Interview: Rusty Bernstein
From the archive, first published Tuesday
16th May 2000.
Philippa Boston talks to Rusty Bernstein about his role in the
struggle to win freedom for black, Indian and coloured people in
South African exile and anti-apartheid activist Rusty Bernstein,
a man who at one time knew the walls of the Pretoria jail better
than those of his own home, now lives in a tranquil corner of
Kidlington, just outside Oxford. He had never thought to write his
memoirs until a colleague reminded him how few first-hand accounts
there were of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.
Many of the main players are dead. Virtually all information had
to be destroyed or communicated only by word of mouth. His memories
of the period from the late 1930s until his exile to England in 1964
are unique. I asked him how he came to find himself up against the
secret police in the 1950s.
"You start by saying, 'I feel I ought to lend a hand to this good
cause' and then gradually you get more and more involved until
there's no way of going back without disowning your whole past,"
said Mr Bernstein.
His first active involvement in politics came in late 1930s
Johannesburg, when he joined the Communist Party and helped with
fundraising for medical aid for the Spanish Civil War. During this
time he met and married his wife, a fellow Communist and a tireless
campaigner for civil rights.
Memory Against Forgetting catalogues the increasing unrest of
non-white citizens of South Africa up to 1955, when, in one of the
many memorable passages of the book, representatives of all the
numerous factions of anti-apartheid activity secretly squeezed
themselves into 40 schoolroom desks in rural Stanger, where Chief
Luthuli was confined, and, by the light of a single storm lantern,
united as the Congress of the People. It fell to Mr Bernstein, as a
long-time writer of magazine articles and political pamphlets, to
write The Freedom Charter, giving a political voice to the
disenfranchised. The following year, he was one of 156 suspected
anti-government activists involved in what became known as the
Treason Trial. The trial lasted until 1959, when all 156 defendants
were acquitted. Mr Bernstein's book describes how the defendants,
who had previously respected and communicated with each other from a
distance, due to the segregation laws, now became friends and formed
bonds which would remain for life.
Amazingly there is much to laugh about in this tale. Their
capacity to outwit the authorities reads like a real-life Jack and
the Beanstalk. Some of the prosecution exhibits at the trial, such
as the canteen boards bearing the legends "Soup with meat" and "Soup
without Meat", are hilarious. There is also that fairytale sense of
the giant getting more and more infuriated by Jack's antics, which
eventually leads to the giant's downfall. In 1959, Mr Bernstein
found himself acquitted, but out of a job, with four children to
support. In 1960, in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, the
government declared a State of Emergency, banned both the ANC and
the PAC (Pan African Congress) and gave the police the power to
detain suspects without trial.
The Bernsteins were soon both arrested and imprisoned without
charge. Mrs Bernstein was released after three months, when she and
some other mothers went on hunger strike. He was released some weeks
At this time their children were aged three, eight, 11 and 17.
How was family life affected and how did it feel to be in such a
dangerous position? Mrs Bernstein said.
Gradually it became more and more dangerous and more and more
difficult, but it didn't happen all of a sudden, so you were
well-immersed in what appeared to be legal and safe activity before
you realised you were up to your waist in something else as well."
Driven underground and increasingly disillusioned with peaceful
protest, the ANC and Communist Party formed a military wing called
Umkhonto We Sizwe, led by Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo. When the
police raided the Umkhonto headquarters at Rivonia in July 1963,
they recovered a half-charred document giving details of a military
campaign, never formally agreed or adopted by Umkhonto - vital
evidence in the subsequent Rivonia Trial. Treason, if proven, was
punishable by death.
Mr Bernstein, who had arrived at the Rivonia house ten minutes
before the police, was once again arrested. Although the only
defendant to be acquitted, he was immediately rearrested, but
managed to get bail and the couple escaped on foot over the border
into Botswana and ultimately to England.
The other defendants in the trial, including Mandela, were all
given life sentences. Mr Bernstein looks deeply content when talking
about returning to South Africa in 1994 to help in the first
one-person one-vote election which returned Mandela as President -
the realisation of so many dreams and towards which he had dedicated
so much of his adult life. "There has never been another day like
it," said Mr Bernstein. "You could feel the change in the air. You
could see people changing in front of your eyes. We're uniquely
lucky in that we were part of a movement which did change the world
in the direction which we wished to change it and that we lived to
**Memory Against Forgetting by Rusty Bernstein is published by
Viking at 10.99.