Brian Bunting: Political activist and journalist

A central conundrum of South African history since the Second World War is that its principal polarities were determined broadly by the Hitler-Stalin pact. Leading figures of the apartheid regime, such as the former president John Vorster and the head of the Bureau of State Security, General Hendrik van den Berg, had been interned during the war as pro-Nazi paramilitary leaders.

The nucleus of radical opposition to this state was formed by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), shaped in the image of Stalin. Following its banning in 1950, its successor, the illegal South African Communist Party (SACP), became increasingly influential within the African National Congress, especially after the banning of the ANC in 1960 following the massacre at Sharpeville. Current leaders in government, such as President Thabo Mbeki, his Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, and the Minister of State Security, Ronnie Kasrils, were simultaneously leaders in exile both of the SACP and of the ANC, as was Jacob Zuma, elected president of the ANC in place of Mbeki at its national conference last December.

No individual embodied this current so continuously as the SACP and ANC leader Brian Bunting. His father, Sidney Bunting – born in London the great-grandson of the Wesleyan divine Jabez Bunting – was a principal founder of the CPSA in 1921 and became secretary of the party following his attendance at the fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow the following year. Sidney Bunting's disagreement with Stalin's advocacy of an "Independent Native Republic" as the principal slogan for the CPSA at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 led to his expulsion from the party in 1931, castigated as a right-wing deviationist. Devastated, he died an outcast from the party he had helped to found.

Aged 16 in the year of his father's death, Brian Bunting was careful never to emulate this career fault. He joined his father's old party in 1940 at the age of 20, in the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, when the CPSA – like its sister parties internationally – condemned Britain's war against Nazi Germany as an "imperialist war". The party at this time opposed the war effort alongside Britain of the South African government headed by the former Boer general, Jan Smuts, in a brief period of alignment, under the pact, with the pro-Nazi Greyshirts.

Liberated from this political dead-end by the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, Bunting joined the South African army the following year and served in North Africa and Italy. In 1946 he married Sonia Isaacman, who had given up her university studies to do full-time political work in the CPSA. Until her death in 2001, the couple shared a political life in the Communist Party of over 50 years, especially as leaders of a small, tight exile apparatus in London between 1963 and their return to South Africa in 1991.

Working during his decades in exile as London correspondent for the Soviet news agency, Tass, Bunting never deviated from the current line of the Soviet Union. In this he was fully representative of his party. He exercised great influence in South African affairs simultaneously as a member of the Central Committee over 50 years, as an editor in London of the SACP journal, the African Communist (which was printed in East Germany), and as a senior backroom figure in London in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. His book The Rise of the South African Reich – a somewhat one-dimensional study – was published by Penguin in 1964.

Bunting had worked as a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times in Johannesburg after graduating from university, but became assistant editor of the Communist Party newspaper, the Guardian, in Cape Town in 1946. As this newspaper went through successive changes of name following repeated repressive measures by the state, concluding as the weekly New Age before its banning in 1962, Bunting continued as editor in Cape Town in a journalistic tripod which included the subsequently assassinated Ruth First in Johannesburg and Govan Mbeki (father of President Thabo Mbeki, and prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela) in the industrial city of Port Elizabeth.

He was elected to Parliament in November 1952 as a so-called "Native Representative" for the Western Cape, but was removed by fiat the following year in terms of the state's anti-Communist legislation. He was subject to a banning order in 1952, was detained in 1960 in the state of emergency that followed the massacre at Sharpeville, was placed under house arrest in 1962 and prohibited from publishing in 1963, when he and his family left for London. His wife Sonia was acquitted along with 91 others, including Nelson Mandela, in the long drawn-out Treason Trial of 1956-58. In 1994 Bunting was re-elected to Parliament, for the ANC, this time under South Africa's party-list electoral system.

Both members of the very influential South African Jewish left (Bunting's mother Rebecca was Jewish), Brian and Sonia Bunting suffered the indignity of being characterised by their fellow exile activist, Norma Kitson, in her book Where Sixpence Lives (1986) as central members of what she termed the "Chevra Kadisha" – the Jewish Burial Society. "The chevra hold sway over the London ANC, and have influence over the Anti-Apartheid Movement", wrote Kitson. "The chevra have tremendous influence over the lives of all of us in exile. If anyone starts any activity that is not under their control, they 'bury' them."

A single instance illustrates Bunting's authority. When Denis Goldberg, the only white person sentenced to life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela, arrived at Heathrow in 1987 after serving 23 years in prison in Pretoria, a single figure strode down the aisle as Goldberg emerged from Customs, to spend several minutes in a huddle, issuing instructions, while the crowd of well-wishers – including Goldberg's wife, Esme – all waited. It was Brian Bunting.

Paul Trewhela

Brian Percy Bunting, journalist and politician: born Johannesburg, South Africa 9 April 1920; married 1946 Sonia Isaacman (died 2001; two sons, one daughter); died Cape Town, South Africa 18 June 2008.

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