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Lionel Bernstein

Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein was born in 1920 in Durban, to Jewish immigrants from Europe. His mother and father were from France and Russia, respectively, but both died during Rusty’s early childhood. Thus, orphaned at the age of 8, he grew up under the care of relatives. Upon matriculating, he moved to Johannesburg, where he started working and studying towards becoming an architect. While a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Rusty became a communist with the inspiration of Kurt Jonas, a Jewish student who had been educated in Germany, and in whose company Rusty “first learnt of the invisible world of black workers and their trade unions.” He subsequently joined the Labour League of Youth in 1937, where he met Hilda Watts — whom he married — and later, both Rusty and Hilda joined the CPSA, and were elected onto its Johannesburg District Committee in 1941.

Rusty went on to become a leading member of the Party, and ultimately served on its central committee until 1991. Throughout his career, he wrote prolifically for various anti-Apartheid journals and newspapers, and in 1955, he played a major role in organising the Congress of the People, and drafting the Freedom Charter. He was charged in the Treason Trial in 1956, but together with his co-accused, was acquitted after four years. Then, in 1963, Rusty was among those arrested in the raid on Lilliesleaf Farm (the headquarters of Umkhonto weSizwe’s High Command), and tried for conspiring to overthrow the government. However, though most of the other struggle leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, he was acquitted. After his release (and a brief rearrest), he went into exile to England with his family, where he ultimately retired.


From left: Albie Sachs, Denis Goldberg and Ruth First. Click on the the faces to read more about them.

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