Jean Alkin was born on 19 May 1914 in Panevezys, Lithuania. She was the eldest of four children. Jean’s family moved to South Africa when she was about six years old. She matriculated when she was 16 years at Cape Town High School in 1934. Post-matric, she became an active participant in organisations such as the People’s Club. Her political origins are traced back to when she joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). In 1935 she became the secretary of the ‘Left Book Club’ which was previously known as the ‘Old October Club’. The Left Book Club organised monthly meetings amongst intellectuals and trade union leaders in Cape Town many if not all were anti-fascist socialists. She became a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union, a communist front organisation founded on the principles of the CPSA in 1929.
She studied American literature at New York University (NYU) in 1936. That same year she moved to Johannesburg but returned to Cape Town where she formally joined the CPSA. She then worked as a distributor and fundraiser for the Guardian newspaper.
Jean Alkin married Himan (Himie) Bernadt, a lawyer, in1940 and had three children: Marion, Ian and Morris. Nine years later in 1949 she founded the first nursery for Coloured children in Athlone. In the 1950s she became a participating member of the National Council of Women for Womenin Athlone, the Congress of Democrats, the Federation of South African Women and the Black Sash. Upon Ray Alexander’s request she attended a Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) conference in East Berlin. She was involved in fundraising for the 1956 Treason Trial. She was labeled as a statutory communist under the Suppression of Communist Act.
Consequently, she was arrested with other women and was subject to banning orders between 1959 and 1964. She was instrumental in the establishment of Thembalethu, an organisation that focused on the development of physically handicapped people. Early in the 1960s the Bernadts were under constant surveillance from the police. After her ban was lifted she withdrew from her political activities and focused on the philanthropic aspect of her life.
During the CODESA negotiations the Bernadts housed Nelson Mandela. It is here that Nelson Mandela and his delegation could discuss issues that surrounded the negotiations with the apartheid government.
She resided in Kenilworth, Cape Town until her death at the age of 96. She was also a recipient of the Order of Luthuli in Silver for her excellent contribution to the struggle against gender oppression.
• “Black Sash Making Human Rights Real: Our History”, from Black Sash, [Online] available at www.blacksash.org.za [Accessed 03 September 2012]
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