Hilda Bernstein

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Hilda Bernstein was born in London in 1915. Her father was Simeon Schwartz from Odessa, Ukraine. He relocated to England in 1901 where he became a Bolshevik and represented the new USSR in UK for a short while in 1920’s.

He returned to the USSR when recalled in 1925, and died in the 1930’s without ever having returned to the UK. Hilda’s Mother Dora was from Lithuania, Poland or Germany and lived in UK from about her early teens. Hilda was educated at State schools and had no tertiary education. She relocated to South Africa in 1932 where she worked in advertising, publishing and journalism. In South Africa she became active in organizations associated with the struggle for national liberation. Hilda was a member of the South African Labour Party League of Youth until 1940. By 1940, becoming increasingly aware of Apartheid, she left for the Communist Party, the only organization with no racial segregation. She served on both the district committee and national executive, and in 1943 her effective public speaking got her elected for 3 years to the Johannesburg city council by an all-white electorate.  As the only communist to achieve this, she was able to use her position to publicize the injustices of Apartheid. Hilda was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women – the first non-racial women’s organization in South Africa. This was to be a stepping stone for some of its members to later become outstanding leaders of the ANC.

Hilda met Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein through shared political involvement, and they were married in 1941.

She was one of the organizers of the women’s march to the Union Buildings that took place on the 9th of August 1956. Hilda was also a founder of the South African Peace Council and its national secretary until the organization’s banning. When she was contributor on South African affairs to periodicals in Africa, Britain, USA, Europe, she established long standing associations with the ANC, particularly through the ANC Women’s League.
In 1946 Hilda was charged with sedition after assisting with a black mineworkers’ illegal strike. She was later convicted.

In 1953 she was banned by Ministerial Decree from 26 organizations and all meetings. In 1958 her renewed banning orders included a ban on writing or publishing (she was a regular writer for periodicals in South Africa, other African countries, and Europe). In 1960, Hilda was detained under State of Emergency without charge following the Sharpeville shootings.

In 1963 her husband Rusty was arrested at Rivonia and charged together with Nelson Mandela and others. He was acquitted, rearrested, recharged, then released on bail. Soon after his release, Hilda fled from their home as the police came to arrest her. She and Rusty crossed the frontier on foot to Botswana, ultimately arriving in London. The story of the Rivonia arrests, trial and their escape was dramatically told in her book “The World That was Ours”.
In exile, Hilda continued to be active in the ANC, including the Women’s section, and also the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the British peace movement. Her public speaking and writing skills were used extensively for all these causes throughout Europe, the USA and Canada on behalf of the ANC and the Women’s League. Her publication list includes: The World that was Ours; The Terrorism of Torture; For Their Triumphs and for Their Tears; Steve Biko; Death is Part of the Process. Some of her more famous publications include: The Rift – the Exile Experience of South Africans and The Trials of Nelson Mandela (in Italian).

She had many one-person shows of her etchings, drawings and paintings in London and elsewhere, and exhibited extensively in group shows of print-makers and women artists in the UK, USA, Europe and African countries. Her work has been hung several times in the Royal Academy and is in both public and private collections throughout the world. It has also been used on book jackets and illustrations, on posters as greetings cards for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Both Hilda and Rusty felt they were part of the luckiest generation, to have lived to see the end of Apartheid and victory for the ANC, a cause they had both dedicated their lives to. They both came back to South Africa to take part in the election of the first democratically elected government in 1994.

In 2004, aged 89, 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.

Rusty and Hilda were strong advocates for full inclusion and equality for homosexuals, and Hilda advocated for same gender marriage rights in South Africa.

At the time of her death at 91 she was living in Cape Town. She was cremated at the Maitland crematorium in Cape Town.

Hilda brought unbounded energy, creativity and tenacity to whatever she undertook. More specially, she combined these with a fierce integrity and commitment to humanity.
Along with her legacy as an artist, writer and political activist, she leaves four children (Toni, Patrick, Frances and Keith), seven grand children and four great grand children.

Hilda Bernstein’s publications include:

The World That Was Ours (in English, Russian, German, and Dutch)
The Terrorism of Torture
For Their Triumphs and For Their Tears
Steve Biko
Death Is Part Of The Process
The Rift – The Exile Experience of South Africans
Separation (Originally published in paperback as A Life of One’s Own)
In Italian: The Trials Of Nelson Mandela
The World That Was Ours (re-published in 2003)outh Africa.