toni Nick Strasburg

This title is a metaphor – Strasburg writes about the fort as in the Fort where the apartheid government kept women prisoners in central Johannesburg but in essence is also writing about holding the fort while her parents were arrested and detained by apartheid’s Special Branch on several occasions. What intrigued us about this book was how much history is contained in its pages. The story follows a harrowing account of a teenager whose activist parents were arrested in 1960 South Africa during the State of Emergency. In a time of political turmoil and the historic Sharpeville Massacre happened in the then Transvaal when police killed many black people in Sharpeville. Toni had to hold the fort (keep the fires burning at home with the younger siblings) as her parents were languishing in dingy cells of a prison. The book lets the reader follow what tore many families asunder during the days of apartheid oppression. Strasburg tells the story with strong passion and uses her vivid memory to take the reader through her distraught. The reader also sees and reads Hilda’s prison diaries and we also read Rusty’s letters. Hilda and Rusty Bernstein are the parents of the young Toni. Strasburg portrays the futility as well as the brutality of apartheid. Strasburg relates the accounts of cruel authorities and apartheid’s policy resolute, unbending nature. Prison is not fun and the author captures the drudgery and foibles inside; the shouting of prison staff, the camaraderie that develops and the fear of betrayal of fellow inmates. In the mid-sixties, the Bernsteins are free as Rusty is the only one acquitted in the Rivonia Treason Trial. The family leaves for exile in Britain.

There are many similar stories of families broken by apartheid laws but this one is made great by the strength of Toni who becomes a pillar of the family in the absence of her parents, a real mbokodo who clearly outlines the pain of struggle.