Bernstein, Hilda and Rusty

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Bernstein, Hilda and Rusty

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Hilda and Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein, both life long members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), devoted their lives to freedom and democracy in South Africa.

Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein was born in Durban in 1920, as the youngest of four children of European emigrants. Orphaned at the age of 8, he was sent to finish his education at Hilton College, a prestigious Boy's school in Natal. After matriculating he returned to Johannesburg where he started to work at an architect's office, while studying architecture part-time at the University of the Witwatersrand until 1936, after which he worked full-time as an architect. In 1937 he joined the Labour League of Youth and later joined the Communist Party. In 1941 he volunteered for the South African army and served as a gunner in North Africa and Italy as part of the Allied Forces. In March that year he married Hilda, an emigrant from Britain, whom he had met in the Labour League of Youth. She had risen to prominence in local politics

Hilda Bernstein, previously Watts, was born in London in 1915 as one of three daughters of Simeon and Dora Schwarz. Her father was a Bolshevik who became the Russian Trade Attaché in London in 1919, but left the family when he was recalled to Russia when Hilda was 10. Hilda emigrated to South Africa in 1933 aged 18, after receiving the news of her father's death, having never returned from the Soviet Union. In South Africa she soon joined the youth branch of the Labour Party. By 1940 she joined the Communist Party of South Africa and served on both the district committee and national executive. In 1943 she was elected for 3 years to the Johannesburg City Council as the only communist candidate to achieve this.

After Rusty's discharge from the army in 1946 he was reunited with his wife Hilda and their daughter Toni, the first of four children, being Toni, Patrick, Francis and Keith. Soon after Hilda and Rusty got involved in the strike of African miners in 1946, being on the strike committee and producing the strike bulletin. At the end of the strike they got arrested together with others and charged with sedition, to be convicted of aiding an illegal strike for which they received suspended sentences. In 1950 the Communist Party was banned, and listed members became subject to various restrictions, including a ban on being published. Nevertheless both published and edited extensively. Amongst many other publications, Rusty wrote and edited "Fighting Talk", the official organ of the Springbok Legion. Hilda was the editor of the magazine "Childhood", the official organ of the South African National Council for Child Welfare. Hilda and Rusty were instrumental in the formation of political movements and organisations at the time. Rusty played a major part on the committee organising the Congress of the People, which would adopt the Freedom Charter in 1955. Rusty has been credited with the drafting of the text for the Freedom Charter. Hilda was one of the founders of the first multi-racial women's organisation in 1956, called the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), and played a key role in organising the historic Women's March to Pretoria in 1956. At the end of 1956 Rusty, amongst 156 others, was arrested and charged with Treason, a trial which lasted for more than 4 years, after which all accused were found not guilty and discharged. In 1960, following the State of Emergency, Rusty and Hilda were detained for several months, first in the Old Fort prison, from which they were moved to the Pretoria Central Prison. During that time their four children were left in the care of friends and family. After their release house arrest followed as well as renewed banning orders. On the 11 July 1963 Rusty and other prominent leaders were arrested during a raid on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. Rusty was charged along Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others in the Rivonia Trail in 1964. He was acquitted, rearrested, recharged and then released on bail. Soon after his release, and just as police came to their home to arrest Hilda as well, both fled and crossed the border to Botswana on foot, ultimately arriving in London. They left their children in the care of their eldest daughter Toni and her husband Ivan Strasburg whom she married with her fathers blessings send from jail in 1963. Soon after all their children joined them in exile starting in London, were Rusty worked as an architect. Hilda forged a new life as an artist and writer, with many one-person shows of her etchings, drawings and paintings, as well as extensive group shows of print-makers and women artists in the UK, USA, Europe and African countries. Her work was displayed in the Royal Academy just as much as it was used on posters and greetings cards for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Rusty was an outstanding political educator. In 1987 he conducted a series of seminars for the ANC in Moscow on the history of the South African liberation struggle. In 1989 he was asked by the ANC leadership to establish a school of politics in the ANC camps in Mazimbu and Dakawa in Tanzania, where Hilda joined him for one year at the ANC's Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.

Both Hilda and Rusty lived to see the end of Apartheid, and came back to South Africa to take part in the first democratic elections in 1994. Rusty had worked in the ANC press office during that time, with particular responsibility for ensuring mass white participation in the elections. In 1995 he travelled to Italy to celebrate the 50. anniversary of the liberation from Nazi occupation, where he represented his former South African regiment. In 1998 Rusty and Hilda were awarded honorary degrees from the University of Natal for their role in helping to bring democracy to South Africa. Both published extensively, culminating in books like "The world that was ours", Death is part of the process", "For their triumphs and for their tears", "The Rift - The exile experience of South Africans" and "A life of ones own", which were published by Hilda, as well as Rusty's acclaimed book "Memory against forgetting", being his personal account of the history of South African politics between 1938-1964.

Rusty Bernstein died at their home in England on the 23 June 2002, aged 82. In 2004 Hilda was very proud to receive the Luthuli Silver Award for "contribution to the attainment of gender equality and a free and democratic society" in South Africa, she was 89 years at the time. She died on the 8 September 2006 in Cape Town.

(Compiled with the texts of the profiles of Hilda and Rusty Bernstein on the website, with permission)


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