hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein

The University of Witwatersrand School of Architecture holds an annual memorial lecture as a tribute to Rusty. The first lecture was given by the Chief Justice of South Africa, Mr Arthur Chaskalson on April 16th 2003. His speech is reproduced below.

The second memorial lecture was by ? and the third was by Professor John Forester, Cornell University, New York State, on the 1st September 2005, with a tribute to Rusty by Ahmed Kathrada.

The First Rusty Bernstein Memorial Lecture - Chief Justice A Chaskalson

'Tonight the architecture profession recognises Rusty Bernstein’s contribution to our country. The lecture that follows focuses on architecture which was his profession. He was, however, an architect in more than one way. He was concerned less with designing physical structures, than with the building of a just society, and his great contribution to our country lay there. Recognising this, the organisers of the lecture considered it appropriate to record that contribution, and I have been asked to speak about that.

Rusty wrote about his life in South African politics in a compelling memoir which he called, Memory Against Forgetting. It was published a few years before his death. His wife, Hilda, in her wonderful book, The World that Was Ours, has written about the time when Rusty, then an accused in the Rivonia Trial, was on trial for his life, and there are other accounts of Rusty’s commitment to the struggle for freedom in books that have been published about South Africa in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. It is important, however, on an occasion such as this, to remember and to record why we wish to recognise his contribution to our country.

I consider it a privilege to speak about this, for Rusty was a fine and courageous person and an important figure in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. I do so conscious of the fact that there are people here tonight who knew Rusty better than I did and are better placed than I am to do justice to him and his life.

As a young man growing up in Durban, and attending boarding school in Natal, Rusty was on the outside little different to his peers. He left school at the end of 1936 and describes his situation, then in an architect’s office in Johannesburg, as follows;

“I lived amongst whites in a wholly white suburb, and at weekends played hockey in an exclusively white team. Racial separateness was so ubiquitous, so deeply bound by both custom and law, that it never seemed in the least peculiar.”

What happened then to draw him into the communist party, and later into the underground resistance to apartheid where he was banned, house arrested, detained, harassed, imprisoned, held in solitary confinement for 90 days, and ultimately put on trial for his life? This commitment to the liberation struggle not only involved great danger for him and his family, but disrupted their lives, hampered his ability to pursue his profession, and for long periods prevented him from engaging in it at all.

Incongruously, it started with what was happening in Europe rather than with what was happening in South Africa. At that time fascism was on the rise. Young thoughtful people were appalled by its implications. He, like other intellectuals of that time, joined the campaign to support the Spanish Republic. He read voraciously, became part of a left book discussion group, joined the labour party and the anti fascist league, and in 1938 became a member of the communist party.

It was there that he encountered a different country. He described it as a non-racial enclave where there was a total black-white equality which could be found nowhere else in the South Africa of that time. From the very beginning he was an active member of the Party taking part in its meetings and in the preparation and distribution of newspapers and pamphlets. It was at about this time that he met Hilda, who was also active in the communist party, and this was the beginning of a relationship that lasted for the rest of his life. They were married in 1941 and in the following year Rusty joined the war against Hitler, becoming a gunner in the South African army.

Rusty said of himself that he was a better listener than talker. That of course was hardly accurate. He was a good listener and thought carefully and reflectively about issues that were being discussed, but he was also a good talker. He may not have been a rabble rouser, and perhaps not a great public speaker, though in his younger days he spoke bravely at public meetings on the City Hall steps, and at open air meetings at the bus terminal in Alexandra Township and elsewhere in the city. In later years when he would have been in demand to take on major public speaking engagements, he had little opportunity for that, for he was prohibited from doing so by banning and house arrest orders.

He had a way with words, an ability to use them well, and to write powerfully and thoughtfully, which he continued to do clandestinely after his banning. His writings had considerable impact, evidenced most famously by his role in the drafting of the Freedom Charter. This involved first collating and then capturing the essence of thousands of demands that had been collected during the meetings around the country in preparation for the Congress of the People which was held in June 1955 at Kliptown. He says in his book that the hardest part of this exercise was to prevent his own opinions from determining the final draft.

Possibly the most difficult time of Rusty and Hilda’s lives was when Rusty was in detention after having been arrested at Rivonia. Resourceful as ever they found a means of communicating with each other through concealing messages in the seams of clothes that went in and out of the jail to be washed. Hilda describes those days in her book. In an early message Rusty wrote:

“The thought of being in prison for a long time is awful, but tolerable for a man like me. The discomfort and the privations mean very little to me. The worst of it is the separation from you, and the kids and knowing that all the time I am here they are growing out of childhood, the years in which I love them best and, and I can never recapture that.”

The thought of prison was tolerable but the experience of detention and solitary confinement was different. Some time later he wrote:

“It is hell, not just the loneliness and solitude of tedium but the devilish neurotic fears, anxieties and tensions with only one’s mind for company and nothing to move it to think except one’s own troubles. You can’t imagine what this does to you. You become not just the centre, but the whole of your universe, your own fate, your own future. Nothing you can do or say can possibly affect the life of anyone else, or so it seems. What little courage I have gradually erodes in loneliness with no one near to sustain me.”

But what he might have said or done could indeed have affected the lives of others. He had only to say that he would talk and implicate his comrades, as others did under that pressure, and that would have had a profound and devastating effect on their lives, and also on his. But such a course was unthinkable for him and so the loneliness and the pain endured.

Later he writes:

“It may sound odd, but I am longing to be brought to trial, just to bring uncertainty to an end and also to save us from the prospect of another ninety days like these; the prospect fills me with such awful depression that I cannot bear to contemplate it . . . . the prospect is really bleak unless I am charged, which is what I hope for. Just to be able to talk to people!”

He was charged, and stood trial with Mr Mandela and other leaders of the liberation movement. It was widely believed at the time that they would all be convicted and sentenced to death and that was the atmosphere in which the trial was conducted.

This was when I got to know Rusty and Hilda. I was one of the defence team of the Rivonia trialists and met Rusty in jail on the day after he was released from detention and became an awaiting trial prisoner. The story of that trial has been told in many different books and I do not want to cover that ground tonight. I will say only this. I remember Rusty’s courage, his composure, his quick mind, his quiet but incisive contribution to the discussions about how the defence should be conducted, and his unfailing good humour throughout that long and stressful trial.

He was acquitted at the end of the trial, immediately rearrested on other charges, but released on bail. He and Hilda escaped and went into exile where they continued to be part of the struggle against apartheid. They were able to come back again after the un-banning of the liberation movements and were present at the ceremony at which Mr Mandela was inaugurated as President of our country.

Rusty describes his feelings on that day in the epilogue to his book.

“We, the survivors, are the lucky ones – perhaps the luckiest generation on earth; for we have seen the peaceful triumph of the cause to which we have devoted our lives. We remember all those who set out on the great journey with us but did not see its end. This day is their triumph as much as ours, their memorial contribution to the living, and to the freedom and happiness of South Africa’s generations still unborn”.

It is that contribution that we recall tonight.

In his foreword to Memory Against Forgetting Anthony Sampson describes the book as “not just the record of a heroic movement, told from the inside” but also “the account of a warm individual and his family, caught up in a challenge they could not ignore”.

On an occasion such as this when we remember a life committed unhesitatingly and wholeheartedly to the struggle for justice and freedom, we need to ask why so many of us in South Africa failed then to respond to that challenge. Fear played a part, but it was more than that. It is a complex question the answer to which lies beyond the scope of tonight’s proceedings. It is nonetheless a question that must be asked.

Although conditions are now very different to what they were then, and fear of harassment and imprisonment is no longer a factor, the essence of the challenge that confronts us now, is in many respects similar to that which faced Rusty and Hilda Bernstein more than 50 years ago when they joined the struggle for liberation. It is to create a society in which there will be social justice and respect for human rights, a society in which the basic needs of all our people will be met, a society in which we can live together in harmony, showing respect and concern for each other. And it calls for a commitment from those who share this aspiration.

We have made great strides towards the achievement of these ideals. But much remains to be done and the enormity of this task should not be underestimated. The greatest obstacle to its achievement is the desperate poverty that still exists within our country. This is not only deplorable, but holds danger for us all. We turn our back on and ignore this at our peril. It is only by acknowledging and confronting the disparities that exist, and the other problems that face us, and committing ourselves to the hard and difficult task of finding solutions for them, that we can hope to build a just society. Recalling Rusty Bernstein’s life, as we do tonight, may inspire some to make that commitment.'