When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of incarceration in 1990, I was 7 years old and on the other side of the world. I do remember it though. It was one of those events that was covered in every country and talked of in every place. People of my generation recall the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, but only in its twilight days – when most of the argument had been won internationally. As a child, political ideas seemed to come to me through a glass darkly, and were formed slightly skew-whiff. Often I had an idea about how I felt about things, but there was a bit of a knowledge gap, particularly in relation to distant lands and afar away cultures.
So, the Persephone Classic, The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein has been a powerful read both emotionally and intellectually – I finally know something about Apartheid South Africa. Hilda Bernstein was a communist and a passionate campaigner against racial segregation. She was born in Britain but her heart seems to have been in Africa. She was white but she rejected her privileged status. She and her husband, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein were active political dissidents in Johannesburg at a point in its history when dissent was decidedly not allowed.
The World That Was Ours is her memoir of the early 1960s, a period when the Nationalist government in South Africa was at its most Orwellian and rapacious. The Bernstein home is watched day and night, invaded frequently but policemen with seemingly endless arbitrary powers. The Bernsteins are firmly and surely marginalised by legislation; it becomes illegal for them to speak to their closest friends and even at times, each other. Rusty is kept in solitary confinement and put on trial alongside other ANC men, including Nelson Mandela in the kangaroo court of the Rivonia Trial. Miraculously, when the other defendants are sent down for life, Rusty is acquitted and the final act of this memoir is played out. Husband and wife escape South Africa, where they are both hunted people, in a nail biting chase across a barren landscape. They walk across the wilderness until they can hardly move for exhaustion; they are nearly attacked by dogs; they have no idea whom to trust and whom to fear.
The memoir of Hilda Bernstein is far from impartial, but it is a living breathing and extremely chilling window onto her world. I would not call this a political memoir but a personal memoir with a powerful political dimension. Bernstein self defines as a communist and her main reason is that in South Africa the communist party were the only party who were not racist. Bernstein’s communism seems to have been a rather different fish from that considered by another recent read, The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch. For Bernstein, being a communist was about being a humanitarian and her memoir testifies to how easily ideas can mutate across borders and continents. The woman who emerges from these pages is a true idealist. She never, until very near the end, does what is practical. Instead, she does what she thinks is right. Readers may find themselves with mixed feelings at times, because of course; her political life restricted her family life dreadfully. They could not take holidays, they could not go out with their children of an evening, school friends invited for supper would arrive with the police on their tails. Ultimately however, the power of the narrative voice both justifies and fully explains Bernstein. What emerges is a picture of a deeply admirable woman. I fear that I would have strapped on my sandals and run for my life a long time before she did.
The political is knitted together with the domestic and the public, and provides a personal close up on persecution. In this history, coping with challenges strengthens people but also makes them hard and puts them beyond the reach of readjustment. Bernstein deals with this implicitly throughout the book and with remarkable candour in her “afterword”. Her writing is good. She has the confidence of a woman who knows that she can write and is not afraid to break a few rules. The prose is lyrical and almost cinematic. The final sequence in particular, in which Hilda and Rusty fly to safety after a perilous journey is so vivid, that I could almost imagine myself there.
I have peppered this review with pictures of the Persephone edition of the book, the Persephone end paper, and a photograph of the author. Interested readers may also enjoy this excellent review at Books and Chocolate.