The life and career of Brian Bunting (1920-2008), a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress all his adult life, was marked by a careful reticence. This was a reticence cultivated as of necessity by most of those white South Africans, admittedly a minority, whose engagement in the liberation struggle was during the years of hard apartheid, and as active members of the Communist Party of South Africa and, later, of the South Afric an Communist Party. (The CPSA was dissolved in June 1950 after it was outlawed under the Suppression of Communism Act, but was revived clandestinely as the South African Communist Party in 1953.) Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), a contemporary of Brian, recalls in his memoirs, Memory against Forgetting (Viking, London, 1989) that during those hard years of struggle and exile, lives depended on silence and forgetting. “Survival has required that memory be deliberately suppressed, and every written record burnt, shredded, flushed away or even swallowed.”
I was fortunate to have Brian as a friend and share food, wine and conversation at his table with other political friends, during my years in South Africa as this newspaper’s correspondent from 1994 to 2001. However, the acquaintance with his ideas began much earlier. For, apart from stray political pamphlets one read during an earlier sojourn abroad, the first systematic treatment of the political economy of apartheid South Africa was Brian Bunting’s The Rise of the South African Reich (Penguin, 1964) that I read in July 1970. That work clarified many inchoate and incoherent ideas teeming at the back of one’s mind as the reality of South African fascism was driven home following the Sharpeville massacres.
Brian’s parents were Communists. His father Sidney Percival Bunting (1873-1936) was a founding member of the CPSA. Brian has written, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, of the sad story of Sidney’s expulsion from the CPSA in 1931 and his political rehabilitation over half a century later, in his introduction to a new edition of his father’s political biography by Edward Roux. Roux himself was another extraordinary white South African, who was dismissed as Professor and Head of the Department of Botany, University of the Witwatersrand, for his political beliefs.
Brian’s whole life, as that of his wife and comrade Sonia (1922-2001), was devoted to the elimination of the apartheid regime. What his friend and comrade, Joe Slovo (1926-95) said in retrospect in December 1994, after the end of the apartheid regime, and less than a month before he died, was applicable to all these liberation fighters: “I decided long ago in my life that there is only one target, and that target is to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.” The arenas of struggle were different, but the objective never varied.
This was the case with Brian, too. On his return from the Second World War, he became a journalist and writer: it was his chosen field to continue the battle against South African fascism. He was the Editor, in succession as each of the journals was banned and revived under another name, of The Guardian, Advance, New Age and Spark — the last simply killed off by a notification of the Publications Control Board created under the Publications and Entertainment Act of 1963.
He was detained without trial after the Sharpeville massacres, banned from attending meetings, placed under a 13-hour house arrest and confined to Cape Town. Finally he left the country and made a home with Sonia and their three children in London where he continued his political work. He was for many years the Editor of African Communist, the SACP’s official organ, published from London, till its return to South Africa in the late 1990.
He was elected to Parliament in South Africa’s first democratic elections. Till about a year before his death, he remained a member of the SACP’s central committee. One recalls the fortitude and even his sense of humour during the funeral service of his wife Sonia which was as much an occasion to grieve as for celebrating her life.
What drove people like Brian or his parents and so many other white South African radicals, Afrikaner and Engelse, to choose a path of militant opposition to racial oppression and apartheid? Rusty recalls in his memoirs being asked a similar question in 1989, when he was in Moscow conducting on behalf of the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, a series of seminars on the history of South Africa’s liberation struggles to students. These students were mostly of the ‘Soweto generation’, young persons fresh from street battles with the police and training to be guerrilla fighters.
Later, in an interview for a TV documentary, the director who knew little about Rusty, or for that matter about South Africa, wanted to know why some people made political choices that ran counter to their ‘class interests’. He wondered if their choices and actions were like those of the Decembrists, aristocrats and officers under the Tsar who staged a revolt against him in the late 19th century challenging the very feudal order that sustained them in their privileged positions and were mostly executed. So, the question: Why do some privileged white South Africans like Rusty strive to end white rule, and in the process endanger their own privileged positions?
Unable to give an explanation that would satisfy his interlocutor (the year, 1989, perhaps explains the kind of vulgarisation of Marxism that was implicit in the question), Rusty suggests that perhaps the life of Bram Fischer, Afrikaner and South African revolutionary, who too like Rusty, Brian, Joe Slovo (and their spouses) and so many others like them was a Communist, indeed an active member of the CPSA and the SACP, might provide an answer.
Bram was from a most privileged background, part of the Afrikaner aristocracy, who made common cause for the liberation of all the people of South Africa, black and white. He was the lead defence counsel for Nelson Mandela and his comrades who were facing capital charges in the Rivonia Trial (1963-64). Soon after that trial, Bram himself was arrested on charges filed under the Suppression of Communism Act, and sentenced to life imprisonment, essentially for his political beliefs. He died in prison, though technically it was at his brother’s home to whose care he was released when it was clear that he was dying. The house was declared a prison for the few remaining days of Bram’s life.
If one were to be asked about the legacy of these freedom fighters, black and white and all the colours in between, one can do no better than to recall the words inscribed in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral under the bust of Christopher Wren, its architect: “If you seek his monument, look around.” The legacy of all the freedom fighters who spent their whole lives in the struggle against apartheid, many facing death bravely, is quite simply the democratic and constitutional state of South Africa that, despite all its problems, is an infinitely better place to live than the apartheid state for all its citizens.
(Brian Bunting died at his home in Cape Town on June 18.)