The Nusas wages commission had been set up in 1971, and progressive students were becoming increasingly involved in efforts to strengthen worker initiatives through pamphleteering, a worker newspaper, research and representation at wage hearings.
A gradual rediscovery of the rich history of previous efforts to organise workers was underway; of ebbs and flows, successes and failures, in trade unionism; of strike action; and the contested terrain over the relationship between trade unionism and anti-segregationist and anti-apartheid politics.
Phil Bonner stepped up to help guide this new generation of students through the interstices of a labour history not easily accessible or particularly well known. Books on the subject were banned, and many of those who had been involved were in exile, imprisoned, banned or under house arrest. The past and the questions it raised, the lessons learned, felt distant and inaccessible.
Bonner was invited by student leaders to run a series of lunch-time talks on the ‘hidden’ history of working class organisation, from the early mine workers strikes through to Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (Cnetu), the Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), part of the ANC-led alliance, and by then functioning mainly in exile. Students, many for the first time, learnt of the 1946 mineworkers strike, the Food and Canning Workers Union, debates about the relative merits of general and industrial workers union, the Congress-led stay away campaigns of the 1950s.
Phil was generous with his time, and particularly active in the student-organised ‘History of Resistance’ series, which laid the foundations for Nusas’s national ‘Release all political prisoners’ campaign of 1974.
From here, it was a small step to ask Phil to join the small band of volunteers who, together with the Wits wages commission, began setting up the Industrial Aid Society as a structure for worker organisation, worker education and – eventually – independent trade unions.
He was joined in these activities by his partner and wife at the time, Chris Bonner, who left her teaching post to become one of the organising pillars of the new trade union movement, notably in the chemical industry.
Phil’s politics was well-developed, and his commitment to working class organisation independent of compromised ‘parallel’ trade unionism, separate from the imperatives of the class alliances underpinning national liberation politics, was already established.
Part of this commitment was based on his research into the history of trade unionism. Bonner had become increasingly concerned that the working class focus of Sactu and its member unions had been weakened by participation in the class alliance led by the ANC. He had seen how trade unions allied to anti-colonial liberation movements had been undermined and marginalised in the post-colonial period, as new elites evolved into a comprador bourgeoisie based on rent-seeking and access to state-held resources.
This took him to the core of the disputes which wracked the Industrial Aid Society in its formative days. What was the relationship between trade union organisation and the movements of national liberation? Were working class interests inevitably subsumed and weakened in multi-class political alliances? Should trade unionism steer clear of anti-apartheid politics in favour of developing working class strength on the factory and shop floor? Did this latter position imply an ‘a-political’ trade unionism, or was it a foundation for the development of a working class politics?
Phil struggled with these complex political, historical, strategic and tactical issues along with many others in the IAS. These were (and are) difficult questions, and the various and competing interests at play were never served well by simplistic and dogmatic contestation. That was certainly never Phil’s approach.
Part of Phil’s contribution to this organisational vortex lay in his early and enduring commitment to worker education as a component of building working class organisation. Advance guard workers becoming involved in representation as shop stewards, or members of factory committees and branch executives, or organisers, would be so much stronger, so better equipped to deal with the complex relationships between bread-and-butter demands and wider political issues if they understood the histories of preceding trade union and political initiatives.
It was this approach that found Bonner in the IAS offices weekend after weekend, in the evenings and late at night, meeting with groups of workers, developing and testing materials and manuals. Broader worker education was combined with more specific and practical organising tools. How to assess the potential of different forms of representation available – works and liaison committees, factory committees, shop steward committees? What about the different potentials and strategies implied by industrial versus general union organisation? Did a focus on industrial trade unionism detract from the development of broader, cross-sector working class interests? And always, the relationships between class-specific trade unionism and politics based on class alliances.
These questions stayed with Phil from those early days through to his involvement as Fosatu’s education officer, and later when he offered worker education courses in some of Cosatu’s affiliates.
Phil was controversial. He was strongly allied with what was sometimes referred to as the ‘workerism’ – more accurately, the independent industrial unionism – of Fosatu. He was opposed to Fosatu affiliating with multi-class formations such as the UDF, and wary of trade union alliances with ‘the community’. He had a scathing – often bitingly humorous – critique of the posturing which sometimes accompanied excesses of populist and nationalist politics.
But this does not mean that he was ‘economistic’ or ‘reformist’ or ‘a-political’. He had a keen and sophisticated, but critical, politics and as an individual was often involved in initiatives supportive of a broader politics. A number of tributes make reference to his incarceration under threat of deportation. It is probable that this was in retaliation for his role in couriering messages to the International University Exchange Fund on behalf of a group concerned about the security status of police agent Craig Williamson. In much the same way, he was strongly supportive of the Detainees Parents Support Committee (DPSC), making Wits facilities available for some of the first meetings responding to the detention of a range of activists and trade unionists. His strong disagreement with the politics of many of those detained in those September 1981 raids in no way detracted from his support of the developing detainee support movement.
Phil was amongst those who initiated and taught the marvellous multi-disciplinary Development Studies honours course at Wits in 1976. Together with academics like Sheldon Leader, Eddie Webster, Jeremy Keenan and Alf Stadler, Phil’s history block in ‘Dev Studs’ helped lay the intellectual foundations for the course’s first students who went on to start Work In Progress, the South African Review, and Development Studies Information series, which endured for well over a decade.
Phil showed a loyalty to individuals, even when he differed with them. When a senior academic attempted to mislead the Wits higher degree committee to the effect that I was delaying submission of my Master’s thesis to avoid military service, Phil was quick to argue that there was nothing wrong with that if it was true, but then pointed out that the allegation failed the evidence test: I was well within time frames, and was in fact medically exempt from military service. And although we ended up on different sides of the corrosive IAS dispute, he declined to join the chorus of personal vitriol which accompanied that dispute.
Intertwined with this trade union and political narrative are a range of personal memories from that earlier period of Phil’s multiple contributions. As a supervisor of my Master’s thesis, he left a draft of my offering in a cave in the Drakensberg, while on an overnight camping trip with John Wright. I have often wondered what the baboons and subsequent human travellers made of my writings. He took my children on their first visit to the diggings at Cradle of Mankind. We travelled together on a few occasions to the Drakensberg, once being forced to share a room because the other members of the group claimed – incorrectly, I am sure - that we both snored loudly after a long mountain climb and copious quantities of red wine.
I have a vivid memory of bumping into Phil one evening on the Wits campus, just outside of the office he occupied in the Central Block. It must have been winter, in the early 1980s, because it was dark already, and Bonner seemed down. Almost without prompting, he started talking about his concern about the way ‘race’ might be mobilised in any post-apartheid dispensation. He drew on his extensive knowledge of elite behaviour in post-colonial Africa to warn of the dangers of new elites mobilising race and nationalism as a protective cloak for the looting of the state, as a way of deflecting criticism of the emerging petty and comprador bourgeoisie. I’d not thought of this much – indeed, few of us were, at that stage, even contemplating the possibility of living to see a post-apartheid order, never mind the dangers it would face.
And then Phil shook himself out of his gloom, and proposed a visit to the Post-Graduate Club for a drink.
It was the mid-1970s when I first visited his and Chris’s house in Dunbar Street, Bellevue, just down the road from my tiny flat in the same area. The IAS dispute was at it height, and many a late night was spent, over much drink and little food, discussing plans and strategies and alliances. Phil and Chris had a beloved house cat, a very furry one, which shed its hair wherever it roamed – including Phil’s lap. And Phil’s name for the cat, Ragna Hairybreeks, named perhaps for Ragnarök (a series of future events, including a great battle in Nordic mythology) and, of course, its own furry legs and propensity to shed its hair. ‘Rags’ brought out Phil’s gentle side.
We have lost one of the very best of a generation that turned the world on its head, that asked new questions and hence found different answers – intellectually, academically and politically. Phil was never boring, always controversial, usually steely in his principles – and a character of massive and endearing proportions.
In the late 1970s, Phil and I sometimes ended up in different political ‘camps’ but were able to retain a friendship, and an engagement, albeit occasionally tense. He and Sally travelled to Cape Town to join Georgina’s family ‘millenium’ party, and we were together, looking over False Bay, as Y2K announced itself. Phil was an honoured guest and active dancer at my last three ‘birthday decade’ celebrations.
I am gutted that I will not again see him pulling his beard, jutting out his chin to disagree, or startling those present with an insight or perspective which truly changes the way we think and see the world.