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Review - The World that was Ours

Albie Sachs, The Independent (2004)


It was Hilda Bernstein who introduced me to the term ‘wives-of’. Married to Rusty Bernstein and using his surname she was never his ‘wife-off’. There was that famous moment when, as Rusty was being rearrested after being acquitted in the Rivonia Trial in Johannesburg in 1964, she yelled out in court with appropriate wifely distress ‘Oh no, they are taking him again.’ Her cry captured headlines.

The Rivonia Trial, at which Mandela and eight colleagues of the ANC and Communist Party underground were sentenced to life imprisonment forms the cetrepoint of this enthralling story. It read like a thriller. Page after page. Which was surprising, because not only did I know the facts insid out, and who the villains were, I had read it before.

It more than holds its own as a highly literate remembrance today of a world that was, but is no longer, ours. Hilda and Rusty Bernstein were amongst the great figures of the Mandela generation of South African freedom fighters. Almost forty years ago she wrote this story of Rusty’s arrest, trial, acquittal and escape after the trial.  She wanted it to be a personalised weapon of struggle. Its objective was to focus attention on Nelson Mandela and others in prison. Lightly re-edited, it grasped my attention from the beginning. Partly this was because of the Eric Ambler-like atmosphere, with heroes battling through webs of dense fascist-style secret police activity. But the real itriguing mystery for me lay not in the story as such, but in whether or not it would stand upto being read in our post apartheid era. Without the sub-text of struggle, and agitation would the text survive as literature? Where have all the villains gone...? To the Truth Commission everyone...? Without the tension of history, would the memoir sustain itself?

The answer, as I have indicated, is yes, triumphantly so. The vivid detail flowing imaginitive recall can be enoyed for theselves. We can relish without any straining purpose the subtleties and freshness of Hilda’s voice, the strong evocatios of urban and rural landscape, and the details of character. Indeed, mingled in with the anger and astonishment at what was once the apparent normality of apartheid, it is even possible to feel a certain sympathy for Colonel Klindt as he faced the well-planned and brilliantly executed emotonal assaults of the women who confronted him in his den. Spirited and independent women, for the most part still actively engaged in dangerous clandestine work, they bravely took on the character of ‘wives-of’, fighting relentlessly to break through the security barriers that held their captured husbands in soltary confinement.

Rusty died recently, quietly honoured for his role in the struggle, and acclaimed as author of an elegantly written political autobiography. Hilda now lives alone in Cape town, resisting with characteristic spirit and good humour the infirmities that come with age. There is something peculiarly appropriate about this book resurfacing again. It is the loveliest of her works about the ugliest of her times. The intense sense of integrity in the writing has been fully validated by subsequent events. We read it with a sense of triumph, but happily, without a feeling of triumphalism.

The dismantling of apartheid was not a miracle, it was the product of the vision so fluently and convincingly captured by Hilda at a time when liberation was widely regarded as a wonderful but impossible hope. And there is something especially satisfying to know that she can take it for granted that the knock on the door in her little flalet comes not from the security police, but from her grandchildren, and knowing that they are growing up in a country with a Constitution that not only proclaims non-racalism, but non-sexism as a foundational value.



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