Fighting Apartheid With Her Heart

With Courage That Matched Her Convictions, Hilda Bernstein Risked All

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; Page C03

The first time I met Hilda Bernstein, who died of heart failure Friday at age 91, she dumped a manila envelope full of old shirt collars on her kitchen table, each one covered in intricate handwriting. These were the notes that her husband, Rusty, had smuggled out to her in his dirty laundry from an isolation cell in Pretoria, South Africa. He spent 88 days in solitary confinement before he was charged with sabotage and put on trial alongside Nelson Mandela in 1964.

Hilda and Rusty were left-wing activists who worked closely with Mandela and other black leaders for more than two decades in the struggle against the system of white domination known as apartheid. Their generation is dying out, but before they finish leaving the stage, it's worth recalling what they endured and the lessons their lives teach about courage and what it takes to oppose an evil regime and create a new nation.

Hilda Bernstein leaves a Johannesburg courthouse after her husband's release on bail in 1964.
Hilda Bernstein leaves a Johannesburg courthouse after her husband's release on bail in 1964. (Times Media Limited)

The Bernsteins were among a handful of middle-class, middle-aged whites who had nice homes, good jobs and servants, yet risked it all by fighting for racial equality even after South Africa descended into a police state. They led double lives, maintaining an outward routine of bourgeois respectability while participating in increasingly dangerous underground political activity. And they paid a huge price: Some were imprisoned, others exiled and still others killed.

The Bernsteins were among the lucky ones, relatively speaking. Rusty was acquitted at the legendary Rivonia Trial, at which Mandela and seven other comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment. Rusty was rearrested immediately, but a few days later was released on bail due to a miscommunication between police and prosecutors. He and Hilda fled the country and settled in Britain, where they lived for more than 30 years with their four children.

I first went to visit them at their modest home in a small town outside Oxford in 1996. I wanted to write a book about them and their comrades. Soon after she fled South Africa, Hilda wrote her own account of their ordeal, "The World That Was Ours." Hilda's description of the tension and heartbreak of juggling family life and political activism at a time when the secret police were tightening the vise on their lives was gripping, and I wanted to learn more.

At bottom I had one enduring question: What was it that compelled them to put their lives and their families in jeopardy? It wasn't hard to understand why Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and their black comrades, brave as they were, had risked their lives for their own people. But Hilda and Rusty could have looked the other way, as so many other whites did, and continued to enjoy the comforts of being a member of the privileged elite in a country where the color of your skin dictated all of your life's choices and opportunities.

When I rang their bell, I was expecting to meet dour, saintlike figures occupying some sort of sacred fourth dimension beyond the reach of mere mortals. But Hilda and Rusty were warm, humorous and self-deprecating people without a hint of moral superiority. Hilda was a tiny woman with a pixie haircut. By that time, Rusty's curly red hair had turned completely gray. And they were brutally honest about their personal shortcomings and those of the movement of which they had been a part. They worried that they had inflicted emotional damage on their children by taking risks for a political cause.

"I don't quite understand it myself," Hilda said, when I asked why she had stuck with something so difficult and dangerous for so long. But as time went on, some of the strands of their bravery became apparent.

Part of it was their abiding friendship and commitment to Mandela and their other comrades. Hilda said that she had no idea when she began that things would deteriorate so badly -- "it all happened so gradually, and each step along the way I held out hope that things would get better." Part of it was the fact that they were communists who had faith that history was on their side. And part of it, I suspect, was that many of them were Jews and recent immigrants to South Africa who felt alienated from the white mainstream.

Hilda was born in London in 1915, the youngest of three daughters whose parents had immigrated to Britain from czarist Russia. She moved to South Africa in 1932 seeking work, got involved in Communist Party organizing there, and met and married Lionel Bernstein, a fellow activist who was born in Johannesburg in 1920. She worked as a writer in advertising and journalism and served as a City Council member in the mid-1940s. Besides "The World That Was Ours," she wrote or edited three other works of non-fiction and a prize-winning novel. She was also an artist and a singer.

In the 1940s, political activism had been something of an adventure, a chance to break out of the suffocating confines of white society. People such as Mandela and Sisulu were regular visitors to the Bernsteins' home. The Bernsteins were first charged with sedition in 1946 for supporting a strike by black miners, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. After that they were rounded up periodically and their house raided for banned literature. The government outlawed the Communist Party in 1948, but Hilda and Rusty maintained their participation clandestinely and tightened their ties with the African National Congress, the leading black organization fighting apartheid. Rusty was one of the 156 defendants in the marathon Treason Trial of 1956. The case against them collapsed after three years.

In 1960, the government banned the ANC and began tightening restrictions on activists of all kinds. Rusty was "banned" -- put under house arrest and regular surveillance. In response to the crackdown, Mandela and his allies formed an underground movement and launched a sabotage campaign. Their stated purpose was to "bring the regime to its senses," but the turn to violence had the opposite effect. Armed with new anti-terrorism laws, the government cracked down harder. Mandela was tracked down and imprisoned in 1962. The following year, Rusty and 17 others were arrested at the Communist Party's secret headquarters in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg.

Rusty was held without charge for nearly three months and not allowed to see a lawyer or his family. He knew he was likely to be charged under the new anti-sabotage law that stipulated hanging as a possible punishment. His smuggled notes to Hilda reflected his despair. "I feel as though I am down here amongst the dead," he wrote to her. He said his love for his family "is slowly breaking my heart, because involved in it is tremendous sorrow for the awful mess I have made of all your lives."

Rusty told me he promised himself that if he ever got out of prison he would put his family first and forgo active politics. The state had no evidence that he had been actively involved in the sabotage campaign, and Rusty was one of two defendants freed after the Rivonia Trial.

After escaping to Britain, he and Hilda continued to participate in the anti-apartheid movement, but they fulfilled their promise to their family by keeping a lower public profile. Hilda resigned from the Communist Party after Moscow put down the Czech revolution in 1968. Rusty never did resign, but he told me he had long recognized that Lenin and Stalin had perverted the notion of communism as an idealistic movement.

After Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and South Africa became a multiracial democracy, Rusty and Hilda received honorary university degrees and a small government pension. After Rusty died of a heart attack in 2002, Mandela came to Oxford to visit Hilda. She decided to move back to South Africa, and spent her last days in an assisted-living facility in Cape Town.

"The meaning of life is not a fact to be discovered, but a choice that you make about the way you live," she once told me. Hilda chose to remain faithful to her friends and her cause and her deepest beliefs.

Glenn Frankel is The Post's former Southern Africa bureau chief and the author of "Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa."

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