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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Obituary: Hilda Bernstein
Anti-apartheid activist Hilda Bernstein
The veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, Hilda Bernstein, who has died of heart failure in Cape Town, aged 91, devoted most of her life to the cause of true democracy in South Africa.

She was the wife of the late Rusty Bernstein who was tried for treason along with Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial in 1964. Together, the couple campaigned for the end to white racist rule.

She was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, the first non-racial women's organisation in South Africa.

She was born Hilda Schwarz in London in 1915, the youngest of three sisters. Her father was a Bolshevik who left the family for good when Hilda was 10, to return to the Soviet Union to try to build a utopian socialist society there.

While trying to get a posting back to London to be reunited with his family, he died.

When she was 18, Hilda emigrated to South Africa where she lived a comfortable middle-class life. But as she became increasingly aware of the oppressive and divisive nature of the apartheid system, she joined the Communist Party, the only organisation with no racial segregation.

It was here that she met Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein and the couple married in 1941.


With a reputation as a fiery orator, Hilda Bernstein served as a City Councillor in Johannesburg from 1943-46, the only Communist to be elected to public office on a "whites only" vote.

Both she and her husband were active in the early days of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress.

They suffered banning and detention by the South African state, not to mention being humiliated by the authorities who regarded them as white traitors.

By 1953, she was banned from 26 organisations and from attending any meetings. Later, her banning orders were extended to include writing and publishing.

At the Rivonia trial, which saw Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists sentenced to life imprisonment, Rusty Bernstein was the only one found not guilty.

Hilda Bernstein with her husband Rusty and Nelson Mandela
But police harassment made his life unbearable and the couple were forced into exile, having to leave their children behind.

They crossed on foot to Botswana, and ultimately reached London. Later, Hilda Bernstein told the story of their arrests, trial and escape, in her book The World That was Ours.

In exile, Bernstein was an active member of the External Mission of the ANC, and a regular speaker on behalf of ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement, both in Britain and abroad.

She toured extensively in many countries of Europe, Canada and since 1994, South Africa, on behalf of the ANC and the Women's League.

Eventually, she and her husband settled in England, near Oxford, where Rusty Bernstein worked as an architect, and Hilda continued to write. She also became an artist, exhibiting her work in London, France and various countries in Africa.

After Rusty Bernstein died in Oxford in 2002, Hilda moved back to South Africa. She leaves four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A statement by the ruling African National Congress, the organisation she spent years championing, said "The liberation movement mourns a tireless political activist whose lifelong commitment to the cause of the South African people will continue as an inspiration for generations to come."


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