Communist intellectual and organiser, Sydney Bunting was instrumental in the formation and early development of the Communist Party of South Africa.
He was born in London in 1873, the son of Sir Percy William Bunting, the founder and editor of the Contemporary Review. His mother was a social worker serving the poor in London. Bunting was a talented intellectual who studied at Magdalen College, Oxford where he won awards such as the Chancellor’s Prize in 1897.
In 1900 Bunting volunteered to serve in the British army in the Second Anglo-Boer War. When the war ended he decided to stay on and settled in Johannesburg where he worked as a lawyer. He entered politics in 1910 when he joined the Labour Party (LP). He became a pacifist, and was elected LP member in the Transvaal Provincial Council in 1914. He broke away from the LP, differing with its choice to participate in the First World War. Bunting helped form the anti-war International Socialist League (ISL), which later became part of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Like his father he became an editor and worked at the International while also publishing numerous political pamphlets. Although he left the LP he still felt that white workers would realise the need to unite with workers of other races.
Bunting fully supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 and supported and promoted Communist principles for the duration of his life. He was especially concerned with the fate of black workers in South Africa and eventually became a militant revolutionary. According to author and friend, Edward Roux, “Sydney Percival Bunting was a negrophilist of modern type, a communist and agitator, whose aim was to organise revolt of the blacks rather than to plead their cause in the halls of the mighty.”
Bunting travelled to Moscow, Russia, in 1922 and attended Congress of the Communist International. On his return he became the secretary of the CPSA and was elected Party Chairman in 1924. Bunting firmly believed in the potential of black trade unions and the progress made by the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union proved that his ideas were not unrealistic. The CPSA started recruiting black South Africans and, when white socialist support became inadequate, Bunting personally covered costs. He won a great deal of black support through his legal defence of black radicals.
In 1928 Bunting visited Russia again, this time to argue against the new Comintern decision that South African communists were to support a “Native Republic” at the 6th Comintern Congress. His wife, Rebecca, and Edward Roux accompanied him, but they were unsuccessful. He felt that the new doctrine would divide the CPSA, but returned to South Africa to make the best of the situation. In 1929 he took part in the general elections as the Communist candidate for Tembuland in the Transkei, as nearly half of the eligible voters were black. He got only 289 votes, as police harassment of voters was severe. Following the unsuccessful campaign, Bunting and Roux tried to organise the League of African Rights into a socialist mass movement for black people, but failed as Moscow ordered them to dissolve it.
He was in constant disagreement and conflict with the South African government, and sometimes also had serious ideological differences with his colleagues. These disputes became so grave that he was eventually expelled in September 1931 from the political party he had helped create.
Bunting was financially crippled and could no longer work as a lawyer so he became a viola player in the Johannesburg Orchestra. In later years he suffered a stroke that partially paralysed his fingers and he became a building superintendent. He had always been a very active writer and in 1933 produced a pamphlet called An African Prospect and Appeal to Young Africa, East, West, Central, South calling for the creation of a socialist order across the continent.
Bunting died from another stroke in Johannesburg on 25 May 1936. A group of his friends began a yearly scholarship at Fort Hare University and Edward Roux proceeded to write S. P. Bunting: A Political Biography, which was published in 1944.