Hilda Bernstein

Anti-apartheid campaigner

Published: 20 September 2006

Hilda Watts, political activist, writer and artist: born London 15 April 1915; married 1941 Lionel Bernstein (died 2002; two sons, two daughters); died Cape Town 8 September 2006.

Hilda Bernstein was a woman of many talents who devoted most of her long life to the promotion of equality for all South Africans regardless of race, colour, or gender. Small, attractive and feisty, she was one of the few survivors from among the leaders of the legal Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which was banned in 1950.

As Hilda Watts she was the first, and only, member of that Party to be elected to public office by members of an all-white constituency or ward. She shared the view of her comrades that her election to the Johannesburg City Council in 1943 was a bit of a fluke - a product of the wartime popularity of the Soviet Union and of local politics. She was in 1945 one of two women elected to the central committee of the CPSA - the other was the late Ray Alexander, with whom she worked closely in the establishment of the Federation of South African Women.

During almost 40 years in exile in London and Oxford, she worked tirelessly for the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid Movement as an organiser, lecturer and writer.

Born in London in 1915, she was one of the three daughters of Samuel and Dora Watts, who were both Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father, a Bolshevik, was born Simeon Schwarz. When Hilda was 10 he responded to an order from the Soviet Communist Party to return to Russia to help build the revolution. Hilda never saw him again - he died there from typhoid seven years later.

Her mother never understood how he could have put politics before family, but 40 years later Hilda was herself, with her husband and political partner, Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, whom she had married in 1941, to face the same dilemma. She had moved to South Africa with her mother in 1933, and had progressed politically through the membership of the white Labour Party to the non-racial CPSA in 1940.

Hilda Bernstein's most important political work inside South Africa related to the establishment of the non-racial Federation of South African Women in 1954 - she drafted the "Women's Charter". With her husband she was also deeply involved in the organisation of the Congress of the People in 1955 - Rusty was the main draftsman of the Freedom Charter.

She had been charged in connection with the black mineworkers' strike in 1946 and was banned from trade union work in 1953. She was also detained during the state of emergency in 1960. She described her husband's, and her own, experience of the Rivonia trial, and their dramatic flight into exile through Bechuanaland and Northern Rhodesia, where they were declared prohibited immigrants by the outgoing British colonial government, in The World That Was Ours (1967).

Her sensitivity to the issues surrounding political exile, separation and loss, were shown in her two most original books, A Life of One's Own (2002) in which she examined the lives of her father and of an elder sister who had travelled to the Soviet Union and was compelled to remain there through the privations of the Second World War, and The Rift: the exile experience of South Africans (1994).

The latter was an anthology based on more than 300 interviews with exiled South Africans which she began to conduct in 1989 at a time when the return from exile did not appear imminent. The majority of the interviews were with members of the African National Congress and its affiliates, but it is not a partisan work and draws on the experience of exiles of widely differing political persuasions, including the hit-squad commander Dirk Coetzee and the politically unaligned actor Anthony Sher. It remains her most substantial publication and the only serious treatment of an important, but neglected, subject.

She was equally alive to the problems of exile, which she saw as "a desertion", and to the problems of return to South Africa by people who had been compelled to become "citizens of the world". She returned to South Africa with her husband for the installation of President Nelson Mandela in 1994, but she did not return to live in the country until after Rusty's death in 2002.

They had not enjoyed exile in a country that Hilda always found cold - both climatically and emotionally - but they had enjoyed a model political marriage and had brought up children who, unlike the children of many activists, had little cause to resent their parents' political activities.

Hilda Bernstein's other publications included For Their Triumphs and For Their Tears (1975), a study of women under apartheid, and Death is Part of the Process (1983), a prize-winning novel based on the early days of the ANC's armed struggle which became a two-part BBC television film (1986).

She began work as an artist in 1972 and her etchings, drawings and paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy and featured in many one-man and group exhibitions in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Hugh Macmillan

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