hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein

Rusty, writing on a review of "Death Is Part of The Process"

The Editor.

Although your reviewer of Hilda Bernstein's novel "Death is Part of the Process" states that at the time of the books action - circa 1961 - he was not yet born, he raises a number of interesting points about its action and its characters. These seem, to one who was born - and who participated in a small way in some of the events - to need comment. It is not my intention to enter into discussion of the literary merits of the book, or of M.F's review; readers can make up their own minds. But the book is, as far as I know, the first-attempt to deal seriously (in the form of fiction) with the beginning of armed struggle against the South African state, with which the whole of the South African liberation movement is now fully identified. It is important therefore, that its political interpretation of people and events is not passed over too easily. For in those events - and in the revelations of the characters of some of the people who made a part of our history, there are important lessons to be learnt, not least by those who did not participate in them but need to carry their experiences into today's revolutionary activities.

One of the experiences of that time - doubtless being repeated today - is that revolutionaries are not all perfect people, flawless, heroic and incorruptible - much as we would like them to be. Some were perhaps; more than one would find amongst any other cross section of the population, because the high idealism and brotherhood of the revolutionary cause rubs of; it inspires revolutionaries to selflessness and self-sacrifice greatly different from the self-seeking "what's-in-it-for-me" corruption of the society we live in. But still some revolutionaries are less than perfect, and some are deeply flawed. It is as necessary to understand that today as it was in 1961, when we had not had the opportunity to learn from our experience. In 1961, some active participants in the revolutionary struggle - like the Sipho of the book - did turn informer to save their own skins, and some shepherded off many of their erstwhile comrades to the jails and torture chambers. We have our heroes - many of them; but we also have our Bruno Mtolo's and Bartholomew Hiapanes and Piet Beylevelds. Today's revolutionaries dare not let revolutionary romanticism blind them to the facts of what did happen; and what can surely happen again.

Your reviewer would have liked the book to deal more with the way decisions were made at the time in the upper ranks of the movement, in the High Command; and about the participation, for example, of Mandela and others. One day, no doubt, books about this - both fact and fiction - will be written when it is no longer dangerous to our movement or today's revolutionaries to disclose what must be still "classified" information.

Hilda Bernstein's book deals not with those at the very centre of the Umkhonto we Sizwe organisation, or at the centre of the ANC or Communist Party; it deals with a group which starts on the fringes - in a university-based "human rights committee" - which gets sucked into the fringes of revolutionary action by a government clamp-down on a fairly innocuous - and open - protest demonstration. This group of non-revolutionary origins, is drawn closer and closer to the real revolutionary core, driven by its own feelings of inadequacy and encouraged by the revolutionary core which constantly needs technical aides, assistants and allies in the "legitimate" world outside their own ranks.

Of these aides and allies, some are romantic revolutionaries - like Pila, still with one foot in her bourgeois white milieu and flawed consciousness, expressed - as your reviewer notes - in the idea that being arrested somehow "earned" a badge of honour, and and in the feeling that "I have done this for them". Others develop differently as they move into underground activity - Dick into hopelessness and retreat under the pressure of arrest; and his wife Marge, from an onlooker and outsider into an activist of courage. In fact, as those who were there at the time will know - our movement had experience of all these developments. The revolutionary movement proved to be a magnet for many, a source of real growth and strength for some that it attracted but also too fierce and testing a challenge for others.

If I may take issue with your reviewer on one point, it is on his appraisal of the short-lived sexual encounter between one of the revolutionary core, Indris - black - and the emerging white activist Marge. Your reviewer writes: "The novel seems to suggest that racial consciousness (in Marge) could be alleviated if not destroyed by a casual act of sexual intercourse." I think not. The sex - short lived though it is, for reasons over which neither of the parties can have any control - is not casual; it is deliberate and deeply felt. It reveals, I would suggest, not that sex alleviates racial consciousness; but that in the context in which it occurs, it is a watershed in the replacement of race consciousness with a non-racial revolutionary consciousness.

Be that as it may, nothing can alter the fact that this book represents the first serious attempt by someone inside our movement to portray the reality of the beginnings of today's politics, not through history but through historically accurate fiction. It needs to be treated seriously both by those who were there at the time no less than by those who were not and yet must pick up the traces.