What We Can Learn from Hilda Bernstein

Pregs Govender: COMMENT

26 September 2006 06:00

In school in the 1960s the history we were taught was written from the perspective of the coloniser and the missionary. From this perspective, the colonised peoples of the world had no history. We were taught that all our countries -- Africa, Australia, Asia, the Americas -- were “discovered” by the colonisers. Before the coloniser, we were all “backward, primitive” peoples. Africa was characterised as the “heart of darkness”. “His story” was the story of the great man and his wars of conquest.

The generation of 1976 searched for the truth. “His story” kept well hidden. To imagine an alternative future we needed to learn about our past. We learnt that the “heart of darkness” narrative concealed the story of Patrice Lumumba, assassinated by the secret service agencies of Belgium, Britain, apartheid South Africa and the United States. The first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, Lumumba, was replaced by men of greed, such as Mobutu. Contrary to Lumumba’s vision of utilising the wealth of Africa to eradicate poverty, Mobutu allowed the colonisers to continue to plunder the wealth of the Congo.

Among those who told the truth about apartheid South Africa was Hilda Bernstein. Unlike most other truth-tellers, Hilda wrote about the women of our country. To write “her story” requires a different eye, a different consciousness, an ability to see those made most invisible, to hear those most silenced, to value those most devalued. In her book, For Their Triumphs and Their Tears, I learnt about the contribution of women such as Annie Silinga, Lilian Ngoyi, Ruth First and Mary Moodley. Their lives, like the women I began working with in the Natal Organisation of Women, such as Victoria Mxenge and Florence Mkhize, inspired me. I felt blessed to live in the same country as these women, to be part of the same movement, to be able to claim these women as my ancestors.

In The Rift, Hilda shares part of her motivation in writing stories about people, both known and unknown: “I wanted to record something of the lives of our people and let them speak a few words before it was all lost.” Hilda wrote as an activist-intellectual -- many of those she wrote about were her comrades. In Hilda’s portraits women raised the challenge of the endless search for balance between the personal and the political. They raised it not as a challenge that only women needed to address, but one that men needed to address; that society and the state needed to address.

In one of Helen Joseph’s accounts of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw), she notes: “In 1954, Fedsaw was started by Ray Alexander and Hilda Bernstein -- two very brilliant women -- Hilda was the only member of the Communist Party who ever got elected into the City Council. She was also a commercial artist who was busy bringing up a family.” Helen also notes that: “We were so involved in the general struggle that women’s rights got pushed aside to an extent. We firmly believed that when we got our freedom, it would be universal freedom. I think we were very naive about this.”

In Ayi Kwei Armah’s book, The Eloquence of the Scribes, Armah addresses a central challenge for those who record our lives: “If we limit our appreciation of tradition from impotence to power without taking care to explore the weaknesses inside achieved power … the downward journey of power into impotence, of health into decay, of integrity into corruption … we risk being unable to break through the futile cycle of heroic achievement, degenerating into abject disintegration.”

I pay tribute today by revisiting the words and lessons shared by one of our most eloquent scribes. The last book Hilda Bernstein wrote,A Life of One’s Own, is about the lives of her father and her sister. In learning about her father’s death, in adolescence, Hilda, who had last seen him when she was 10 years old, writes: “All I could say as I wept was, ‘I wanted to see him again; I just wanted to see him.’ Now I understand why, all my life, I have had a longing to be loved. Only many years later did I realise that his death saved him from a harsher fate. At least he did not know the bitter disillusionment of seeing his dream of a brave new world end in the disaster of the Stalin era. Nor become another victim to add to the statistics of loyal, dedicated communists who were sent to die in the camps as ‘enemies of the people’.”

In trying to understand why it was that good people were silent, Hilda writes: “Party discipline, the absolute submission to the party leadership had instilled this attitude and the party loyalists could see no possibility of changing things. They believed that as long as they stayed in their posts, they would help to change the situation within their leadership. It was no new dilemma, and arises -- less starkly -- within our own democratic societies.”

Hilda explores what enabled some to discern what was happening: “Once you are outside the magic circle the perspective changes. The inconsistencies give rise to doubts that sully the ideals. And doubts give rise to questions; and questions mean you start measuring what you are supposed to believe against what you actually see.”

Hilda concludes her book with an incisive paragraph: “What I have written is only an episode in the private lives of two people -- insignificant and of no historical importance. I have taken some small spots from a vast panorama. This panorama is part of Russia’s horrific period of Stalinism, the aftermath of the First World War, and the epic history of the Second. No one’s life is a vacuum. Their history is your history, as your lives will be the ground from which your children will grow. A history so terrible and so beautiful, so base and so heroic, may seem strange and hard to comprehend, but it is irrevocably a part of your life too. What right have we to forget?”

In South Africa today, when the vision and values of an entire movement are reduced to two individuals, we have to revisit the question of the nature of leadership and of power. Hilda’s words warn us away from the cult of the great man as leader; from reducing union, organisation or party to conduit for such cult. Her words can guide us towards nurturing and respecting the leadership and power within every single human being that was the hallmark of the best tradition of our movement. “What right have we to forget?”

Pregs Govender is an activist and former ANC MP. This is an edited version of her address at the memorial service for Hilda Bernstein held in Cape Town on September 16


What we can learn from Hilda Bernstein
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