This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
22 Oct 2002: Bunting, Brian
POM First maybe I should just ask you a little bit about yourself. I understand that your father was an MP, the first Communist MP?
BB No, he wasn't an MP. He was a Member of the Provincial Council in the Transvaal but not a Member of Parliament. He was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of South Africa which was set up in 1921 bringing together a number of Marxist organisations from various parts of SA. He was a founding member of the party and probably its leading member in the 1920s who was responsible for turning the party towards the African workers and bringing African workers into the CP.
POM You, as his son, followed in his footsteps?
BB Well as the son of my parents. Both my mother and father, they were both founding members of the party, they were both on the first committee elected to represent the party in 1921. So I grew up in a communist household and inevitably absorbed many of the ideas which were propagated in the household. I didn't immediately follow in their footsteps in the way that one thinks of going forward blindly in a certain direction because I grew up in the usual way, I went to school, I went to university and got involved in
POM You went to Wits?
BB Got involved in student politics like most people. I wasn't a member of the party at that stage. I was born in 1920, I joined the party in 1940, I was 20 at the time and that was during the war period when things became more acute politically internationally. I have been in the party ever since.
POM So what was the position of the party on the war issue?
BB At the beginning the party was opposed to the war, regarding it as an imperialist war between two powers contending for imperial position. But after the attack on the Soviet Union the attitude of the party changed because it believed that it was now necessary to defend the world's first socialist state and the party became a supporter of the war effort.
POM Were you involved at that point full time? The party was banned in 1950.
BB The party was banned in 1950, yes.
POM So you would have been - ?
BB Well I was in the army during the war, actually in the Air Force, not as a flyer, I was part of the education apparatus of the Air Force.
POM Did you serve abroad?
BB I served abroad yes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and various parts of the Middle East that I went to.
POM Then after the war?
BB After the war I was well I was brought back, I and a fellow comrade in the army called Fred Carneson. We were brought back because we were members of the Springbok Legion, I don't know if you know about the Springbok Legion?
BB It was an organisation of soldiers and ex-soldiers, servicemen and ex-servicemen, chiefly designed to guarantee that the soldiers who fought against fascism during the war were not ignored after the war but it was also set up as a counter to the existing British Empire Service League which was a very conservative organisation. At a certain stage during the war, towards the end of the war, efforts were being made to bring the two organisations together and form one single organisation. So Fred Carneson and myself were brought back from Italy where we had been working for the Legion, well not working for the Legion but working as members of the Legion to politicise other soldiers and get people to consider carrying forward the struggle against fascism on their return to SA where we had a fascist set-up and one which became much more obvious after 1948 of course when the Nationalist government came to power. But we were convinced of the need to change things in SA, to get rid of the oppression and the discrimination which existed in SA society. The Springbok Legion was orientated that way.
POM Was this a non-racial organisation, the Springbok Legion?
BB The army, the fighting section of the army was mostly white of course. The blacks in the army were mostly service personnel and the people that we worked amongst mostly were the white soldiers. I think the Legion and the Army Information Service actually as well as the general circumstances in which people found themselves changed the attitudes of people in the army quite considerably towards the left. There was a book that was produced by Professor Notcutt of Natal University based on a survey which he conducted. The book was entitled What the Soldier Thinks and he showed that on many fronts the soldier's thinking had moved to the left, they had become more liberal in their attitudes on the race question and so on. The survey was conducted mostly of course, but not entirely, amongst white soldiers. The book was the result of a poll and the person who organised it was Professor Notcutt of Natal University. A very interesting survey but I'm trying to explain the thinking that we had in the Springbok Legion because we believed in the possibility of organising ex-soldiers as a political force which would have an impact on SA society.
After we had come back both Fred Carneson and myself worked for the Springbok Legion for a while and then in 1946 I came down to Cape Town to work on what was then the Guardian newspaper which was the mouthpiece of the liberation movement which was developing at that time, the ANC, the Communist Party, the Indian Congress and so on, all progressive thinking was mirrored in the pages of the Guardian which had a considerable circulation during the war, an average of about 40/43/44000, a week. At one stage during an election week the circulation went up to 55000.
BB One has to think of the situation of the media in SA at that time because it was quite different from what it is now where people are much more conscious of the needs of the different black populations of SA and of the disparities in wealth and influence of the various sections of the population where you have newspapers now which are directed almost entirely towards the black population, one segment or another of the black population. At that time none of these papers existed and the Guardian and later New Age were the only papers that really presented an alternative view of the way SA should go and we'd concentrate on reporting the discrimination and the disabilities under which large sections of the black population lived. We were campaigning on these fronts when the other sections of the media were ignoring them.
POM So were you editor of - ?
BB I was editor of the Guardian.
POM Of the Guardian and you were located in Cape Town.
POM And then there were offices in Durban?
BB Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
POM But the headquarters was here in Cape Town. Now you had correspondents both domestically and you had some internationally?
BB We had international correspondents as well, yes. We had one correspondent in London who sent us regular weekly reports of what was going on on the international scene and we had full time reporters in PE, Durban and Johannesburg.
POM At what point did you become aware of Mac's existence? The way he tells the story was that the then head of the office in Durban was one of the treason trialists and that he took over the office in Durban.
BB I can't remember that. The person he's thinking of is probably M P Naicker who was a treason trialist.
POM That's right.
BB He was in charge of our Durban office and he was carted off, of course, to the treason trial and Mac probably helped out in the Durban office of the paper. I can't remember any details about that at all.
POM When he talked about you it was in the context of your association with New Age and then he says that when he went to London the one number he had was given to him by the man who just died recently, Wolfie Kodesh, and it was for Vella Pillay and he rang him and got a non-response.
BB What year would this have been?
POM This would be in 1957. Then he says that he met with Kurt Danziger and that Kurt said that Mac should go to Pillay's house, that he had a letter from you that had to be read in the presence of both Pillay and Mac and that in essence the letter said that New Age was in pretty dire financial straits and that the two of them should work together to raise funds for the paper.
BB Well I know that we did engage in activities of that kind, we did raise a considerable amount of money overseas. I've got a picture on my wall here of Paul Robeson who sang at a concert that was organised in London to raise funds for New Age.
POM Mac talks about that.
BB But I can't remember specifically sending a letter via Mac. It's possible, quite possible but I can't remember it in detail because we did ask for the committee that was functioning in London to try to raise funds to help us out because we were always in financial difficulties. We had to raise our own funds as best we could and this was one of the ways of doing it, getting activities going overseas to raise money for us. Apart from this concert there were other events that were designed to raise funds for the paper. The paper had no foreign support of the kind that you might think. We didn't get any money from Moscow or from Peking or anywhere. We had to rely entirely on our efforts to raise money. Most of the money that we raised we raised in SA. Partly there was of course some help from advertising revenue for the paper but we also conducted campaigns amongst various sections of the community in SA to raise funds. I, for instance, several times went to Natal where we raised a considerable amount of money from the Indian community because we were campaigning all the time against apartheid, against discrimination and for a democratic SA as well as, as long as it was legal to do so, to campaign for socialism and communism because that was our orientation. All sections of the black population and considerable sections of the white population, especially amongst the Jewish community, gave us a lot of support at that time.
POM Now you had to keep changing the name of the newspaper.
BB Yes, well we were banned in 1952 and we changed the name to Clarion and then to People's World. We had to change these names again because they conflicted with names of papers that were already registered but we eventually settled on a paper that was acceptable and that was New Age and that lasted until 1962 when that was banned as well. We managed to keep continual weekly production of the paper in spite of the change of names and in 1962 when New Age was banned we had another paper ready for appearance called Spark, because by that time the law had been changed to make it impossible to start up a new paper from scratch without paying an enormous amount of money in advance. But we'd kept a paper going, a sort of ghost paper going behind the scenes called Spark which was going at the same time as New Age towards the end so that the moment New Age was put out of existence we could reappear with Spark.
Then in 1963, I think it was March 1963, the government finally caught up with us by not only banning the paper but by banning every individual who had any connection with the paper from having any connection with a publication of any kind as well as the usual bans from meetings and from various organisations. We were banned from being anywhere near a printing press, preparing material for publication, publishing anything. The staff of the paper was rubbed out in that way.
POM So were you under house arrest?
BB I was under house arrest, my wife was under house arrest. She was under house arrest for 24 hours. I was under house arrest for 12 hours, the idea being that the other hours I should use to try to get a job, which I tried to do unsuccessfully. It was one of the reasons why eventually, being unable to function politically because of all the restrictions, my wife and I decided that we were going to go into exile.
POM So you went to?
POM To London. So you were in London from?
BB From 1963, June/July 1963 until 1991 when we returned.
POM So you were also on the Central Committee of the party. So you would attend meetings in Lusaka, in London? Where was the centre, the hive of activity?
BB You mean during the exile period?
BB Well it was first of all in London but then later on it was moved to Africa, largely Lusaka where the ANC headquarters were situated.
POM Did you leave after Rivonia?
BB No I didn't leave after Rivonia, I left before Rivonia and as a matter of fact the day I arrived in London I sat down to lunch in the house of a friend in London and we turned on the radio to listen to the news and I heard on the news the report of the arrest of the people at Rivonia. That was the day we arrived in London. The picture that we had of the organisation in SA, the party and the ANC were both illegal at this time, so that all the activity in the liberation movement was conducted illegally but the impression that we had was that the organisation was strong in the sense that we hadn't been penetrated in any way at all, none of our leadership had been captured, arrested and put away. Of course there had been many arrests and people had not been detained without trial as they were later under the 90-day law which was introduced in 1963. That opened the road to torture and that, of course, created havoc in the opposition. But when we left SA the situation looked pretty sound as far as our organisation was concerned and we were very hopeful about the future.
POM Did you attend, were you a member of the Central Committee here in SA?
BB I had been a member of the Central Committee of the party since 1948.
POM You would have met Mac when he was on the Central Committee here before he was arrested?
BB If he was on the Central Committee before then I would have met him. If you're asking me if I know that, I don't know, I can't remember, I just can't remember whether I saw him before or whether it was only afterwards. I certainly saw him afterwards and I remember seeing him afterwards during the period of exile because the Central Committee met several times in various places in Africa and in Europe. We had our enlarged Central Committee meetings which were called conferences from time to time and one of them was held in Cuba, the last one before the bans were lifted.
POM One thing struck me that when he talks about going to London he joined the Communist Party there and then through that the Communist Party in SA but that he got very involved in the activities of the Communist Party in SA and made very little reference to engaging with representatives of the ANC, his grouse being that at that point in time if you were an Indian you couldn't be a member of the ANC so his activities naturally gravitated towards the SACP. Were you as a member of the Central Committee in on the discussions that took place regarding the setting up of the MK?
BB Yes, well that was discussed at the time that it happened. I mean the MK was set up by members of the party and by members of the ANC and the first joint leadership was by Nelson Mandela for the ANC and Joe Slovo for the party. The ANC itself hadn't taken any decision about the existence of MK because there were all sorts of implications. So the MK as it started off was an independent organisation with its own independent leadership.
POM That leadership was - ?
BB Well it consisted of members of the Indian Congress, of the ANC and of the party.
POM But it was independent of both the SACP and the ANC or independent of the ANC?
BB It was an independent organisation with its own command which wasn't under the control of anybody, although all the members who were part of the MK leadership were involved in other organisations like the party and the ANC and so on.
POM So it would have its own agenda separate from or complementary to or what were the organisational relationships?
BB The thing was that at this stage the boundaries between the organisations were not distinct in the way that they were before when the organisations were legal. For example, if you take the situation in 1950 when the party was banned, the immediate consequence of that was that the party's public platform disappeared and all the leaders of the party like Moses Kotane, J B Marks, Yusuf Dadoo and so on appeared on Congress platforms, not on party platforms but on Congress platforms.
POM That would be Indian Congress platforms?
BB Indian Congress but the Indian Congress wasn't banned at that stage and they could appear on Indian Congress platforms. The main division was between the ANC and the party and that's where the sort of coalescence in the leadership originated and ultimately it was very difficult to draw a line between party and ANC and this Congress and that Congress because everybody that was working together in the underground, in the illegal conditions, were working for the same objective and they became very close to one another.
But I would have met Mac, we had the Central Committee meetings from time to time and I met Mac there. I can't specify any particular occasion or any particular incident during all those meetings but Mac was one of the members of the Central Committee and I think he was eventually also one of the members of the Politburo of the party. In other words he was very closely linked with the top levels of the leadership.
POM The top levels of the leadership into the nineties would have been Joe Slovo, yourself, Chris Hani?
BB Yes. Not so much myself, I wasn't a member of the PB. Well Thabo Mbeki was one of them. He was on the PB.
POM In the Politburo?
BB Yes. And Mac. Who would the others have been? Chris Hani certainly. Ronnie Kasrils would probably have been there. Not being a member of the PB I can't tell you about them because the rule was not to talk about what you didn't have to talk about and not to know what you didn't have to know.
POM When Thabo quit the party, quit the whole thing, was that after it was unbanned or before it was unbanned?
BB It was after it was unbanned in 1990. It was unbanned on February 2nd 1990.
POM Then he quit in 1990 too or did he quit later on?
BB You know it's not so much that he quit as that he ceased to be a member. The rule of the party at that stage was that there were going to be no secret members of the party in the future, everybody who was a member of the party would be an open member of the party. There were certain party members who it was thought at the time should not publicly continue to be associated with the party because it might damage the overall political situation. It's not as if they quit, they just sort of lapsed if you like. There were a few of them.
POM And when you were in London what was your role in London?
BB Well at first I was engaged in making a living and I acted as a sort of stringer for the Tass News Agency for various sections of the media of the socialist countries. I wrote articles about the situation in SA. In a way I was a sort of correspondent, South African correspondent, for these agencies and newspapers.
POM The eastern bloc?
BB Yes, eastern bloc. I wrote occasional articles for other papers in the west but most of my activities were concerned with because they had their own correspondent in SA but none of the socialist countries had any connection with SA at all and I supplied them with background information and with articles about the situation in SA. Later on I worked full time for the party as editor of the African Communist.
POM Now are there copies of that available? Where would one find them?
BB Well I've got them all on my bookshelf here.
POM All of them?
BB All of them, from the start in 1959 right up to the last one.
POM When was the last one published?
BB Just recently.
POM Are they with the SACP headquarters, would they have copies of them?
BB Yes they'd have copies of them.
POM Are there copies of New Age that are available?
BB Yes there's an entire run of the Guardian/New Age from 1937 to 1963 at the University of the Western Cape. That used to be my personal collection, I gave it all to them and they've got it there in their library, in Mayibuye Library, it's at UWC.
POM That's where I'm leaving all my stuff, so we have something in common. We're in an index.
BB Those are bound copies of all the papers that were produced between 1937 and 1963.
POM Now while you were here you would have known both Joe Slovo and Ruth First. From what I gather from Mac she was a fairly powerful figure in her own right.
BB Yes she was.
POM How would you compare and contrast the two? Joe and Ruth.
BB Well they were married.
POM OK. One doesn't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing these days.
BB They were different sorts of people but both very active, very much leaders in their own right, very productive. If you want me to compare their intelligences I'd rather not, I don't think they liked doing that themselves.
POM Well that's why they would leave it to an outsider to make the comparison.
BB Ruth was basically a journalist. She started writing on the Guardian and developed into what she eventually became, a writer. She wrote books about various aspects of the political scene in SA and overseas and eventually she was doing research in Mozambique. A very brilliant person. Joe was also a very brilliant person. They both had their talents, but she wrote much more than he did although when he chose to he could write very well. She was much more productive as a writer than he was because she concentrated more on that than he did but when he wanted to write he had the capacity to write very well.
POM Did she continue to write for the Guardian or for New Age or whatever format?
BB When did she join the paper? In the late 1940s I think she would have joined the Guardian and she was the Johannesburg correspondent of the paper from that time until the paper was banned in 1963. After that she contributed articles to the African Communist and to other journals.
POM What I will do is I will go and have a look at your papers and I might come back to you with a more detailed list of questions around that period, particularly the period of the New Age. When people wrote for New Age, just as a matter of interest, did they sign their names?
BB Most of them signed their names. It was legal to do so, nothing illegal about the paper although it was linked to the Communist Party it was an independent legal entity and that's why when the party was banned in 1950 New Age, or the Guardian as it then was, wasn't banned and came out immediately as usual because it was independent legally, had a separate identity from the party. It wasn't part of the party apparatus legally, although ideologically it was but we were able to carry on for another 13 years until we were banned in spite of the fact that the paper had previously been a mouthpiece, if you like, of the party. It continued afterwards still being as far as it could the mouthpiece of the party insofar as the law permitted that and we survived for 13 years which was quite something considering that the government did its very best to smash the paper. As I say from 1952 it was banned and they were continually attacking it. They harassed all our we weren't able to circulate the paper through normal channels because the CNA, Central News Agency, which handled that sort of thing wouldn't touch it and we had to organise our own distribution which when you think of circulating 45,000 is quite something.
POM Did your circulation manage to keep up during those years?
BB After the banning?
BB No it went down. Our advertising revenue went down, our sales went down. The point I'm making is that we had quite an army of sellers all over the place and they were continually harassed by the police, arrested and detained over weekends and that sort of thing. Some of them were deported. That affected the sales of the paper and circulation went down to about 20,000 during the most difficult period.
POM OK. I'll leave it at that for today.
BB There's not a great deal I can tell you about Mac because although I remember him attending our Central Committee meetings and taking part and I can remember him being a very striking political figure, a very influential personality and so on, I can't give you any detail about that. The only anecdote that I could tell you about which might have some significance you're writing a biography about him?
POM It's a biography that's not a strict biography as such. It's put in terms of I pose questions to him and he gives it's like a dialogue between us more than a biography as such. But any anecdote that would throw light on his personality or his modus operandi
BB This episode that I'm talking about would throw some light on Mac because I suppose you know about the whole episode of Vula where Mac was arrested and he felt that he had been left to sort of rot in jail and not enough had been done by either the party or the ANC to get him out and he resigned from both bodies. You know about that?
POM I always ask why he resigned from the SACP and his answer has always been that he won't talk about it.
BB Well he resigned from the ANC and the SACP while he was in jail. Then there was a conference of the ANC held in Durban, I think it was the first conference after the ban was lifted and I was there and I saw Mac there and I went up to him and I said, "I'm glad to see you've come back to the ANC. I take it you'll be coming back to the party as well." And he said no he's not coming back to the party. So I said, "Why?" And he came forward with a whole lot of accusations against the party that it had followed wrong policies and done wrong things and was following the wrong course at the moment and so on and so forth. And I said to him, "Look Mac, all these things that you complain about the party being responsible for you were responsible for as one of the members of the PB so you're part of all these wrong decisions that you're now attacking."
POM When he was talking about wrong decisions did he specify what they were?
BB No, in a general way he was saying that the party had followed all sorts of wrong courses and it hadn't been what it should have been and wasn't now what it should have been and so on. He wasn't coming back to the party for those reasons. So I said, "Mac, you know, everything you say doesn't ring as far as I'm concerned and I can only consider that you're doing this out of opportunism because you think that you'll get further in the ranks of the ANC not being connected with the party." He said, "Well that's your thinking", and he walked off.
That was something that stuck in my mind that he had basically no valid political reason for not rejoining the party at that stage and I did consider it an act of opportunism to leave the party because he was thinking of his own future in terms of the political situation in SA at the time. I still think that and as I say I said that to him and we've since resumed more friendly relationships, we still talk to one another and consider one another as friends but that episode sticks in my mind. I don't know if it's relevant to anything that you've got to say.
POM It is relevant because he says that he had quit before he went to jail over Vula, that he had signalled his intentions to Lusaka. I'm trying to get the timing of when he resigned and I have great difficulty in doing that. Many people say what you have said, that he left because he thought he was being treated badly or was being left to rot there while things were going on. He maintains that that's not the position, that he had signalled his intention to quit before he was arrested for Vula.
BB Well I don't know who he signified his intentions to because we didn't know about it.
POM We being?
BB The party Central Committee.
POM So you only learned when he was in jail was he not being held incommunicado?
BB I don't think so, I think he was able to communicate with people. I'm not certain of the details of that but at any rate when he notified people, if he did notify people I don't know how it was done because I certainly didn't know about it until it was more or less announced that he had resigned from the party and the ANC and I can't remember how that was made public but it was made public, we did know that he had resigned from both organisations at that stage.
POM If he was resigning from the SACP why would he have resigned from the ANC also if he - ?
BB Well he was fed up this is what we understood, that he was fed up with both of them because he alleged or he felt a grievance that they had both of them failed to do what they could do to pay enough attention to the fact that he was in jail because he'd been connected with this whole Vula enterprise which had resulted in his being arrested and he felt that the movement had just forgotten about him. So he resigned from both the ANC and the party. That was my understanding of the situation. If he notified, I don't know who he notified. Who did he say he notified?
POM He didn't. But he would have notified the protocol would have been that he would have notified the Central Committee, right? And at that point it would have come to your attention and it didn't come to your attention until he was in jail in October/November 1990.
BB My understanding of it, I can't remember the exact thing, my understanding of it was that he resigned from both of them while he was in jail. That was my understanding and it's still my understanding of the way certainly that I came to hear about it, that he resigned in jail as a result of his being fed up with both organisations for having more or less deserted him. Now if he says he notified people then I can't challenge that.
POM He didn't say he notified, he just says he quit.
BB I don't know about that.
POM Would it just not, in your experience, strike you as odd that somebody who had devoted such an enormous period of his life to both the party and to the ANC and to the struggle and who undertook innumerable personal risks would quit both organisations over what was really almost a matter of pique? I'm being forgotten, I'm an organisation man.
BB Well not a matter of pique. The way he presented his resignation from the party was that it was a matter of policy, that the party had been following the wrong policy. He didn't hold that against the ANC because he'd come back to the ANC, he was present at that conference. I can't somehow see him resigning from both the party and the ANC before he was in jail because there would have been no point of reference to resign over. What would he have resigned over? That would have left him completely out of the political scene altogether. If he had resigned from the ANC and the party before going to jail where was Vula and all the rest of it? I don't follow that one.
POM That alone is a worthwhile point of departure both for me in terms of following up because it's one of the things that I have great trouble pinning down and that Mac is reluctant to the point of will not talk about it, whereas he will talk about everybody else and everything at length but when it comes to this
BB He won't talk.
POM He won't talk. He puts the question in terms of that there were differences and he just said to the party that you can utter any statement you like as to why I resigned as long as it is a political statement but if there's any kind of a personal attack on me I will feel that I have the right to respond in kind, that the party simply did nothing. And he still feels bound by that pledge. So be it. One of those little tit bits.
BB Well it's just one aspect of it as I saw it at any rate, which I discussed with him. If he had a reason for resigning from both organisations then he had a reason for joining both organisations but he didn't. He joined one and he didn't join the other. His explanation for that, as far as I'm concerned, doesn't wash. All the complaints that he was making, he was making complaints about an organisation of which he was the leader, or one of the leaders. Anyway I didn't accept that. I said to him that it strikes me as sheer opportunism on your part. And I still feel that.
POM OK. I will go and imbibe myself in your papers and New Age. I look forward to reading it, it figures so much in the fifties and sixties as being the one organ that was promulgating a very different point of view and yet managing to survive.
BB And it was the sort of organ of the liberation movement as a whole. It wasn't just a party paper although the party had a great deal to do with it. But all the ANC leadership, for instance, if they wanted to say something they had to use the columns of our paper because they had no papers of their own during all this period. Even now the ANC hasn't got a paper. It's rather surprising. But during this whole period the Guardian, New Age were available and were used continually by the ANC leadership to make statements, write articles and so on and so forth and there was no other outlet for them.
POM And after the Freedom Charter, was it discussed in the pages of - ?
BB Of New Age? Yes. The Freedom Charter wasn't illegal although it was supposed to be treasonable. It wasn't illegal although it was supposed to be treasonable.
POM All these subtle distinctions. So the SACP would have the African Communist as well.
BB Yes they'd have that, the office in Johannesburg has got a complete run of that. Mayibuye at UWC has got bound copies of the Guardian, New Age and Spark.
POM That's wonderful. Well I will be back again. It's been a pleasure to meet you. Your name has cropped up in many little pieces of all the interviews I've done over the years, there's a reference here and a reference there. I'm putting all the references together.
BB Unfortunately there is a Professor Bunting at the University here but it's not me. I'm continually getting phone calls from people.
POM You are?
POM Well you did a lot more. Thank you very much for your time and I hope I will see you again.
BB Yes I hope so and I wish you luck with your work.