In jail, I couldn't bear to think of my children; Interview; Hilda Bernsteinby Anne Sebba, The Times, 01 July 2004
Hilda Bernstein was forced to abandon her family to fight Apartheid in South Africa. Today, aged 89, she has no regrets, she tells Anne Sebba.
"I THINK I am brave. Yes, I do. I'm prepared to accept that now," says Hilda Bernstein, the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, reflecting on the time her husband faced the death penalty three years after her own prison detention. "I'm not boasting that I'm extraordinary in any way. I think you can't ever plan how you will react. But I know now that I am able to confront very difficult situations."
Hilda serenely imparts this self-knowledge while sipping coffee in her Cape Town flat, which overlooks the Atlantic and its snarling 30ft (9m) rollers. Six months ago she returned to South Africa after 40 years of exile in Britain. She is 89, widowed and recovering from a hip operation, so has plenty of time to reflect on the past and ask herself if the struggle was worth it.
She is living in a privileged white enclave, but from her window she can just make out Robben Island, where her friend Nelson Mandela served 18 years of a life sentence after the notorious Rivonia trial, which concluded on June 11, 1964. A photograph of Mandela is on her table.
Hilda's husband, Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, an architect, was charged with sabotage. He could have been hanged, but in the end he was the only Rivonia defendant to be acquitted.
But Hilda Bernstein was not concerned just for her own and her husband's survival: she had four children to think about. When she and Rusty were arrested for the first time in 1946, charged with sedition during a miners' strike, their eldest daughter, Toni, was only two. From then on, the family lived under the shadow of the authorities.
During the 1950s Hilda's activities were increasingly restricted until she was prohibited from publishing her writing. Then, in 1960,came the Sharpeville shootings, and a state of emergency was declared. At 3am, Hilda and Rusty were seized from their home and taken to prison. Toni, by then 16, was left in charge of Patrick, 12, Frances, nine and Keith, four.
"This was the worst time for me. Not because the prison conditions were
so bad - disgusting food, chipped plates and mattresses without sheets
-but I really suffered from being without my children for three months. I
couldn't bear even to think of them," says Hilda.
Hilda then recites a verse by the 19th-century poet Lizette Reese which concludes: "I wonder at the idleness of tears." She refused to allow herself to cry. Instead she memorised poetry: "It was a type of mental release, a comfort I can't quite describe today."
Another comfort was keeping a prison diary. Slowly, she gets up to find it for me now, a book full of pages of minute, pencilled writing, which includes a dramatic account of an eight-day hunger strike. She concealed the diary by cutting a hole in the underarm of her overcoat lining and making sure she always wore the coat. Only Toni came to visit her when she was in prison; the younger children were not allowed to see her. After her release Rusty, afraid of a repetition of the 1960 emergency when both of them were arrested, urged Hilda to be more cautious. She periodically threw out banned literature, but she knew from the regular raids on their house that another arrest was likely. As long as she remained in South Africa she was too deeply involved in politics to stop her activities. Although she dreaded the thought of the children being alone, prison was a risk she knew she must face. When pressed by others to "consider the children", Hilda replied: "I do. In the long run the most important thing as far as the children are concerned is what sort of country they will have to live in."
Three years after Hilda's time in detention, Rusty was arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, on July 11, 1963. He had driven there, with some foreboding, for a secret meeting. He was already under 12-hour house arrest and restricted to Johannesburg. The police, acting on a tip-off, were waiting.
Hilda's account of the year leading up to the Rivonia trial and the family's eventual exile -The World That Was Ours -has just been reissued. Some of the most moving passages concern her fights with authority to visit Rusty in jail in Pretoria, 40 miles (65km) away.
Toni insists that she was not damaged by the demands made on her. But
Hilda admits: "I think she had to shoulder too much responsibility for a
Two days later Rusty was released on bail. Yet both he and Hilda knew
it was only a matter of days before the secret police would come for them
both. Friends persuaded them that exile was preferable to jail. Even so,
Hilda, convinced that she would never again see the country she loved so
passionately, did not flee until the last moment. "I felt I was saying
goodbye to all that the house represented; a wonderful and fruitful part
of our lives."
Keith laughed at his mother's disguise -a big hat, high heels and heavy
make up. Then he asked: "How long before you send for us?" It was an
Toni, by then married and studying at university, joined the family
with her husband.
Hilda left school aged 16 with ambitions to be an artist, but she could
not afford to study, so she moved with her mother to South Africa in 1932.
Shocked by the policies of Mussolini and Hitler, she joined the Labour
League of Youth and then the Communist Party. In 1941 she married Rusty, a
fellow communist. In 1943, while he was away at war, Hilda was elected to
the Johannesburg City Council –the first Communist Party member elected to
public office in South Africa by a whites only vote.
The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein is available from