hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein


The London Observer, 27th Feb 2000

BARBARA TRAPIDO; Memory Against Forgetting by Rusty Bernstein

RUSTY BERNSTEIN was a talented member of that small, heroic band of white South Africans who, for 30 years, fought alongside black South Africans against a minority, racist regime. To do so took enormous courage and self-sacrifice, but also intelligence and skill.

An indefatigable writer of pamphlets and policy statements, Bernstein was delegated in 1956 to draft the Freedom Charter, a key ANC policy document, by making a painstaking synthesis of the submissions received from ordinary black South Africans. Written on scraps torn from school exercise books and old envelopes, these offerings expressed the aspirations of the country's disenfranchised majority, covering land reform, education, employment, civil rights, family life and electoral hopes.

Bernstein wrote the rousing preamble and conclusion which commits the ANC firmly to non-racialism. Its assertion that 'South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white' ran counter to the pan-Africanist slogan 'Africa for the Africans' and became unexpectedly controversial.

He tells the story of his own political awakening, through an accidental encounter with a group of door-to-door collectors from Medical Aid for Spain during the war against Franco. He conjures the atmosphere of Johannesburg, with its hole-in-the-corner, left-wing bookshops, its first 'continental' cafe run by German refugees, its young, pro-Nazi blackshirt Afrikaners and its radicalised returning soldiers.

He conveys vividly the sense of fulfilment derived from first entering a 'native' beer-hall to sell two-penny weeklies to black workers. He was close to the 1946 miners strike, in which miners were literally bludgeoned to work, and to the squatters who spilled on to patches of municipal wasteland, since no provision had been made for the huge numbers of; newly urbanised black workers servicing the needs of white industry.

Bernstein was one of the 156 accused in the 'Treason Trial' which ran from 1956-1959 before all were finally acquitted. Though it had the effect of eroding livelihoods - Bernstein, for example, was an architect whose practice petered out - it was the high point for anti-apartheid activists, since the state had unwittingly made possible what was almost impossible outside - it gave opportunity, over three years, for the political leadership, black, white and Asian, to confer and connect in the same physical space.

Then came Sharpville and the State of Emergency. Banning orders and house arrests began, along with 90-day detention and the emergence of a new breed of Special Branch policeman trained in torture techniques by the CIA. The loss to the liberation movement through gagging, imprisonment, exile and intimidation was enormous.

Resources were meagre and the chain of command in what were all by then illegal organisations developed cracks which resulted to alarming security lapses, just at a point when the decision had been made to begin acts of sabotage against strategic tar-gets. Some among the leadership were airing the idea of guerrilla war, though many were against it when the police closed in on the Rivonia House in 1963 and seized the smoking document known as 'Operation Mayibuye'.

Bernstein was the only one of the Rivonia defendants who was acquitted. He was immediately re-arrested, but bailed by default, thanks to a prominent rugby fixture which guaranteed the absence of all Special Branch persons from their desks that afternoon.

The book touched on his hair-raising nocturnal escape into Botswana, complete with twisted ankles and kidnap attempts, but this is not only a personal story. It's a valuable historical document which comes at a time when the contribution of people such as Bernstein is in danger of being written out of the liberation story.

Reprinted without the kind permission of The Guardian, England