The Pan-Africanist intellectual and journalist Bennie Bunsee (79) passed away on October 10th in Cape Town, the city where he lived and worked since he returned from exile after South Africa’s first democratic elections.
I was part of his Cape Town family. This ‘family’ was not related in the strictest sense, but gathered every now and again, most often or not at the house of lawyer Shekesh Sirkar. It is a family steeped in argument and critique and unspoken yet registered love.
Bennie had close and loving relations with many more people. Just the other day Shekesh and myself went to a restaurant and the chef came over and asked Shekesh: “How is madala?,” only to be told he had passed a few days ago. The chef stood motionless, surprised, and we all communicated our thoughts of sorrow through our silence.
This was Bennie. A man of intellect, who comfortably interacted with the restaurant staff whom he met daily in Cape Town, choosing one restaurant and for months going to it night after night until he would move to another one. He would get to know the stories of the people he met. Often he visited restaurant staff or attended their birthdays or other important events, and got to know other family members too. Mostly, he interacted with young people. Bennie was ever the father figure. He advised the young about the problems and challenges they faced, and inspired them in so many ways.
Bennie was in permanent exile; he never really came ‘home.’ I do not mean this idea of ‘exile’ only in its negative connotation; exile can also be viewed as an important vantage point. This is the sense in which Edward Said used the term, meaning forever on the margins of the mainstream and convention, in between two societies, located on the border of multiple cultures. This location allows a certain vision of societies that lends itself to permanent critique and analysis. Bennie was our conscience – asking what we were doing ‘inside’ a society that failed in so many ways to realize the noble goals and failed to continue the moral fibre that motivated the struggle over many decades. His was a life of critique. His was a life of the conscience, serving as an uncomfortable mirror, especially for his more moderated comrades, but many others too.
I’ll remember his daily phone calls, which almost always deteriorated into heated argument, only to be picked up the following day as if nothing jarring occurred. He would begin again: “Thiven, the problem is that we never resolved the national question,” “Thiven the ANC is morally bankrupt,” “Thiven the whites still control the media,’ “Thiven what are you black academics doing at UCT the place is openly racist … black intellectuals are in crisis.”
His were declarative sentences, demanding response and analysis. The argumentative declarative claim came naturally to Bennie. Bennie posed his ‘hypotheses’ emphatically in an on-going conversation about fighting imperialism, colonialism and its legacies and about the failures in our struggle—failures in thought, practice, and strategy, failure’s to recognize and confront imperialism’s eruptions in our local context, and the need to expand our consciousness beyond the narrowly political. He never gave up. He was always searching for new sprouts of hope to renew older struggles: he was drawn to sources of opposition and new energies that would contribute towards a broader revolutionary campaign to break the links in the imperialist chain. He excitedly watched the protests of the Arab Spring, the WTO protests, those against BRICS and its new bank, #RhodesMustFall and current student movements, even the Economic Freedom Front.
His was a life of moving away and towards: leaving Durban, where he was born, for Johannesburg and Cape Town is a case in point. He loved that city and its people, but also was very critical of its politics and parochial local culture and never really felt comfortable to remain and take up permanent residence. Similarly, although he spent 30 years in London, he saw the UK for its racism and double standards. We can say the same about his relations to his family and his Cape Town friends – we knew Bennie and we also did not know him. Once you said goodbye and he headed for his car you did not know where he would go. Perhaps, this is what the Cape Town experience was for him, a running away, a constant discomfort, a kind of exile. By living on the margins he opened a space for permanent critique, that necessary honesty of beliefs spoken out aloud to all, regardless of the listener. This was how he loved and we loved him.
Go well comrade Bennie. Go home at last.