I found myself nervous and tense to the point of tears

The Sharpeville Massacre
Godfrey Rubens via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

On 21st March 1960, the South African Police opened fire on thousands of black protestors in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, a shocking event which saw 69 people killed, triggered a state of emergency, and led to mass detentions—including that of Hilda Bernstein. A British-born author, artist, and staunch anti-apartheid activist, Hilda had relocated to South Africa as a young woman and rapidly became involved in the turbulent politics of the time, leading to her affiliations with the South African Communist Party and her instrumental role in founding the Federation of South African Women. After the Sharpeville incident, Hilda was detained for three months without charge, and it was during this time that she kept a diary; this particular entry was written five days into a hunger strike she and her fellow detainees would continue for an additional three days. Hilda was eventually released on 28th June. Four years later, her husband was found not guilty in the Rivonia Trial, after which the Bernsteins fled South Africa.

The Diary Entry

Saturday, 17 May (Hunger Strike Day 5)

A poor night – sleeplessness, a thumping heart. We all lie in bed longer than before. That foul taste in my mouth. Dragged myself out of bed, but once up felt much better.

On the whole, we are remarkably well on this fifth day, if a little slower. At about 8.45 am we called everyone together for a ‘natter’ and discussed Violet’s suggestion to ask the Colonel that one of us be allowed to go in with Betty. We also wanted to discuss other matters but were interrupted by the wardress who came to take us downstairs.

There we continued our discussion and as there are a number of things we want to raise, we divided them up among various people, omitting three of us who have been most vocal in the past – me, Shulamith and Myrtle.

Freda was called out for questioning, then shortly afterwards, Trudy and Winnie. I went to the bathroom to wash clothes, remarking that I didn’t expect to be one of the last to be called. No sooner had I said this when my name was called. I was summoned to a room where there were four men. Three were in plain clothes, Special Branch, including Strydom, and one in uniform with a lot of stars.

Uniform began by reading Section 19 of the Emergency Regulations concerning detention of people believed to have committed an offence, and the fact that such people can be summoned for questioning, and not entitled to a legal adviser. He then said they had a large number of questions ‘about my political past and names of people’ and I must understand the answers I gave may be used in evidence against me in some future court action.

I found myself nervous and tense to the point of tears.

I said I couldn’t answer questions unless I knew what offence I was charged with. They said I was detained under the Emergency Regulations, and it was not necessary for me to be charged. I then said I would not answer questions; I had only one thing to say: I had four children, my husband was also detained. I would do anything I possibly could to get back to the children (my eyes filled with tears at this point; we later realised that the most noticeable effect of the hunger strike was the fact that most of us too easily came to the verge of tears). However, I had committed no offense. What I did in my ‘political past’ was legal when I did it. Since then I had not to my knowledge violated any laws. I was prepared to face charges in a court of law and to answer questions then. But until then I could not answer questions without knowing what the charge would be. I also said I didn’t know all the questions they wanted to ask, but I had an idea of what some of them would be. They would start on my political past and then continue on my attitude to the Government today. I couldn’t see what good it would do. I then asked for my immediate release.

I was asked to sign a statement on those lines.

After this, one asked me about the children, their ages, who was looking after them, and how long I intended continuing with the fast. I said I couldn’t say how long, as long as I possibly could. I had no intention of stopping.

I was then escorted to get my things and transferred to a tiny, dark, cold cell where I found Becky. We were then [put in the following cells]: Sarah and Margaret in a cell together; Trudy and Winnie; Becky and me. They put two beds in each of these cells, which leaves room for nothing else. The cells are horrible, like something out of a film. These are the cells where African women were held when we first arrived. They moved them so that nobody at all would be anywhere near us.

A wardress came and told us that we six could all sit together in one cell during the day. It was impossibly cramped, but much pleasanter – in fact, it was lovely to be with the others. We sat side-by-side on the bed, and recounted to each other exactly what ‘they’ had said to us, and what we had said to ‘them’. I love Trudy’s sturdy common sense, firm and positive in her belief of right and wrong.

A little later we were taken downstairs for a short period. Several African women detainees were walking around behind a fence in a small gravelled area; they looked like lions in a cage. We could smile but nothing else.

We were called to the Colonel’s office. He told us we were going to be moved and suggested that it would be Johannesburg. Said we must be good and not get ill, as there were no hospital facilities. I asked him not to joke with us as it was a serious matter and before we moved we had to know that we were going to Johannesburg. He also said the men would definitely stay in Pretoria.

We were taken upstairs again and as we approached our cells, the main door was open and I saw Sonia. I called to her to send my embroidery through, and Mary. A short time later, my bag with things was brought in.

From conversations: Sarah did answer some questions but gave back plenty to them. Becky also and gave some silly answers re hunger strike. Margaret talked. Freda (with us) told us how she played the innocent – but answered questions. Trudy and Winnie refused. Sarah took some tea last night but did not eat.

Then Freda was called out. She is going, so excited she couldn’t pack. But was off in two minutes. Then Margaret was called out again. Then we heard Betty being moved back to the main cell after the doctor had been to see her. This is good.

We were allowed out into the yard in the late afternoon after the main cell had gone up. Margaret joined in – she had a visit with Willie. We sat in the late afternoon sun, cool put pleasant and had a little shout to our friends upstairs and were stopped. Locked in our tiny, dark, cold, miserable cells at about 5.30 pm. In such a tiny space there was nothing to do but get into bed to keep warm, the light was so poor that I couldn’t read properly, and leafed through magazines, reading recipes and tearing them out for future use.

Becky kept on seeing cockroaches on the wall next to my bed, which caused me great pain and suffering.

Lights went out at 9 pm and then there was nothing to do but lie in a most uncomfortable bed. These cells are terribly noisy. We were all awake with the shunting of the trains, sounds of machinery and other noises.

The Special Branch men told Sarah she would never rejoin her friends again – the liars!

Further Reading

The story of Hilda Bernstein and her husband, Rusty, is a fascinating one, and there are two books in particular worth reading on the subject. The first is Hilda’s memoir, The World That Was Ours, published in 1967. The second is Holding the Fort: A Family Torn Apart, in which the Bernsteins’ eldest daughter, Toni, shares and sheds light on the diary entries and letters written by her parents during these turbulent times. It is from the latter book that this diary entry is taken. Many thanks to Toni.

Read Hilda Bernstein’s obituary in the New York Times in 2006.

Ian Berry was the only photographer present at the Sharpeville Massacre. Some of his pictures from that fateful day.

Diary entry reprinted by kind permission of Toni Strasburg. Excerpted from Holding the Fort: A Family Torn Apart published by Kwela, an imprint of NB Publishers 2019.

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