HILDA BERNSTEIN was one of
the last surviving leaders of apartheid
resistance in South Africa in the 1950s and
1960s. As the newly elected Afrikaner
nationalist government formalised racial
segregation and flexed its muscles, opposition
leaders were either jailed or, like Bernstein
and her husband, forced into exile.
During 30 turbulent years in South Africa,
Bernstein became an important opposition figure,
campaigning among fellow whites and also
organising resistance by anti-apartheid women of
Driven out of the
country by the threat to their own safety and
the future of their young family, Bernstein and
her husband spent the next 30 years campaigning
from Britain for an end to white rule in
Pretoria and returned in 1994 to help in the
election of their friend, Nelson Mandela, as
South Africa’s first black president.
Bernstein was born Hilda Schwarz in London in
1915 to Russian immigrants. Her father, a
Bolshevik, left the family to return to his
homeland when she was 10, and when she was 18
she emigrated to South Africa and worked in
advertising, publishing and journalism.
Shocked by the rise of fascism in Europe, she
joined the youth wing of the socialist South
African Labour Party. However, its attitude to
the oppression of blacks was, at best,
ambiguous, and by 1940 she had joined the
non-racial Communist Party.
She rose quickly, serving on a regional
committee and the national executive and in 1941
married a party colleague, Lionel “Rusty”
Bernstein, a quietly spoken architect five years
her junior. Two years later Hilda Bernstein was
elected to the Johannesburg City Council, its
only communist member.
In 1946 she ended her term as a councillor
and was also convicted of helping an illegal
black mineworkers’ strike.
During the 1950s the Communist Party was
banned but its members, including Bernstein’s
husband, reorganised underground. In between
looking after her growing family, Bernstein
continued her political work and was a founder
and national secretary of the South African
Peace Council. She had to give this up after the
Government banned her from being a member of 26
organisations and from attending meetings.
However, she found enough ways around the
restrictions to help to set up the Federation of
South African Women and was an organiser of the
massed Women’s March to Pretoria in 1956.
In 1958 the grip tightened further and
Bernstein’s banning order was extended to
prevent her from writing or publishing.
Meanwhile, Rusty spent four years from 1956 in
and out of court as one of the 150 accused in
the mammoth Treason Trial, at the end of which
all were acquitted.
In 1961 Hilda Bernstein was arrested and held
for five months without trial during the state
of emergency after the Sharpeville killings.
The Government stepped up its efforts to
crush the opposition and banned several
organisations, including the African National
Congress (ANC). Then, in 1963 it put on trial
ten of most senior activists, including Rusty
Bernstein. This was known as the Rivonia trial,
the name taken from the Johannesburg suburb
where the ANC leaders had been arrested. Rusty
was the only one acquitted but, as he left the
dock where Mandela and the others had been
jailed for life, he was rearrested and charged
but then given bail.
A few days later the security police came for
Hilda Bernstein, but she fled through the back
door as they arrived at her house and went into
Leaving their three youngest children with
their eldest daughter, the Bernsteins were
reunited in hiding and then fled north into
Bechuanaland (now Botswana). They arrived
eventually in London, where they were later
joined by all four children.
Bernstein wrote the autobiographical The
World that Was Ours (1967, revised 2004) and
continued her political work, especially in the
women’s section of the ANC and also the
Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). Despite initial
despair at being wrenched from her adopted
country, she took full advantage of being free
to write and speak in public.
She also began a new career as an artist,
with exhibitions of her etchings, drawings and
paintings being held in Britain, the US and
Africa. Her illustrations appeared in books and
on book jackets and on posters and cards for the
She wrote several books, including No 46 —
Steve Biko (1978), referring to Biko being
the 46th person to die in security police
detention; Death Is Part of the Process
(1983), a political thriller; For Their
Triumphs and for Their Tears: Women in Apartheid
South Africa (1985); and The Rift — The
Exile Experience of South Africans (1994).
The Bernsteins, who later moved out of London
to Wales and then rural Oxfordshire, returned to
South Africa to take part in the country’s first
non-racial election in 1994. They visited South
Africa several times and donated most of their
books to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in
Rusty’s home city of Durban.
In 2002 the couple took part in a reunion of
the Rivonia triallists in Johannesburg. Later
that year Rusty died and Bernstein moved to Cape
Town to live with one of her children.
In 2004 she was given the Luthuli Silver
Award for “contribution to the attainment of a
free and democratic society in South Africa”.
The same year Bernstein reflected: “Maybe
this little group of whites did make a
difference, however small. I feel proud we were
among those who helped to influence the
inevitable change, which has come much sooner
and more calmly than I ever felt possible."
She is survived by her four children.
Hilda Bernstein, political activist,
was born on May 15, 1915. She died on September
8, 2006, aged