hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein


Fighter Who Helped to Change the World, The Oxford Times

Philippa Boston

South African exile and anti-apartheid activist Rusty Bernstein, a man who at one time knew the walls of the Pretoria jail better than those of his own home, now lives in a tranquil corner of Kidlington, just outside Oxford. He had never thought to write his memoirs until a colleague reminded him how few first-hand accounts there were of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.

Many of the main players are dead. Virtually all information had to be destroyed or communicated only by word of mouth. His memories of the period from the late 1930s until his exile to England in 1964 are unique.

I asked him how he came to find himself up against the secret police in the 1950s. "You start by saying, 'I feel I ought to lend a hand to this good cause' and then gradually you get more and more involved until there's no way of going back without disowning your whole past," said Mr Bernstein.

His first active involvement' in politics came in late 1930s Johannesburg, when he joined the Communist Party and helped with fund-raising for medical aid for the Spanish Civil War. During this time he met and married his wife, a fellow Communist and a tire-less campaigner for civil rights.

Memory Against Forgetting catalogues' the increasing unrest of non-white citizens of South Africa up to 1955, when, in one of the many memorable passages of the book representatives of all the numerous factions of anti-apartheid activity secretly squeezed themselves into 40 schoolroom desks in rural Stanger, where Chief Luthuli was confined, and, by the light of a single storm lantern, united as the Congress of the People. It fell to Mr Bernstein, as a long-time writer of magazine articles and political pamphlets, to write The Freedom Charter, giving a political voice to the disenfranchised.

The following year, he was one of 156 suspected anti-government activists involved in what became known as the Treason Trial. The trial lasted until 1959, when all 156 defendants were acquitted. Mr Bernstein's book describes how the defendants, who had previously respected and communicated with each other from a distance, due to the segregation laws, now became friends and formed bonds which would remain for life.

Amazingly there is much. to laugh about in this tale. Their capacity to outwit the authorities reads like a real-life Jack and the Beanstalk. Some of the prosecution exhibits at the trial, such as the canteen boards bearing the legends "Soup with meat" and "Soup without Meat", are hilarious. There is also that fairy-tale sense of the giant getting more and more infuriated by Jack's antics, which eventually leads to the giant's downfall. In 1959, Mr Bernstein found himself acquitted, but out of a job, with four children to support. In 1960, in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre, the government declared a State of Emergency, banned both the ANC and the PAC (Pan African Congress) and gave the police the power to detain suspects without trial.

The Bernsteinís were soon both arrested and imprisoned without charge. Mrs Bern-stein was released after three months, when she and some other mothers went on hunger strike. He was released some weeks later.

At this time their children were aged three, eight, 11 and 17. How was family life affected and how did it feel to be in such a dangerous position? Mrs Bernstein said: "Gradually it became more and more dangerous and more and more difficult, but it didn't happen all of a sudden, so you were well-immersed in what appeared to be legal and safe activity before you realised you were up to your waist in something else as well."

Driven underground and increasingly disillusioned with peaceful protest, the ANC and Communist Party formed a military wing called Umkhonto We Sizwe, led by Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo. When the police raided the Umkhonto headquarters at Rivonia in July 1963, they recovered a half-charred document giving details of a military campaign, never formally agreed or adopted by Umkhonto ó vital evidence in the subsequent Rivonia Trial. Treason, if proven, was punishable by death.

Mr Bernstein, who had arrived at the Rivonia house ten minutes before the police, was once again arrested. Although the only defendant to be acquitted, he was immediately rearrested, but managed to get bail and the couple escaped on foot over the border into Botswana and ultimately to England.

The other defendants in the trial, including Mandela, were all given life sentences. Mr Bernstein looks deeply content when talking about returning to South Africa in 1994 to help in the first one-person one-vote election which returned Mandela as President - the realisation of so many dreams and towards which he had dedicated so much of his adult life. "There has never been another day like it," said Mr Bernstein. "You could feel the change in the air. You could see people changing in front of your eyes. We're uniquely lucky in that we were part of a movement which did change the world in the direction which we wished to change it and that we lived to see it."

Reprinted courtesy of The Oxford Times, England