Decency in a time of hateful chaos

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IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.
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