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Hilda Bernstein (1915 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Hilda Bernstein (1915 - ) Awarded for:
Striving for workers’ rights and her contribution to the struggle for gender equality and a non-racial, just and democratic South Africa.
Profile of Hilda Bernstein

Hilda Bernstein was born to Russian parents in London in 1915. After completing her high school education, and while still in her teens, she immigrated to South Africa in 1932.

From an early age, Bernstein became active in political organisations and associated with the struggle for national liberation. She became a member of the South African Labour Party League of Youth but in 1940 joined the South African Communist Party. Bernstein served as a city councillor in Johannesburg from 1943 to 1946 - the only Communist to be elected to public office on a ‘Whites only’ vote. Bernstein was charged with sedition following the mineworkers’ strike of 1946.

Bernstein was a founding member of the first non-racial women's organisation in South Africa, the Federation of South African Women. She was one of the organisers of the historic Women's March to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956. Hilda was also a founder of the South African Peace Council and its National Secretary until the organisation’s banning.

In 1953, Bernstein was declared a ‘listed’ Communist and banned by Ministerial decree from membership of organisations, attending meetings, writing and being published. Under the State of Emergency following the Sharpeville shootings, Bernstein was detained without charge. In 1964, after the Rivonia Trial in which she was charged, she escaped from home as police came to arrest her. Together with her husband, she crossed the border on foot to Botswana.

In exile, Bernstein was an active member of the External Mission of the African National Congress (ANC) and the ANC’s Women’s Section. Bernstein worked as a freelance journalist, and started a new and successful career as an artist and print-maker.

Bernstein toured extensively in Europe, Canada and the United States of America on behalf of the ANC, the Women's League and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, propagating the need to isolate the Apartheid regime. She also authored several biographies, novels and historical accounts of South Africa and countless articles, all concerning the struggle against Apartheid.

Hilda Bernstein continues to write and work as an artist.