When the 'Africa' theme came around for September's Endsleigh Salon gathering I was really spoiled for choice.
I had dipped into several general books on the continent itself but none seemed to fulfill that need to know something specific and different that would make a good book-sharing experience.
Richard Dowden's Africa Altered States, Ordinary Miracles really is excellent and a book I will turn to country by country as I want to know more but it wasn't going to make a good cover to cover read for me. I couldn't find my copy of Out of Africa anywhere, completely forgot about Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm and its Vera Brittain connection...wasn't it the book Roland gave to Vera? So wandering around the shelves my eye settled on The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein, ten pages in and that was me sorted.
I had read Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom years ago, of course I knew. I'd read it in the press, watched the news, seen the violence, remembered the sjamboks, the necklacing...thought I understood
But I didn't really, not until I'd read this book and my eyes were opened even before I had started, with this epigraph from The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon, author of the more famous poem For the Fallen
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
Dedicated to the nine men of Rivonia, famous names like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and of course Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein husband of Hilda, who wrote this account of their life together as white activists in apartheid-riven South Africa and the Rivonia arrests and trial which led to the eventual imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.
This is South Africa in the early 1960s and sensing and then railing against the deeply inhuman policy of apartheid, the Bernsteins apply themselves actively to the campaign for its abolition. The dangers are rife and manifold and I could only marvel at the courage of a couple who loved each other deeply, could hardly bear to be separated yet were distinct individuals and were prepared to risk it all to stick to their principles whilst so many of their colleagues left the country, rightly concerned for the safety of their families.
It must have been the toughest of calls and the ever-present danger to the Bernstein children too made it even more so, yet Rusty and Hilda principled perhaps many might argue to the exclusion of all common sense, stayed and stayed and eventually had no choice but to stay even longer once Rusty was arrested whilst meeting secretly with other members of the ANC at Rivonia.
It quickly becomes apparent that absolutely nothing was secret in this ailing country and the depths of depravity to which the security forces would sink really defies belief, except this was in my lifetime and I had watched it all on the news for years and yet somehow it was all allowed to happen and I still haven't quite figured out quite how or why that was.
Simplistic and naive my thinking may be, but quite straightforward surely, hadn't the Hitler experience revealed the terrible never-to-be-repeated lessons of facism?
For much of the book I felt I was reading a thriller of a page-turner because the moments of tension are frequent as are the moments when Hilda's fear and frustration just seep off the page and create that sense of sympathetic anxiety in the reader. I had to start doing some deep breathing as Hilda rushed to get the washing in the machine before dashing out to evade arrest, or the day she risks all to be home to kiss her son before he sets off for school. Feel that sickness as she and Rusty, head for the border once they decide that escape is their only option. Rusty had eventually been acquitted but his and Hilda's rearrest on rapidly invented technicalities, at which the South African government of the day excelled, seem only a matter of time.
Hilda's daily trials as she attempts to visit Rusty in prison aroused those same feelings of cruel despair that I always sense in Anna Akhmatova's poem Requiem, as she stands outside the prison in Stalin's Russia waiting to see her husband and her son.
There was a small yet defining moment for me in The World That Was Ours that somehow epitomised hope and everything that everyone was fighting for.
The accused men are led into the dock for the first time...
'Nelson Mandela comes first, almost unrecognisable. He has lost about forty pounds in weight. His splendid figure seems to have shrivelled, his skin has a greenish-grey prison pallor; he is dressed in a khaki shirt and shorts, wearing sandals on his bare feet, and this what eighteen months in jail, sitting in a cell for twenty-three hours out of twenty-four, being kept apart from other prisoners, has done to the man who was a political leader and distinguished lawyer. Have they so easily reduced this proud and sophisticated man to the dress and status of the African tolerable to whites - to a 'boy'? As he files into his place at the right of the dock, Nelson turns to the public gallery where there are relatives and friends, and flashed that magnificent smile as of old, splendidly confident, full of brilliance and power; this is the Nelson we knew.'
And somehow, though I had the gift of hindsight unavailable to Hilda in 1963, I hope that perhaps deep in the recesses of her heart she knew what we now know; that this battle would be won eventually just as Laurence Binyon knew it too, in 1942, as he wrote The Burning of the Leaves
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendor,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.
Picture of Hilda and Rusty Bernstein