Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein

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Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein was born in Durban, in 1920; the youngest of four children of European émigrés. Orphaned at eight years old, he was raised by relatives. These early disruptions to his family life were compounded when he was sent to finish his education at a boys’ boarding school. Hilton College, a private school, that was the South African equivalent of Eton or Harrow. He excelled academically but hated the way in which the school was administered. After matriculating, he returned to Johannesburg where he started work at an architect’s office, while studying architecture part-time at the University of the Witwatersrand. He qualified in 1936 and began work as an architect. The fact that he had bright red hair and espoused the Red cause earned him the enduring sobriquet of “Rusty”.

In 1937 he joined the Labour League of Youth and later joined the Communist Party where he soon played a leading role. For one year he forsook architecture to work as a full-time Party official and Secretary of the Johannesburg District of the Communist Party. In March 1941, he married Hilda Schwartz, whom he had met in the Labour League of Youth. She had risen to prominence in local politics. It was to be a life-long relationship.

That year he volunteered for the South African military to fight Nazism in Europe and served as a gunner in North Africa and Italy. He was repatriated and discharged from the army at the beginning of 1946, to be reunited with his wife and small daughter Toni, the first of four children. While he was in Italy, Hilda had been elected to the Johannesburg City Council (by an all-white electorate) where she served for three years. She was a fluent public speaker, later described by Anthony Sampson as “a South African version of the Spanish party’s La Passionaria.”

During the strike of African miners in 1946, he produced the strike bulletin; the mine workers newsletter. After the strike both he and Hilda were arrested together with others and charged with sedition. They were ultimately convicted of aiding an illegal strike and received suspended sentences.

Over the next quarter century, he wrote extensively for a number of journals, including Liberation and the South African newspaper the Guardian. He also edited “Fighting Talk” the journal for the Springbok Legion. This journal carried the same message as his other writings; that South Africa was approaching its last chance to make a peaceful transition to democracy. Fighting Talk became a banned publication in 1963, very few copies remain.

I am going to write my essay on the book of Mr. Bernstein, where Rusty writes: “The demand for written material – for handbills, pamphlets, press releases, and policy statements from all radical organizations was insatiable.” He contributed articles to a number of other political journals; and was responsible for much of the propaganda issued by the liberation movement.

In 1950, the Communist Party was banned. All those listed as its members became subject to various restrictions, including a ban on being published. Sometime later, Rusty took part with others in forming an underground Communist Party. He was also prominent in forming the Congress of Democrats, an organization for whites that could co-operate with the African National Congress, which at that time was restricted to black membership only. This Congress Alliance drew in radical trade unions, and many other non-racial political organizations.

In 1954, the ANC called together its allies to a joint meeting in Natal. This included the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and the Colored Peoples’ Congress. It was at this historic meeting that it was decided to convene a “Congress of the People” where a Freedom Charter would be adopted.

Rusty played a major part on the committee organizing the Congress, and worked very closely with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. He is often credited with the drafting of the Freedom Charter. He was given the responsibility of drafting the Freedom Charter from the thousands of demands coming in from all over the country. His written words became a rallying call for those struggling for national liberation from that time on; “Let Us Speak of Freedom. South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” The Freedom Charter became the basic document for the ANC for the next 40 years.

By 1953, both he and his wife became subject to bans and restrictions that prohibited them from belonging to or taking part in the activities of numerous organizations including non-political bodies such as Parent Teacher Associations. They were prohibited from communicating with any other banned person – although Rusty and his wife Hilda were given a special judicial dispensation permitting them to communicate with each other.

At the end of 1956, Rusty and 150 others were arrested and charged with Treason. The infamous Treason Trial lasted for more than 4 years after which all the accused were found not guilty and discharged.

In 1960, the Sharpeville massacre took place, and he and Hilda were both among those arrested and detained under the State of Emergency that followed. He was not released until five months later when the state of emergency was lifted. In 1962, he was placed under house arrest and allowed out only on weekdays between 6:00am and 6:00pm but had to report to the police every day.

His covert ANC and South African Communist Party activities led up to the police raid on Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, where he and 10 other prominent ANC leaders were arrested on 11th July 1963. Rusty was held in solitary confinement under the notorious Ninety Days detention law. At the end of ninety days, he was charged together with Nelson Mandela and others, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. At the end of the trial, the remaining men were all found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Rusty was the only one found not guilty and he was discharged. He was immediately re-arrested while leaving the dock and later released on bail. Shortly after his release, the police came to arrest Hilda, but she managed to escape from their home and went into hiding. They then decided to leave South Africa for the sake of their children, who would be orphaned for a very long time if both of them were sent to jail. Also, their activities were now so circumscribed, they felt they had become a danger to all who associated with them.

They left their children in the care of their eldest daughter Toni and her husband, and crossed the border to Botswana on foot. Their flight across the border and subsequent journey is described in Hilda’s book “The World that was Ours”.

Rusty and Hilda eventually made their way into Zambia. Despite Zambia being well on the way to independence and the ANC being well respected by the new incoming authorities, they were declared prohibited immigrants by the British authorities. They then travelled overland to Tanzania and eventually to England, where their children joined them one by one. Rusty worked as an architect in London.

Despite leaving the country of his birth, he continued to work tirelessly for the abolition of Apartheid without drawing a salary from the ANC, preferring to earn his living independently. In 1987, he conducted a series of seminars for the ANC in Moscow, on the history of South Africa’s liberation struggles. This was to “men and women of the Soweto generation, training to be guerrilla fighters.”

In 1989, he and Hilda spent a year at the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania helping to establish a school of politics. He returned to South Africa in 1991 after the unbanning of the ANC, and again for four months in 1994 for the first post-Apartheid elections where he worked in the ANC press office, with particular responsibility for ensuring mass white participation in the first non-racial elections to take place in South Africa.

In 1995 he travelled to Italy to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of an area of Italy from the Nazi occupation and represented the South African regiment that fought there.

In 1998, both Rusty and Hilda were awarded honorary degrees from the University of Natal for their role in helping to bring democracy to South Africa. This followed the publication of Rusty’s acclaimed personal account of the unwritten history of South African politics between 1938 and 1964. He then published his memoirs “Memory Against Forgetting” in 1999.

Rusty and Hilda were strong advocates for full inclusion and equality for homosexuals.

Rusty died on June 23, 2002 and was cremated at Golders Green crematorium in London. On the day he died, Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, personally called Hilda to pass on his condolences. The next week, there was a minutes silence in both South African houses of parliament and three respected UK papers published large obituaries. The following week, Nelson Mandela and his wife paid a personal visit to Rusty’s wife. Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein was one of the most distinguished members of the small group of (mainly Jewish) white South African Communists who played a decisive role in shaping the African National Congress.