Hilda Bernstein

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The Independent Online

Holding a line of continuity in a ferocious period under apartheid required a quality of courage that does not fully emerge in Hugh Macmillan's obituary of Hilda Bernstein [20 September], writes Paul Trewhela. While her husband Rusty was on trial with Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia trial of 1963-64, facing a real possibility of being hanged, Hilda embraced the risk herself.

Because of arrests and flights into exile, there were not enough people to carry out indispensable underground political functions. Duplication of roles - always dangerous - became a norm. Despite herself being under police surveillance, Hilda doubled up as an emissary of the central committee of the illegal Communist Party and the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the SACP and the African National Congress), to set up and supervise production in Johannesburg of an underground journal for Umkhonto, Freedom Fighter, of which I was editor. The journal advocated military action against the South African regime, the matter for which Mandela, Rusty Bernstein and their trial colleagues faced the possibility of a death sentence.

We lasted through three issues. One month after the end of the Rivonia trial - in which Rusty was acquitted - further arrests put an end to the journal. Shortly afterwards, Hilda and Rusty were spirited out of the country.

None of this appeared in her autobiographical account, The World That Was Ours, a too-romanticised evocation that appeared in Britain in 1967.

Hilda was one of that generation of "Stalin's Jews" who played a major role in the political transformation of South Africa. The present government, which has presided over spectacular levels of corruption, crime and deaths from HIV/Aids, shares some of the moral problems from that inheritance.

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