Himan Bernadt (1909 - 2007)
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Himan Bernadt
Himan “Himie” Bernadt was born on 21 December 1909. He was the eldest of the five children born to immigrant parents in Pretoria. His father was a struggling baker. Later, his family moved to Cape Town.
Bernadt attended the South African College. He was a founder of the law firm Bernadt Vukic Potash and Getz in Cape Town. He practised as an attorney for over 70 years, an achievement marked by an award from the Law Society of the Cape of Good Hope.
Bernadt married Jean Alkin in 1940 and they had three children: Ian, Marian and Morris, all of whom live abroad.
After the Rivonia Trial in 1964 at which Mr Nelson Mandela and others were jailed for life on Robben Island, Bernadt handled Mandela's affairs, acting also for other political prisoners, including Oscar Mpetha, Zollie Malindi, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeniand Walter Sisulu. He also acted in a successful appeal for two young Eastern Cape men, sentenced in 1970 to excessive terms of imprisonment for what were variations of one offence. Their sentences were thus significantly reduced by the judgment, which also had wide application in other cases.
He appeared regularly in court for migrant workers arrested for not having a pass. Many can confirm Bernadt’s quiet work for political activists such as Dora Tamana, for whom he secured legal rights to stay in Cape Town. The first trade unit he acted for was a Muslim women’s association.
In 1963, he secured an inquest into the death of Look smart Solwandle Ngudle, who died in a police cell. In 1969, he succeeded in getting an inquest into Imam Abdullah Haron’s death in detention. Bernadt worked long hours for anti-apartheid activists and those under banning orders, whether migrant workers or well-known white students. When Justice Albie Sachs was detained under the 90-day law, Bernadt succeeded in an application that allowed him reading and writing material.
Bernadt’s files on his legal work for Nelson Mandela, centering on the rights of prisoners on Robben Island between 1966 and 1990, are now archived at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.
Bernadt pursued the letter of the law not only to fight for the eradication of outrageous laws in the country, but also to challenge the very foundations of apartheid in South Africa.
Albie Sachs recently said, “One reason we have a marvellous Constitution today is that people like Himie Bernadt kept alive the legality of the law in the most terrible circumstances”.
From humble beginnings as a Jewish boy who faced constant anti-Semitism in the Nationalist apartheid atmosphere of the time which was sympathetic to the Nazis, Himie Bernadt went on to challenge the very system that had defined black people as less than human. He used his legal knowledge to defend many anti-apartheid activists and never tired of fighting a system universally condemned as a crime against humanity.
Himie Bernadt passed away on 25 December 2007. He is survived by his wife Jean and his children.