‘The World That Was Ours’ is a rare first account of the period in South Africa’s history in the 1960’s when the apartheid had been running for some time yet tension seemed to be building to a breaking point with the Government of the time creating bills and arresting people left, right and centre. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, small towns and villages mainly populated by black people were being destroyed and people were being severely punished, even by death, for the smallest of incidents. Hilda Bernstein and her husband, Rusty, were two of the many white people who were fighting for fairness and equality at that time and so were of course raided and often arrested, even imprisoned throughout this period. ‘The World That Was Ours’ in Bernstein’s memoir of the trying and horrific times of that period, not only for her, her family and the people she knew but also of the innocent people, be they black or white, and what the consequences of this awful time were.
I feel slightly ashamed to admit that until recently I have not had much understanding of the apartheid, though I knew who Mandela was and how important all he has done was. That said two of the books on the Green Carnation Prize longlist dealt with the subject, or its effects, fictionally and so Bernstein’s memoir has given me an equally fascinating and horrifying look into the time all the more. Through fiction I was shocked, seeing it written down as a memory has made the horror of it all the more real and mind boggling. I find it difficult to comprehend people’s behaviour or the fact they could think what they were doing was right at the time, I don’t mean the Bernstein’s here obviously, I mean the Government, police and justice system. It is one of those books that has you googling everything and learning more, it is a very important book.
“Now we knew that time was running out for us. The punishment for refusal to accept racial rule was inflated; the objective, to remove every single dissenter, either by forcing them completely out of the country, or by shutting them completely away into jail. Nothing less. Even house arrest was an interim measure; together with specific bans its objective was to make such living impossible, unable to live like a human being, the victim finally left the country. You could not stay and go on living freely.”
Not all memoirs work of course. People can have seen or been part of horrendous things but if they can’t write it can lose something along the way. Bernstein is an incredible writer, and indeed at the time was a journalist, she manages to evoke the atmosphere and tension effortlessly and not just for herself and her situation in Johannesburg but for everything going on in the country too, from both sides. At the same time she writes in a style that makes the book feel like a thriller, in part because there is the aspect of all the secret things that she and her husband were doing in the anti-apartheid movement, yet also from the way she paces it. I found it very difficult to tear myself away from the book even during trials and the explaining of the policies and bills the Government were creating every other day.
This leads to the other very important aspect of ‘The World That Was Ours’, Bernstein manages not to make the book seem like a historical document, even though that is exactly what it is essentially. She brings the message home of how awful things were and the level and scope of the atrocities going on without repeating everything. Her writing seems to say ‘why repeat the point over and over when you can hammer it home highlighting points once’. This doesn’t mean she just says ‘oh it was awful’ and finish there, she gives you an example of one of the awful incidences and then explains how it was happening everywhere and telling of another different incident. Many books would repeat themselves endlessly, Bernstein doesn’t feel the need. She shows faith in the reader’s intelligence too by not over explaining who every person is in the book, or the exact ins and outs of every bill or change to policy/the country/Government. This could have become a reference book in some ways, or a patronising explanation, yet she trusts the reader doesn’t need to be spoon fed and I think wanted readers to go away and read/find out more, which I did almost fifty years after publication.
“And finally – although this was only at the end – there were great quantities of books and pamphlets which we had put into storage fifteen years before to save them being taken in police raids; and now they were all banned, or by authors who were banned, and could not be put in the dustbin or given away, but had to be burned. So we became book-burners. Books resist burning, their pages curl and singe and the fire goes out; it is necessary to work at the burning and destroy them successfully. Perhaps that bath, packed solid with black brittle ashes of books and papers, had become the most striking symbol of the evil and destructive times to which we had come.”
‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir. When it was published back in 1967 it was a dangerous book to release and there were many people who would have liked to see it destroyed. Thank goodness it found a publisher back then and thank goodness Persephone have chosen it as a book to reprint for us to discover because it is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.