Sonia Beryl Bunting (1922 - 2001)
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Sonia Beryl Bunting
Bunting was one of a remarkable group of white South Africans who identified unreservedly with the national liberation struggle at a time when support for the African National Congress (ANC) was a guaranteed route either to prison or exile. She was also a lifelong communist, who never gave up her belief that socialism was the key to peace, the creation of decent standards of living for all and racial harmony in South Africa.
After matriculating, she enrolled as a medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand but in her second year gave up her studies to work full-time for the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). As a 20-year-old medical student, Bunting joined a transformed CPSA, which had by then become South Africa’s only multiracial political party, campaigning for universal suffrage and with a majority black African membership.
She married Brian Bunting to form a partnership that was to last for 55 years. In 1946, they moved to Cape Town where she continued to work full-time in the office of the CPSA as a finance officer and as the secretary of the Cape Town Peace Council.
After it was banned by the National Party government in 1950, the CPSA secretly re-formed three years later as the South African Communist Party (SACP). Bunting was one of the founder members of the new underground party. In 1951, she attended the World Youth Congress in Berlin as a member of a South African delegation that was led by Ahmed Kathrada.
As apartheid became more vicious and ruthless, she perilously threw herself body and soul into political activity and, uniquely as a white woman, spoke from the platform at the 1955 Congress of the People in Kliptown, Johannesburg, which adopted the Freedom Charter. She dealt with the section of the Freedom Charter that produced the clause “All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights”.
Her commitment to the struggle for liberation saw her become one of the accused in the 1956 Treason Trial, as one of the 156 activists charged with treason in a trial that took her away from her home, children and family for two years. She was finally acquitted, along with 91 others, in October 1958.
In 1959, she was banned from attending meetings and ordered to resign from 26 organisations. In the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960, Sonia Bunting, together with thousands of other activists, was detained without trial. She spent the next three-and-a-half months in Pretoria Central Prison.
After she was banned and placed under 24-hour house arrest, political activity became impossible for both her and Brian, and in 1963, they took the difficult decision to leave South Africa and went into exile on an exit visa, which carried the guarantee to authorities never to return.
London, where the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had been formed in 1960 by the likes of Father Trevor Huddlestone, became the home of many South African exiles and a centre for a growing number of South African refugees.
After the arrest of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders in Rivonia in 1963, the AAM launched a worldwide campaign for the release of South African political prisoners, with committee members from all three main political parties in Britain. She was appointed as the AAM’s campaign organiser. By highlighting the plight of Nelson Mandela and his co-accused, they were instrumental in saving the Rivonia trialists from the death penalty.
In 1968, Bunting coordinated the work of the SACP’s journal, African Communist, she worked full-time for Inkululeko Publications and for over 20 years ran the only office of the SACP in the world. At the same time, she worked with the AAM and the International Defence and Aid Fund as convener of the ANC political prisoners’ committee, to publicise the harsh conditions suffered by South African political prisoners and campaign for their release.
In a South African political exile community that had more than its fair share of gifted platform speakers and political theoreticians, Bunting was a rock who could always be depended on to carry out unglamorous, but essential, tasks with flair and sensitivity. Her personal kindness overlaid a steely commitment to the liberation of southern Africa and the building of a more fair and free world.
After 28 years in exile, in 1991 she returned with Brian to Cape Town, where she campaigned for the ANC in the 1994 and 1999 elections, worked within her SACP branch and helped to found the Cape Town Friends of Cuba. She contributed her energy and leadership skills in a tireless series of contributions to the cause for South African freedom.
She was prepared to face dangers, restrictions, imprisonment and exile for these beliefs. A mother of three children during this time, she nevertheless continued her outstanding work both inside South Africa and abroad. In her later years, upon returning to South Africa in 1992, she continued to be active in the SACP and the ANC, until she passed away on 24 March 2001.