Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brian Bunting - Outstanding South African Communist- 1920-2008

I return from abroad and am saddened to hear that Comrade Brian Bunting has died in Cape Town aged 88. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Brian Bunting on a couple of occasions in London in the early 1980's, he was the epitome of the many deeply committed and highly developed political activists which characterised the cadres of the South African Communist Party (SACP) . I first encountered the SACP in the GDR when I was lucky to meet a number of SACP comrades in Berlin, one recommended that I should contact some of their comrades in London, and eventually I attended a number of the SACP's memorable New Years Eve party's which were notable for the high degree of organisation and the great atmosphere of commitment and sheer exuberant fun which made it such an appealing place to usher in the New Year. I had a long and enlightening comversation with Brian Bunting , and his unparalleled analysis of the struggle against apartheid and the crucial role of the ANC-SACP-Trade Union alliance as a political counterpart to the armed struggle of Umkhonto We Sizwe was intriguing and a privilege to hear. Brian Bunting never wavered in his support for the Party and the international communist movement. He had been elected to the South African parliament from November 1952 to October 1953 as a 'natives' representative in the days when white people could be elected by Africans in the Western Cape. Prevented from taking up his seat, due to the banning of the old CPSA in 1950. When re-elected as an ANC MP in 1994 following the collapse of Apartheid Bunting's first words to his fellow MP's were "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted". Bunting graduated from the University of Witwatersrand in 1939, commencing a career in journalism before enlisting in the South African army, seeing action against the Nazis in North Africa. On demob he became a leading figure in the anti-fascist ex-services organisation the Springbok Legion editing its jourmal 'Fighting Talk'. In the subsequent years Bunting and his SACP comrades (the SACP filled the political vacuum created by the banning of the CPSA) , notably Govan Mbeki, and Ruth First, were the driving forces behind a series of publications famous for their investigative journalism. As each was in due course banned, another sprang up. From 'The Guardian', to 'Advance', to 'The Clarion', 'Peoples World', 'New Age' and 'Spark'. Finding that banning the publications was insufficient, the Apartheid authorities resorted to banning the people producing them. Bunting and First were put under house arrest and held in detention, before they were sent abroad by the movement. Mbeki was sentenced to life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela, and Ruth First later settled in post-liberation Mozambique where she was murdered by a South African security services parcel bomb. Brian Bunting settled in London with his wife Sonia, where they were active in the Anti-Apartheid movement and produced the respected SACP quarterly 'African Communist'.

His wife Sonia, a leading activist and defendant in the 1956 Treason trial died in 2001. Bunting remained a member of the SACP's central committee until last years SACP Congress which he missed due to ill health. Brian Bunting, a committed communist and internationalist to the end, is survived by three children, Stephen, Peter, and Margie.


Helena Sheehan said...

I got to know Brian Bunting over the last years in Cape Town. Here is a tribute that I wrote that was read in absentia at a memorial meeting in Mowbray Twon Hall in South Africa recently:

Comrade Brian Bunting was a surprise to me. I had heard of him for many years and somehow formed an impression of him as a rigid, assertive, dogmatic, hard-liner. When I got to know him, I found a quiet, gentle, courteous, open, thoughtful man. When I remarked upon this once, he responded with a wry smile.

It was privilege to have such time with him. I so looked forward to those times when he would open his gate to me at Burgh Road or come to collect me at All Africa House at UCT.

We had many long conversations that covered much ground. A conversation with him was very rewarding, but you had to make an effort to make it so. He was more inclined to listen than to talk. He would let you do most of the talking yourself unless you drew him out consciously and constantly. When you did, he was always forthcoming and to the point with his replies, but usually brief. You sometimes had to ask many supplementary questions to explore his thinking on a topic.

When attending a play or film or meeting with him or when discussing a book we had both read, he was always first to ask what I thought. When I asked what he thought, he was always razor sharp. If our views diverged, he considered other angles and even contrary opinions and either conceded some considerations or came back and argued his position.

Some conversations were on difficult terrain. He did have long held and much cherished convictions. Nothing, I believe, could have shaken his belief in the necessity of socialism or in the positive role played by the communist movement. Nevertheless he could face revelations that not all was as he had believed it to be. We spoke on a number of occasions about the history and legacy of the Soviet Union. In 2002 I was working on an introduction to a manuscript written by Bukharin that had been buried deep in kremlim archives until glasnost. I spoke to Brian of the terrible injustice done to Bukharin, who was a tragic true believer, and to many honest communists, in the purges and the Moscow trials. When I wrote up my research and reflections, I sent it to him. He said that it was an eye opener, that it told him much that he didn’t know, that he must find out more. His mind was open even to difficult truths.

The difficult truths were many. His conversations and correspondence told me of how disturbing were daily revelations about life in the new South Africa, which was often far from what he envisioned, as well as events abroad after 9-11 and during the war in Iraq.

He always looked outward towards the world, wanted to know what was happening and adapted to new things as best he could. He was reticent about cellphones and computers, but he did his best to use them meaningfully. His e-mails were an effort for him, but thoughtful and of great value to those of us who were fortunate enough to receive them.

He always arrived on time for meetings, even though he knew that they were unlikely to start on time. He must have been the only one there many times. Whenever he gave me a lift, we were always first. Usually he said nothing about it or just remarked on it quietly but firmly. Once, however, after a very long delay, he lost his temper and told younger comrades that they were betraying the liberation movement by their indisciplined behaviour. The atmosphere was silent and solemn and sad for a few minutes. The meeting then took place, but the gap between the revolutionary rhetoric and failure to live accordingly was never really bridged.

Despite all revelations and disappointments, he never gave up on the movement. He faced every problem with the ANC and SACP, as well as the international left, but never became cynical or drowned in negativity. When others were tempted to do so, he dealt with the problems, but reminded us of how much had been achieved, of how much might still be achieved.

In the last years, Brian lived a difficult life. He felt daily absence of Sonia acutely. He missed his children and grandchildren who lived far away, although he still delighted in the times spent with them. He was deeply disturbed by tensions in the alliance. He was sometimes disappointed in younger comrades, whose commitment did not always match their promises. He was frustrated by his own frailties. He was painfully hard on himself. Although he faced the incapacities of ageing with candour and fortitude, he still held himself to difficult standards. He wrote that he envied me my productive activity and did not feel that he was a very productive member of society. He was surely the only one who thought that.

I am so sorry to miss his funeral and the event tonight. My sympathies to the ANC, to the SACP and to his family and friends for the loss of such a comrade, such a man. So many will miss him so much. I am but one. I 'll be so sad to come back to South Africa and not to see him. Burgh Road will seem so deserted. Perhaps (and this is a suggestion made by Sheila Barsel) it might be Bunting Road by then, but it will still seem sadly empty of Brian and Sonia Bunting who graced it with their memorable presence.

Gabriel said...

Thanks Helena for that additional and far more insightful contribution than my own. It added greatly to the overall information available.

David Duff said...

"I first encountered the SACP in the GDR"

Could you just remind a forgetful old man what the initials "GDR" stand for; and did you enjoy your visit?

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