985); and
The Rift — The Exile Experience of South Africans
The Bernsteins, who later moved out of
London to Wales and then rural Oxfordshire, returned to
South Africa to take part in the country’s first
non-racial election in 1994. They visited South Africa
several times and donated most of their books to the
University of KwaZulu-Natal in Rusty’s home city of
In 2002 the couple took part in a
reunion of the Rivonia triallists in Johannesburg. Later
that year Rusty died and Bernstein moved to Cape Town to
live with one of her children.
In 2004 she was
given the Luthuli Silver Award for “contribution to the
attainment of a free and democratic society in South
The same year Bernstein reflected:
“Maybe this little group of whites did make a
difference, however small. I feel proud we were among
those who helped to influence the inevitable change,
which has come much sooner and more calmly than I ever
She is survived by her four
Hilda Bernstein, political activist,
was born on May 15, 1915. She died on September 8, 2006,
It's only when you look
at an ant through a magnifying glass on a sunny day that
you realise how often they burst into flames. Harry Hill
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