I vividly remember first meeting Bernard Behrman, who died in August at the age of 81. It was in the mid-1970s. If you were interested in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, London was a fascinating place. It seemed to be full of exiles who had had to flee their country because of the ferocious repression that crushed the great struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s.
But Bernard was different. Most exiles were members or supporters of the African National Congress (ANC). Those whom I knew, like Ethel de Keyser, executive secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and Aziz Pahad, who became deputy foreign minister after the ANC came into government, were admirable people. But as a young revolutionary Marxist I was after stronger stuff.
Bernard offered it. He was a member of the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA).This originated in the Workers Party of South Africa, one of two tiny Trotskyist groups that emerged in the 1930s. The Non-European Unity Movement was launched in 1943 on the basis of a 10-point programme demanding the democratic transformation of South Africa.
It stressed the unity of all the oppressed, opposed collaboration with any of the segregated institutions that the state offered black people, and advocated their boycott. At the time these ideas were well to the left of the ANC, though during the struggles to come they became the common sense of everyone fighting apartheid.
The UMSA won its main base in the Western Cape, especially among schoolteachers in the so-called coloured (mixed race) population, who in the 1950s were being stripped of the few rights they had achieved. The teachers’ influence may help to explain a strong emphasis on political education. This heritage remained very strong, as I learned on my visits to Cape Town in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But back to 1976. This was a critical year. With the fall of the Portuguese colonial empire, the tide of black liberation was lapping at South Africa’s borders. Then on 16 June school students in Soweto protested against having to use Afrikaans, the language of the white oppressor. This was the beginning of the chain of township revolts that eventually helped force the apartheid regime to negotiate the transfer of political power to the ANC.
It was against that exciting background that Bernard rang me to say that I B Tabata was in London. Tabata, the main leader of the UMSA, first emerged as an agitator in the Transkei, an African “reserve” in the Eastern Cape, during the 1930s. He had published a number of important books, but was now living in exile in Zambia. Would I like to meet him? Bernard asked. Of course.
I took Chris Harman with me to meet Tabata and Bernard. Tabata was then in his sixties, and Bernard later told me that he had been a bit miffed to be, as he saw it, palmed off with a couple of youngsters. But for me it was a great experience. Tabata had all the fire and passion of a mass leader, and he conveyed in very vivid terms the consciousness of the landless peasants who would travel from the Transkei to work in the gold mines.
However, the situation had changed since Tabata and Bernard had been forced into exile. South African capitalism was becoming increasingly dependent on relatively skilled black workers in manufacturing industry. The resulting shift in the balance of economic power was behind the mass strikes in Durban in 1973 – in their way as important as the Soweto rising – and the emergence of independent trade unions. It was here, we argued, that the energies of South African revolutionaries should be concentrated.
Later developments proved us right. The emergence of a powerful and militant organised black working class in the 1980s doomed apartheid. But we all underestimated the flexibility of capital, which survived by surrendering political power as the price of retaining economic power. The willingness of the ANC to play along came as no surprise to Bernard with his Unity Movement training.
Years later Bernard joined the Socialist Workers Party. For me it was a tremendous honour and pleasure for us to be strengthened by someone coming from a very different experience and tradition.
Bernard was an active and engaged member. Some 18 months before he died he asked to see me. He wanted to discuss ways of strengthening our industrial work and ways to integrate trade unionists into our branches. But we also talked about old times.
Bernard’s passing is very sad, and all my sympathies go to his wife Terri and his children Hannah and Simon. But when someone dies it can make us reflect on the past and its significance for the present. The Marikana massacre has exposed the role still played by migrant workers from the Eastern Cape in sustaining South Africa’s minerals-energy complex. The struggle changes, but there are always continuities. People like Bernard can help remind us of them.