Brian Bunting: Sheer obstinacy

Ten days ago I saw Brian Bunting at the Cape Town Book Fair. Together we had breakfast and later took part in a panel discussion about my new book, The Guardian. (It is the history of the anti-apartheid newspaper Bunting edited for 15 years until it was hounded out of existence in 1963.) He looked wan and sluggish, but was as witty as ever.
Three quick days later he died at his home in Rondebosch, 88 years old.

The passing of Bunting is the end of an era. He was one of the last still alive to have personally seen the entire history of the Communist Party, a history that he not only researched and wrote about but vigorously shaped. He edited the liberation movement’s paper of record under tremendous hardship—Pretoria banned The Guardian three times, regularly raided its offices and put it in the Treason Trial (no one figured out, if it was found guilty, how the government planned to hang a newspaper) and Bunting himself was banned from political activity, detained for five months during the 1960 state of emergency and eventually house-arrested.

In exile Bunting wrote two important books, The Rise of the South African Reich (1964), a workmanlike examination of the origins and growth of the apartheid regime, and Moses Kotane: South African Revolutionary (1975), a bravura if biased history of the Communist Party masked as a biography of one of its leading officials. He also edited The African Communist for two decades and put out a collection of party writings, South African Communists Speak 1915-1980. For more than 50 years he served on the executive of the party.

There were many moments of pure poetic justice in the South African transition to democracy, but my favourite was in May 1994 when Bunting, having been unceremoniously kicked out of Parliament in 1953 because he was a communist, returned as an ANC MP.

His eventful and seemingly endless political career contained something that many regarded as a quirk: he was an unreconstructed Stalinist, one of the last of the true believers in the Soviet Union. He was never fierce in his loyalties and he always had a wry sense of humour, but he was also just stubbornly consistent.

Much like Thabo Mbeki, a strong if subterranean source of Bunting’s political behaviour was a famous father.

I never understood Brian’s unwavering ideology until I re-read Eddie Roux’s 1944 biography of SP Bunting. SP was the giant of the early years of the party—founder, paper editor, chairperson and symbol of notorious 1930’s purges when he was viciously expelled from the party before his early death in 1936.

Brian was close to his father. At age nine he travelled on the hustings while SP campaigned for a Transkei seat in Parliament and the family made the annual pilgrimage to Rosettenville to see a rock pockmarked by bullets fired by strike-breaking police during the 1922 Rand Revolt. Brian (violin) and his brother Arthur (cello) formed a chamber music trio with SP (piano or viola). After expulsion SP eked out a living as a viola player in obscure touring orchestras. In 1996 Brian lovingly edited a volume of SP’s letters to his wife, Letters to Rebecca.

I once asked Brian when he joined the Communist Party. He said he could not remember, that it had always been a given, that he had grown up in the party. The party’s nickname was “the family” and you never remember joining your family. SP was the same. He considered himself a communist even after his expulsion. “Was it sheer obstinacy,” reads the final sentence of Roux’s biography, “or was it the finest tribute that could be paid by a great man to a great cause?”

Like father, like son.

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