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The World That Was Ours
ISBN: 1872086004

By Hilda Bernstein
Review by: Moira Richards


When Nelson Mandela stood trial for his life on a charge of treason against the Republic of South Africa, he stood not alone -- eight other men shared the dock with him and on that June day, exactly forty years ago, all those Rivonia Trialists were sentenced to a lifetime's imprisonment. All with the exception of one man, Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein who walked free because the state found insufficient evidence to convict him too. In The World That Was Ours, Hilda Bernstein takes her readers behind the public face of this historic trial and tells the stories leading up to and surrounding it from the perspective of another banned political activist, also the wife of a trialist.

Her book often reads like a fictionalised story of intrigue and danger. But what spy in a storybook ever felt compelled to get that last load of family laundry into the washing machine before slipping out the back window to escape the enemy? What secret agent ever risked capture to honour a promise to her small son that she would be back at home to kiss him goodbye on his first day of school? What conspirator ever managed to swing permission to visit her accomplice by convincing his jailer that she was unable to decide domestic matters without his consent as head of the family?

In our post-apartheid years, when white South Africans now apologise for their past actions, or deny them or refuse to examine and engage with the effects of this behaviour, The World That Was Ours raises impossible questions about that dark time. When I read about how Hilda Bernstein's activism and commitment to social justice led to her being banned from attending even a child's birthday party. When I understand that she acknowledged unflinchingly that her activism could, would lead to her imprisonment without trial or recourse to a lawyer, perhaps even to her assassination. When she describes the burden to her school-going children of owning socially unacceptable and non-conformist parents, when she tells how she risked the possibility of never sharing in her youngest son's childhood, and recounts the ways her eldest daughter had to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood before she was even out of her teen years. It is then that I wonder whether I myself could have been any better a white person during those apartheid years? Would I have been prepared to make even one of those sacrifices or to take any such huge personal risk for the principle of human rights? I pray that no one will ever ask me to answer those questions.

Hilda barely escaped South Africa and its Security Police shortly after the Rivonia Trial had ended and she and Rusty lived in exile for thirty years, returning for a short visit in 1994 to cast their votes in the country's elections, and to attend Nelson Mandela's inauguration as its first democratically elected president. Today she is an eighty-nine year old grandmother with children scattered over three continents and with a home in the beautiful Cape Town of our new South Africa -- surely the world that was her dream all those years ago.

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