As an expat it’s always a challenge to dig beneath the surface and figure out what makes your new country tick, to comprehend the national psyche. In South Africa, the wound left by the Apartheid years is still raw.
History books can be a dry, slow route to enlightenment. For me, literature is often the solution to unpicking those first knots of confusion. A digestible insight into ‘their‘ lives under the Apartheid regime, is Hilda Bernstein’s relatively little know autobiographical account, The World that was Ours.
This autobiographical work charts Bernstein’s and her husband’s role in the struggle against Apartheid. Bernstein and her husband were both white, middle-class political activists living in Johannesburg. She details the gradual, but increasingly sinister and brutal government erosion of their liberties, her husband’s arrest and his ordeal during the subsequent and infamous Rivonia Trial. He was tried alongside his contemporary, Nelson Mandela.
Bernstein’s writing style is accessible and engaging. She manages to explain complex politics and the minutiae of the Rivonia Trial She expertly blends these with descriptions of her day-to-day duties as a mother with meals to cook and clothes to wash.
An ordinary hero, she had the unenviable task of trying to preserve some kind of normality for her four children, whilst dealing with constant fear, immense pressure and the uncertainty of her husband’s fate. There was a potential death sentence hanging over him.
As Bernstein wrote home to her family she makes it clear that she has chosen to walk this difficult road, “Remember, for both of us it was a free choice.” The tension rises further in the final chapters of the book as she switches from being an observer in the courtroom to an active participant in her daring escape to Botswana and into exile.
This is an illuminating, gripping and historically important read. It was first published in 1967 when the details were fresh and Apartheid was alive. There is now a satisfying afterword added in 2004 where Bernstein touches on the difficulties of adjusting to her new life as an exile in England. Eventually returning to live in South Africa after her husband’s death she writes: “We had survived thirty years in exile to see the triumph of our hopes, our desires – and our sacrifices.”
The World that was Ours has been reprinted by Persephone Books.
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