hilda bernstein, rusty bernstein

London Times Newspaper Obituary

Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein was one of the most distinguished members of the small group of (mainly Jewish) white South African Communists who played a decisive role in shaping the African National Congress.

Although it was never politic to say so - the public version was that it had been put together from thousands of write-in submissions from Africans - he was largely responsible for drafting the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s bible for fifty years. Many have also seen his hand in Mandela’s famous “No Easy Walk To Freedom” speech from the dock, for Bernstein was a talented writer, unselfish in his efforts to help others and never one to seek glory or the limelight.  

Born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Durban, he was orphaned at the age of 12 and farmed out, together with his three siblings, to whichever aunts and uncles would take them. This hardship was considerably sharpened by his being sent to board at Hilton College, a private school rigorously run on the muscular Christian lines then in favour with the English public schools it aped. Although Bernstein excelled academically there, he hated its ethos and, through the influence of a sympathetic Latin teacher, had become a keen Communist by his late teens, meeting his future wife, Hilda, in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).

The fact that he had bright red hair and espoused the Red cause earned him the enduring sobriquet of “Rusty”. Hilda was already very much a star of the CPSA, often being seen as a South African version of the Spanish party’s La Pasionaria, in complete contrast to the quietly thoughtful and humorous Bernstein, but it was to be a lasting and successful partnership.

Although Bernstein qualified as an architect at the University of the Witwatersrand, his political life meant that he designed relatively few buildings. Straight after graduation he volunteered for the army, serving in North Africa and Italy with the Sixth South African Division, and playing a significant role in the ex-servicemen’s organisation, the Springbok Legion, which almost from its inception was under party control and became a major front organisation after the war, with Bernstein a key member of the editorial team of its journal, "Fighting Talk."

By this time his talent with words was obvious to all, and he was chosen to head the propaganda section of the party’s Johannesburg office, from which he played an important role in the great miners’ strike of 1946, producing its Strike Bulletin, which led to his arrest and conviction for sedition and aiding an illegal strike.

With the outlawing of the CPSA in 1952, Bernstein played a major role both in quietly resurrecting an illegal, underground party - the South African Communist Party (SACP) - but also in setting up a front organisation, the Congress of Democrats, which enabled Communists to continue working publicly until this, too, was banned.

Inevitably, the Bernstein's were then caught up in all the great trials and protests of the apartheid era, including the 1955 treason trial, the 1960 state of emergency (when he was detained for five months without charge) and finally the 1963 Rivonia trial. He was banned, placed under house-arrest, underwent 90 days of detention in solitary confinement, and endlessly harassed. Despite this, he was to serve continuously on the board of the banned African Communist from 1959 to 1990. He was found not guilty at Rivonia and freed but rearrested in court and let out on bail.

At this point he and Hilda took the most fateful decision of their lives - to break bail and flee to Britain. It was clear that if they stayed they - and more importantly, their children - would, at the very least, face a life of endless harassment, intimidation and ostracism. On the other hand, the SACP had told its cadres to stay put and there was bitter criticism of those who left.  

There was a sense in which he never recovered from the decision to leave and a haunting feeling that he had failed his comrades, even though he worked ceaselessly for the ANC cause, teaching many young émigrés both in Britain and at the ANC Solomon Mahlangu Freedom School in Tanzania.

Unlike many other exiles he did not draw a salary from the ANC but earned his living as an architect. Always hard up and far more talented than many who jostled for power within the exile movement, he was simply not a man willing to use his elbows or push himself to the front, and was also willing to confront his own and his party’s mistakes with a degree of honesty that others did not always find comfortable. His memoir of the 1938-64 period, Memory Against Forgetting, published in 1999, was an altogether franker and better written book than most “struggle biographies”.

In 1994 he returned to South Africa to run the ANC’s press office during the first democratic election - a time of high excitement and exhilaration. Thereafter he and Hilda returned to South Africa on a number of occasions - he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Natal in 1998, the Bernstein's donating most of their books to the university’s history department - and earlier this year they participated in the reunion of the Rivonia triallists in Johannesburg. But there was always a feeling of unused potential.

He hoped to be invited back to play a role of some kind with in the new South Africa but, characteristically, was unwilling to be pushy. There was, too, a sense of frustration as he watched the new Government making many avoidable mistakes. In truth, there was now a younger black generation, ambitious for jobs, position and power, impatient of older white exiles. Many of those exiles in turn showed a degree of self-regard and a sort of expectant self-righteousness, which made them few friends, but Bernstein was both far too honourable and too sensitive to run any risk of this.

In the end, he and Hilda settled near Oxford and accepted that no further call would come, that the flight of 1964 had indeed been the great caesura of their lives. The sadness is that few made more sacrifices for the sort of South Africa that he and so many others wanted, and few were able to contribute more - and more unselfishly - than he.

He is survived by his wife, Hilda, and by two sons and two daughters.

Rusty Bernstein, anti-apartheid activist, was born in Durban on March 5, 1920. He died in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, on June 23, 2002, aged 82.

Reprinted without the kind permission of the Times Newspaper. Long may they forgive me.