Toni Strasburg, Holding the Fort: A Family Torn Apart (Kwela Books, 2019)

LIONEL (Rusty) and Hilda Bernstein were among several couples prominent in the South African liberation struggle. When detained on 8 April 1960 during the first State of Emergency they were separated from four children, ranging from Toni (16) to Keith (only 3) for 80 days (in Hilda’s case). This book provides a parallel account of the experiences of the imprisoned parents and the disrupted lives of their children seen through Toni’s memories, Rusty’s letters, and, most vividly, Hilda’s prison diary, letters and sketches.

Toni’s book is a memorial to the steadfastness of those who fought apartheid’s evil. Its jailers found that groups of educated, disciplined political detainees were a new experience altogether, lacking the docility usually expected of prisoners. The women refused to move from Johannesburg’s Fort to Pretoria, in most cases further from their children, and had to be carried out. Once in Pretoria they started a hunger strike and were joined by the men. This resulted in some of the women being moved to Nylstroom. Hilda records that the men drew inspiration from the women: ‘for our part we drew inspiration from each other.’

The authorities are described as cruel and petty, although solidarity and assertion of their rights by detainees gradually brought about a certain rapprochement with the prison staff. Pretoria was an improvement on the Fort and the women detainees seem to have achieved a degree of autonomy; doing their own cooking, for instance. Hilda managed to conceal a forbidden radio, named Mary, so the prison regime cannot have been that efficient. Another link with outside was detainee Helen Joseph who appeared daily in the Treason Trial. She conveyed messages and concealed objects in her bun, but was not always co-operative and attracted a level of mistrust.

Rusty described detention as ‘an amalgam of boarding school and army base camp … purposeless rules and regulations … mediocre food … and intimacy with people one would not choose to spend time with.’ Hilda notes dependence on banal routine and uses the analogy of an old age home. She complains about shouting and screaming by prison staff; relates heightened friendships, but also tensions and animosities among detainees; and worries about the desire to be free and with her children mixed with fear of early release and appearing to betray her comrades. For those inside there was the sheer weariness of regular disappointed expectation of release.

Meanwhile, outside the children coped remarkably well, even if too young to understand the political background. Some temporary arrangements were more successful than others, but after a couple of weeks successful billets were found, one next door so they could visit their animals and the domestic helpers. Toni was clearly a tower of strength who relished sudden responsibility. With other older offspring of detainees she organised the famous children’s demonstration in front of Johannesburg City Hall. While the organisers were inside meeting the city’s sympathetic mayor, the police arrested the children outside; a publicity coup for the anti-apartheid movement that had international impact. It was a remarkably early initiation into adulthood that was to stand Toni in good stead during troubled times to come.

The concept of the book is admirable with copies of original letters and memorable sketches interleaved with a three-way text. But Toni’s contribution is prone to repetition, a peppering of mistakes, and references entirely dependent on Internet links. And the reproduced letters, while lending authenticity and immediacy, are hard to read. 

Some sort of normality returned with the Bernsteins’ release in mid-1960. But Rusty was part of the Rivonia trial, although through lack of evidence the only defendant acquitted, and he and Hilda managed to exit illegally over the Botswana border. Toni, by now married, was left with the responsibility of getting her siblings out of the country. For nearly 30 years they were all exiles in Britain … part of that great South African diaspora of thousands of talented people.