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Biography of Hilda BERNSTEIN

South Africa > Social : Hilda BERNSTEIN

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Born on 15/05/1915 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Hilda Schwarz Bernstein born May 15, 1915 - died September 8, 2006 was a  South African political activist, writer and artist.Hilda Bernstein was a woman of many talents who devoted most of her long life to the promotion of equality for all South Africans regardless of race, colour, or gender. This veteran anti-aparheid campaignerwho has died of heart failure in Cape Town, aged 91, devoted most of her life to the cause of true democracy in South Africa.

She was the wife of the late Rusty Bernstein who was tried for treason along with Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial in 1964. Together, the couple campaigned for the end to white racist rule.

She was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, the first non-racial women's organisation in South Africa.

During almost 40 years in exile in London and Oxford, she worked tirelessly for the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid Movement as an organiser, lecturer and writer.



Born in London in 1915, she was one of the three daughters of Samuel and Dora Watts who were both Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father, a Bolshevik, was born Simeon Schwarz. When Hilda was 10 he responded to an order from the Soviet Communist Party to return to Russia to help build the revolution. Hilda never saw him again - he died there from typhoid seven years later.

When she was 18, Hilda emigrated to South Africa where she lived a comfortable middle-class life. But as she became increasingly aware of the oppressive and divisive nature of the apartheid system, she joined the Communist Party, the only organisation with no racial segregation.

It was here that she met Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein and the couple married in 1941.

Throughout the 1950s, Hilda worked tirelessly to better the condition of African women, despite being banned from 28 organisations. She helped organise the march in 1956 in which 20,000 women converged on the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria, to demonstrate against the pass laws. And she was a founder and national secretary of the Peace Council until it, too, was banned. But there were ways to carry on the work clandestinely, but when, in 1958, her writing and magazine work was banned, it was a serious financial blow.

Her husband Rusty  had drafted the Freedom Charter, the founding document of the liberation struggle. But his ability to pay the bills for a growing family was likewise hindered by political intrusions, notably the four years, 1956-60, as a defendant in the Treason Trial, and then his and Hilda's detention in the State of Emergency that followed the shootings at Sharpeville in 1960.
Rusty was the sole accused in the 1964 Rivonia trial to be acquitted. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders were jailed for life. He was immediately re-arrested, then surprisingly bailed, giving the couple the option of quitting a hopeless political stage.

police harassment made his life unbearable and the couple were forced into exile, having to leave their children behind.

They crossed on foot to Botswana, and ultimately reached London. Later, Hilda Bernstein told the story of their arrests, trial and escape, in her book The World That was Ours.

In exile, Bernstein was an active member of the External Mission of the ANC, and a regular speaker on behalf of ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement, both in Britain and abroad.

She toured extensively in many countries of Europe, Canada and since 1994, South Africa, on behalf of the ANC and the Women's League.

Eventually, she and her husband settled in England, near Oxford, where Rusty Bernstein worked as an architect, and Hilda continued to write. She also became an artist, exhibiting her work in London, France and various countries in Africa.

She returned to South Africa with her husband for the installation of President Nelson Mandela in 1994, but she did not return to live in the country until after Rusty's death in 2002.

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.

At the time of her death at 91 she was living in Cape Town.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.

Last update : 04/03/2011

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