Bernstein's parents, a-political Jewish immigrants to South Africa, both died when he was eight. He attended Hilton College, a private school in Kwa-Zulu Natal, and thereafter studied architecture from 1937 to 1941 at the University of the Witwatersrand.
He was briefly a member of the South African Labour Party - then an all-White party in sometimes alliance with the Nationalist Party and thus also supporters of segregation. He joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1938, together with Hilda Watts (1915: 04: 15 - 2006: 09: 08), a campaigner from England whom he later married, and with whom he had four children.
In World War II he joined the South African army in 1943 as a gunner, and served in north African and Italian campaign with the South African forces until the end of the War in 1946.
Back in Johannesburg after the War, he became immersed again in communist activity, and wrote the bulletins for the 1946 strike of black miners, for which he was charged with sedition. He acted as chief designer in the architects' firm WAYBURNE and WAYBURNE, where he designed the first drive-in cinema in South Africa. The work done in this office, under BERNSTEIN, was of an eclectic nature. The office also did not encourage that a single individual be involved in a project from design to finish purely because of the quantity of work. He became disillusioned by Whites only office-blocks, and more concerned about the growing shanty towns in the black townships.
Soon after the Nationalist Party came to power in the elections of 1948, the communists were harassed and restricted. When the party was banned in 1950, Rusty and his colleagues went underground. BERNSTEIN was later arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act. As the only multi-racial party, the SACP acquired a heroic reputation among blacks, in the forefront in the fight against racism; and the quiet and thoughtful Bernsteins were always welcoming to the black ANC leaders, including Mandela. Restricted by bans and harassment, by 1956 Bernstein had had enough of Wayburne's offices. Virtually without warning he resigned. In December of that year his career took a dramatic turn and he was arrested and charged with High Treason, the first architect to be given this unparalleled attention by the Apartheid regime.
In 1959 his address was given as 154, Regent Street, Observatory, Johannesburg.
After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, both he and Hilda were detained for five months, then banned, and put under house arrest.
Rusty was able to escape to the secret resistance headquarters at Liliesleaf farm at Rivonia [now redesigned as a memorial by MASHABANE ROSE AND ASSOCIATES] outside of Johannesburg, where the ANC leaders, including Mandela, were plotting a new military stage of revolution. Here he was caught with the others and charged with planning revolution and sabotage. The treason trial followed, which continued off-and-on for four years. When found to be not guilty in 1964, he was quickly rearrested and put back in prison, before being released on bail. With help he and his wife escaped over the Botswana border, eventually making their way, via Zambia and Tanzania, to Britain.
In exile, the Bernstein's were joined by their family, where Rusty worked as an architect in London. After 17 years, he retired, first to Herefordshire, and then to Kidlington, near Oxford, where he and Hilda lived in a small, modern house surrounded by their African artefacts. For a time, Rusty conducted seminars in Moscow and taught briefly at the ANC college in Tanzania.
It was not until 1990, when the ANC was un-banned and Mandela was released, that they could return home. Four years later, Rusty stood with the other Rivonia veterans on the terrace of the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to celebrate the first democratic South African government, under President Mandela. "We are, perhaps, the luckiest generation on earth," he wrote, "for we have seen the peaceful triumph of the cause to which we have devoted our lives."
Back in England, Rusty remained respected until his death.
He is memorialised by the annual Rusty Bernstein Memorial Lecture held by the Department of Architecture, University of the Witwatersrand.
See also the Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein website