Innate resilience in conjunction with unmatched passion forms a characteristic that proves to be unstoppable, yet the rarity of this combination stems from the rarity of its isolated parts. Censorship, imprisonment, and exile exist as forms of punishment due to their unique ability to prevent unfavorable actions, and if further defiance of these punishments were common, their widespread influence of world order would not exist at all. Thus, an individual who confronts this wall of punishment and continues to push its limits can be classified as inherently unusual. Similarly, because ideologies are shaped by experiences and circumstances, the consistent advocation for a single ideology for several decades represents a passion with remarkably unique and intense qualities. Isolated occurrences of these two characteristics are not common, but their fusion creates extraordinary and influential people. Their fusion creates revolutionary activists like Sonia Bunting. Throughout her life, Sonia Bunting demonstrates remarkable continuity in her unrelenting anti-apartheid pursuits, advocating for the same repressed population for half a century despite the consistent attempts of the apartheid government to silence her ideas, put her behind bars, and exile her to distant lands.
Sonia Bunting lived in exile from the moment she was born. In the early 20th Century, Eastern European powers foreshadowed the tragic events of the holocaust by stereotyping and even persecuting Jewish citizens for their beliefs, quickly making eastern Europe culturally uninhabitable for many Jews. Sonia’s two Jewish parents, David and Dora Isaacman, fled from eastern Europe to escape this brutal treatment, arriving in South Africa where they would establish a family. In 1922, the couple welcomed a baby girl into the world, naming her Sonia. Then Sonia Isaacman, their daughter grew up in a politically turbulent era in which internal chaos within South Africa and the cataclysmic events of World War II filled both the headlines of news publications and the minds of South African citizens. Despite the consistent political turbulence that governed her world as a young adult, Sonia took a keen interest in practicing medicine as a potential career and eventually enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg as a medical student.
At age 20, however, Sonia’s political beliefs began to strengthen in every sense of the word. She joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) before quickly trading her stethoscopes for a typewriter, abandoning her medical aspirations in pursuit of her newfound passion working in political activism. Sonia began working full time at the CPSA in
Johannesburg, where she met a young war veteran and communist activist named Brian Bunting.
The two were married in 1946, moving to Cape Town where Sonia served as Secretary to the Cape Town Peace Council in addition to her continued service to the CPSA. In Cape Town, the couple would bear two sons and one daughter after moving into an isolated mountaintop home. Focused in the same brand of Marxism that swept geopolitics upon the conclusion of World War II, the Communist Party of South Africa advocated for socialism as the gateway to a communist nation. In order to gain traction in South Africa, the party closely allied with other anti-apartheid groups such as the African National Congress, occasionally serving as an alternative anti-apartheid movement for trade union workers who opted to distance themselves from racial politics. Communist party activists heavily recruited members from these economically discouraged classes, yet they utilized media outlets as mouthpieces to reach the masses. In 1950, the apartheid government recognized the rising communist sentiment within South Africa and passed a series of legislation items that aimed to outlaw the practice of communist activities within the nation. In Brian Bunting’s account of these events, he first mentions the “ludicrous definition of Communism” used by government officials, specifically highlighting the wide variety of non-communist activity that became illegal under the
Suppression of Communism Bill, before noting the lack of judicial convictions due to this vague language. Furthermore, Brian explains the foresight of the CPSA in dissolving their organization just months before the apartheid government declared such organizations to be illegal. Yet just three years later, CPSA rebranded as an underground South African Communist Party (SACP) with Sonia Bunting as a founding member, encouraging its contributors to aid other antiapartheid organizations in order to accomplish the common goal of political revolution.
Sonia, Brian, and the rest of the newly rejuvenated SACP found innovative new ways to impact the political landscape of South Africa without directly resurfacing their organization, with Sonia and her husband taking charge of a left-wing newspaper called The Guardian. Sonia served as a journalistic contributor as her husband served among the paper’s editorial board, and while the couple quickly rose to prominence in left-wing circles as a result of this newspaper, the apartheid government aimed to censor The Guardian’s publication at every turn. In 1954, the paper was banned for the second time in two years, prompting the newspaper to be renamed New Age, a name which it would go by throughout the subsequent decade. Despite a decade filled with censorship, intimidation tactics, and even the occasional threat, Sonia and Brian continued to publish in New Age. However, in spite of Sonia’s clear dedication to anti-apartheid activism, Sonia was frequently mentioned as a subordinate assistant to her husband’s work, largely discrediting the role that Sonia herself played in major accomplishments of the paper. This phenomenon was not uncommon amongst Jewish women during this time in South Africa, and while it would be a weight that Sonia would bear for the remainder of her life, any outside perception of her journalistic work failed to dampen her mark on history.
Sonia utilized her position at New Age and her influence in the SACP to join various antiapartheid organizations throughout the years leading up to her arrest. Even by the end of the 1950s, the underground South African Communist Party remained relatively small with only 130 members, many of whom were of Eastern European Jewish descent. While Sonia Bunting represented a demographically normal member of the SACP, her presence rarely went unnoticed at upper level anti-apartheid gathering due to her status as a white woman in a sea of African men and women, especially highlighted in the photo below.
Despite the rapidly rising tensions between the revolutionaries and their government, Sonia continued to augment her capacity for involvement. She published articles about the oppressive apartheid regime, and even moved to the Soviet Union with her husband in order to gain insight on global affairs and communist activism. By the late 1950s when the apartheid government began to build cases against the most influential left-wing activists in South Africa, Sonia’s involvement in various anti-apartheid organizations and the unapologetically left-wing writings of her newspaper made her an obvious target.
In the early days of December 1956, Sonia Bunting was arrested and charged with a violation of the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, for which she was imprisoned until December 19, 1956. She was not alone in this situation, as dozens of other activists had also been imprisoned for similar reasons during the late months of 1956. Together, the cases against these revolutionaries formed a vital component of anti-apartheid history in which many of the most influential figures in South African history gained a new perspective on the evils of the government which sought to control them.
After weeks of imprisonment within the infamous South African Prison System, Sonia came away from this experience with an intensified frustration concerning the structural immorality of apartheid institutions, writing “our prison system is antiquated, brutal, barbaric… But it is not only our prison system which is responsible. It is the whole disease of white supremacy which fosters inhumanity.” Instead of discussing the unfavourability of her own experience in prison, however, Sonia recognized her treatment in prison as much better than that of her African counterparts. Sonia Bunting wrote extensively about the brutal mistreatment of Africans within the prison system, asserting “It just seemed the habitual way of treating African women prisoners, who were regarded as people to be shouted at and pushed and beaten. Nothing of the sort ever happened to those of us who are white.”
This experience shaped and strengthened Sonia’s anti-apartheid ideology, not out of frustration over her imprisonment, but instead due to her observation of further racial inequity. This thought process, one that continuously abandons self-interest and instead focuses on widespread injustice, represents the same activism that would form a thorn in the side of apartheid for the next four decades. In their desperate attempt to silence an activist, the apartheid government had inadvertently armed Sonia Bunting with even more motivation to continue her revolutionary behavior.
After her release from prison, Sonia did anything but stop her revolutionary activity. Even though she had been granted freedom from prison, she partook in the famed South African treason trials until she was acquitted of all charges along with the other activists. During this time, Sonia continued to work with her husband on New Age, still publishing left-wing material while building community with the paper’s staff. The Buntings hosted an annual New Year’s Party for New Age employees to gather and socialize, fostering the tight-knit communal aspect of the paper’s purpose. While the paper aimed to influence its environment, the reverse effect took hold in 1962.
On November 12, 1962, Sonia Bunting was leaving her house to go shopping when she received an order of 24-hour house arrest, marking the first time a woman had been fully banned by the apartheid government. The house arrest prohibited her from leaving her home, having visitors other than a doctor, and communicating with other activists, and while Sonia argued to the South African Supreme Court that her punishment was both incredibly harsh and extremely detrimental to the health of her three children, state officials responded by claiming that the listing of her name within Suppression of Communism documentation “was in itself sufficient reason for the house arrest notice.” The house arrest was set to last five years, and Sonia was even blocked from certain occupations despite this contingency never being present in any previous documentation. Sonia Bunting began working as a clerk once granted permission to pursue employment, yet the Minister of Justice forbid her from accepting a position to work for the Arch-Deacon of Cape Town, arguing that disclosing the reasoning behind this blockage would be “detrimental to public policy.”
Brian Bunting received a lesser hourly punishment later on in his sentence, a 12-hour house arrest for his communist involvement, yet his detainment longitudinally lasted much longer than that of Sonia. Furthermore, the couple who had dedicated their entire lives to journalism was banned from participating in any organization that printed any type of material. Much of the New Age staff had been placed under house arrest, and the apartheid police became nervous of the paper’s resurgence. When police raided the Bunting home on New Year’s Eve searching for their annual party, they instead found the couple reading alone in the living room. When the police checked under the beds of the Bunting children searching for unwelcome communist inhabitants, they instead found nothing but dust and emptiness. The remaining New Age staff began publishing the paper under the title Spark to avoid governmental regulation, yet additional restrictions on specific editors slowly made the publication an impossible feat. Sonia passionately advocated for the paper to shift its operation to Basutoland and function by smuggling copies over the border, but this idea was deemed too logistically unsound to be implemented effectively. On March 28, 1963, the paper’s staff published their final issue with the headline “We Say Goodbye, But We’ll Be Back.”
The apartheid government had, for all intents and purposes, blocked any ability for Sonia and her family to function in South African society by 1963. The couple decided to leave South Africa, and while this may have appeared as a long-awaited victory for the government officials who catalyzed her removal from the nation, Sonia was far from finished in her battle for justice in South Africa. The family moved to London where Sonia continued to rally support against the apartheid government from thousands of miles away.
In 1963, the apartheid government raided the Rivonia base of Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC and SACP, in order to gather evidence against rebellious activists. After they complied cases against these individuals, they arrested, tried, and imprisoned countless activists for treason. Many of these men and women had worked side by side with Sonia throughout the 1950s and 60s, and while both immeasurable distance and prison walls separated Sonia from her former allies, she stayed in close contact with them during her time in London. One imprisoned activist, Ahmed Kathrada, had been accused alongside Sonia in 1956 treason trials, and their bond proved to last many decades during Ahmed’s Robben Island prison sentence. Ahmed and Sonia covertly exchanged letters through intermediary family members as late as 1975, and discussed not only revolutionary matters, but also lighthearted matters such as new music, parties, and the wellbeing of mutual friends.
Sonia Bunting demonstrated a genuine care for her imprisoned companions by continuing these long-distance friendships, but her compassion extended to additionally include a fervent advocation for their freedom. The persistent revolutionary effort posed both unique benefits and unavoidable challenges from London, so while Sonia no longer lived in fear of censorship or imprisonment, the impact of her work appeared to be less direct. Sonia Bunting became one of the leading organizers of Britain’s Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) that had formed in 1960, becoming an influential member on the organization’s national committee. In one 1968 meeting, Sonia proved to be a vital resource due to her intimate knowledge of South Africa and her continued personal connections with influential African activists. Sonia had lived much of her life as “the wife of Brian Bunting” due to the nature of overlap in their work, but her new position marked a substantial change in the perception of her persona, a phenomenon illustrated by her continuous mention in meeting minutes and journal articles without the mention of her husband.
Being in London put Sonia in a unique position to influence world politics. Once she arrived in 1963, London became the epicenter of international outcry over the Rivonia Trials, and the AAM worked with the United Nations and other international organizations to protest the execution of Nelson Mandela and the other prisoners. After the apartheid government hesitantly elected to imprison the activists, international support for the AAM died down until 1973. In the late 1960s, many AAM activists feared that the world had forgotten about the imprisoned revolutionaries, and revitalized a campaign to free these prisoners during the 1970s and 1980s. Sonia Bunting continued her work with the British Anti-Apartheid movement for several decades by publicizing the harsh conditions of the South African prison system while also working independently. Setting up the world’s only South African Communist Party outpost, she coordinated the continued quarterly publication of African Communist, which had become an important source of political dissent since its founding in 1959.
Sonia’s enduring political activity did not go to waste, as international pressure eventually signaled the end of South African political exile in 1990. The Bunting family became free to move back to their beloved home in 1991, but instead of retiring peacefully, Sonia Bunting still was intent on facilitating the transition of the ANC from a revolutionary organization into a political party capable of governance. In Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election, 72-year-old Sonia Bunting was out canvasing door-to-door for the same group that she had been involved with for the past five decades. Her unending dedication to the movement against apartheid contributed to her elevated position in the eyes of her younger co-workers, who viewed Bunting as a veteran member of the ANC. The remarkable continuity of Sonia’s advocacy came to a solemn, yet inevitable close with her death in 2001, which sparked an international remembrance of her unique influence.
By the time of her passing, Sonia Bunting had made an impact on the world that measured momentous magnitude and scope. In a politically critical era, Sonia’s passion and energy had carried her anti-apartheid activism through half a century of censorship, intimidation, imprisonment, and exile. Her husband Brian later remarked “She stuck to her ideals throughout her life… She was a source of continual ideas. Her most striking qualities were straightforwardness, integrity, determination and simplicity.” In regard to her time in prison, Brian noted that these arrests never discouraged her spirit, furthering the undeniable truth that Sonia Bunting left her mark through a unique combination of innate resilience and unmatched passion. These two qualities are independently impressive, but their conjunction incubates the actions of the revolutionaries who shape our world. Their conjunction creates revolutionaries like Sonia Bunting.
This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project
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