Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein (1920 - )
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein
Mr Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein was born on 3 March 1920 in the city of Durban of European Jewish immigrants. He was educated at Hilton College, and thereafter studied architecture at the University of Witwatersrand from 1937 to 1941. A committed anti-apartheid activist and leader of the Communist Party of South Africa, he gave up a comfortable and lucrative architectural practice and a convenient lifestyle to fight apartheid.
His active political involvement began in the late 1930s when he became secretary of the then Communist Party of South Africa, the forerunner to the South African Communist Party, in the Johannesburg District. He also became a member of the Labour League of Youth.
Mr Bernstein was a political activist almost throughout his life even outside formal party lines. He served as a gunner in the South African Artillery in the Italian Campaign in the Second World War.
After his demobilisation in 1946, during the African Miners’ Strike, Mr Bernstein produced a strike bulletin and both he and his wife, Hilda, were later charged by the regime for aiding the strike, but were given suspended sentences.
With the coming into power of the National Party and adoption of apartheid as state policy in 1948, Mr Bernstein’s resolve to fight for freedom and equality in South Africa intensified. By 1953, both he and Hilda were subjected to various bans and restrictions, including being barred from joining non-political bodies such as parent teacher associations.
In 1954, together with Mr Nelson Mandela, Mr Oliver Tambo and Mr Walter Sisulu, he played a major role in organising the Congress of the People, which subsequently adopted the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1955. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Congress of Democrats.
In 1956, together with 155 others (including Chief Albert Luthuli and Mr Mandela), Mr Bernstein was arrested and charged with treason during the 1956 Treason Trial. Together with his co-accused, he was acquitted after four years, but this lasted only for a while, as he and his wife were again arrested under the emergency regulations in 1960 after the Sharpeville Massacre.
On their release, they were banned and subjected to restrictions, including being forbidden to meet with other people and this was reinforced to house arrest in 1962. Despite the banning of the Communist Party in 1950, Mr Bernstein served it diligently together with the ANC as an underground operative after its reconstitution in 1953.
He contributed articles to a number of political journals and was responsible for much of the propaganda issued by the liberation movement. During this time, he also wrote extensively for many journals, including Liberation, Guardian, Sechaba, the African Communist and Fighting Talk and continued to write under pseudonyms even after being banned.
On 11 July 1963, Mr Bernstein was arrested with other leaders at Lilliesleaf Farm, in Rivonia, the headquarters of the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the liberation army of the African National Congress (ANC), and then newly established with Mr Mandela as Commander-in-Chief.
This was after Mr Bernstein had served 90 days of detention. While most of his co-accused were sentenced to life imprisonment following the notorious Rivonia Treason Trial, he was released, rearrested and he eventually skipped the country together with his wife to England while he was still on bail.
Mr Bernstein worked as an architect in London for 17 years before retiring and staying in Oxfordshire. He continued to work for the anti-apartheid movement and wrote many articles during this period until his death. Until 1994, when the first free elections took place, he was still working towards the liberation of South Africa, never renouncing his principles or beliefs. He returned to the country in 1994 for four months for the first post-apartheid elections and worked in the ANC press office during this time, responsible for ensuring mass white participation in the first non-racial elections in South Africa.
Mr Bernstein was as independent-minded as he was intolerant of oppression, and in some instances opposed the most prominent of his colleagues, such as Mr Joe Slovo and Mr Mandela, on quite grave issues such as the armed struggle. During his term at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania, he set up a political school and taught history to South African political exiles, encouraging critical thinking that occasionally challenged the ANC itself.
In 1995, he travelled to Italy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of an area of Italy from Nazi occupation and represented the South African regiment that fought there.
In 1998, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein were awarded honorary degrees by the then University of Natal for their role in helping to bring democracy to South Africa. This followed the publication of Mr Bernstein’s acclaimed personal account of the unwritten history of South African politics between 1938 and 1964. He died in June 2002 at the age of 82.
We are proud to honour Mr Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein with the Order of Luthuli in Silver for his excellent contribution to the fight against apartheid, working within the ambit of the Alliance.