Lionel Bernstein

By Ryan O'Meara

Early Life

Lionel Bernstein was born March 20, 1920 in Durban South Africa. He was orphaned at the age of eight, and was brought up by relatives. His early education was at a boys' boarding school named Hilton College. He was smart, and made good grades in his classes, but he did not like how the school system was run. Though the guidance of his teacher and the participation in a debate on the future of civilization, his love for politics began. His chosen career was far from the realm of politics though: after 1963 he started to work as a full-time architect. He met his wife Hilda when he joined a political organization, the Labor League of Youth. Bernstein could have had the comfortable life that all whites are given in South Africa, but instead he chose to listen to his heart and try and change the issue of equality in South Africa, by fighting for anti- apartheid.


In 1937, Bernstein joined the Labor League of Youth and later, the Communist Party where he later became secretary of the Johannesburg District of the Communist Party. During the African miners strike of 1946, he created the mine workers newsletter. In 1950, when the Communist Party was banned, and Bernstein and others were the leaders in creating an underground Communist Party, where they could continue their work. He was also one of the important figures that formed the Congress of Democrats, so that they could co-operate with the African National Congress, which was an all black organization at the time. Their alliance drew in other non-racial political organizations, and changed the entire outlook on whites and blacks working together.

4 Years later, the ANC called the Congress of Democrats, and its other allies together for a joint meeting where they decided to assemble a Congress of the People. Later, the Freedom Charter would be created by the Congress of the People, which meant that Bernstein was one of the leaders that took part in creating the Freedom Charter, and would then draft it. Working alongside with Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Bernstein had a major role in creating the Congress. By doing this, he became one of the prominent leaders in the ANC (which later branched off into the MK), along with Nelson Mandela, Denis Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Arthur Goodreich, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni.

After leaving South Africa because he and Hilda's activities were being watched after he was arrested by the authorities along with the other leaders of the MK, and then released on bail, he and his wife left South Africa and went back to London so that they would not put their children's lives in danger. He worked as an architect in London, but even across the ocean, he was very active in working for the ANC (without pay) to abolish Apartheid. In 1989 though, he came back to Tanzania to help establish a school of politics with his wife Hilda at the ANC's Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College. In 1998, Bernstein and Hilda were given honorary degrees from the University of Natal for their role in helping to establish democracy in South Africa.

Bernstein and The Anti-Apartheid Movement

Lionel Bernstein is one of the people who was very much responsible for the reconciliation of Apartheid and the change in segregation in South Africa. Bernstein helped to create and draft the freedom charter, and was a leader of the MK, along with Nelson Mandela and four others. He also made an anti-apartheid organization called the Congress of Democrats that joined with the ANC in creating the Congress of the People. He wrote the opening phrase of the Freedom Charter himself, "Let us speak of freedom." He was very involved in doing anything he could to stop Apartheid, including making an underground Communist Party when it was banned by the Government. Even when he was over in London, he still dedicated his life to helping the movement succeed. Because of him and four other leaders, Apartheid was abolished.

An excerpt from Lionel Bernstein's article: telling it as it was

“It is hard these days - twenty-five years on - to recapture the feeling of the time of Rivonia - of the sudden arrest of some of the leading liberation movement's activists, of the triumphant state claims that the 'headquarters' of the illegal ANC and Communist Party had been 'captured' of the trial and its head-on confrontation between state and security police on one hand, Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and their colleagues on the other. And yet, whenever the history of the South African resistance movement is being discussed or written, 'Rivonia' becomes some sort of milestone, or the marker of a turning point in the story.”

Works Cited

  • Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002). Digital image. The Accused: "The Rivonia 11" N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • Hilda Bernstein with her husband Rusty and Nelson Mandela. Digital image. BBC News. BBC, 12 Sept. 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • Lionel Bernstein (L), Andrew Mlangeni, Dennis Goldberg (C), Raymond Mhlaba and Arthur Goldreich (R) pose at a small-holding at Rivonia Liliesleaf farm in Johannesburg December 15, 2001. Digital image. Johannesburg - South African Jew Who Hid Nelson Mandela Dies at 82. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • Bernstein, Patrick. "Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein." Lionel and Hilda Bernstein Memorandum. Patrick Bernstein, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.
  • "The Liliesleaf Story." Liliesleaf. The Liliesleaf Trust, 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.
  • Bernstein, Lionel. "Rivonia: Telling It as It Was." African National Congress. African National Congress, 2 July 1988. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.