Lewin fought and wrote the revolution with integrity

Anti-apartheid activist Hugh Lewin served time and endured exile before returning to South Africa to continue his work in human rights. But it is as an author that he dazzled.

“Railway stations,” wrote Hugh Lewin, “are meeting points of loss and delight.” It is sentences like this one — under which a reader can amply shade herself — that speak of the talent of the activist who died at his home in Killarney last week at the age of 79. Lewin served time for sabotage before going into exile in England for 10 years and then spent another 10 in Zimbabwe. He returned to South Africa to serve as a committee member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on human rights and later became the director for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. But it is as an author that Lewin quietly dazzled.

He published the Olive Schreiner prize-winning memoir Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison in 1989, and then later a revised version of the same book in 2002, this time with information he had excluded in the earlier version for fear of reprisals from the security branch. Bandiet is filled with strange laughter, as Lewin reflects on the absurdities of his imprisonment, on the brutal guards, the deprivations and irritations, but also on the sweet tenderness he shared with his fellow inmates. In his 2011 book, Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle, for which he won the Alan Paton award, Lewin flexed into his role as a writer.

The book is structured as a series of circles: like dancers seen from above, the spheres spin in tight orbs while circling a larger axis. The structure of Stones is as complex and beautiful as a solar system or raindrops in a pond. At each turn, the circles thicken and criss-cross, so stories emerge slowly, building accretive speed and substance, until they are complete, though never full.

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We know the whole main story by the end of the first page and a half. In the early 1960s, Lewin was involved in the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a splinter group of the Liberal Party. As opposed to the Liberal Party’s stern stance of non-violence, members of ARM chose violent protest sabotage of non-human targets to try to shake the white electorate into seeing the injustice of the apartheid system. Over three years, they blew up mostly pylons and train signals in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In 1964, the South African security branch captured Lewin after his best friend, Adrian Leftwich, gave them his name. The security branch drew a chalk circle around Lewin and, while screaming at him, made him stand in it all night. Later they beat him so badly he thought he would die. This same friend betrayed him further by standing as state witness in the State vs Baruch Hirson, Hugh Lewin and Raymond Eisenstein. Lewin was sentenced to seven years in prison, while Leftwich was given immunity and went to England.

This was followed by 40 years of silence between the men. In the book, Lewin is on his way to heal this schism. In 2005, he travels to England to encounter Leftwich again.

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A few pages later, we know the secondary story. After Leftwich “gave the names” and most ARM members were detained, John Harris, a man Lewin recruited into the sabotage group, placed a bomb in the concourse of the central train station in Johannesburg, Park Station. Though he called several newspapers and the police telling them to clear the area, no action was taken and the bomb went off during peak hour at 4.33pm, severely injuring 22 people and killing one, the grandmother of a 12-year-old girl. The girl was burned all over her body. Harris was caught and hanged by the state.

The rest of the book centres on the stories of betrayal and the bomb, adding more and more detail. In each episode, tiny circles mirror the larger structure. Round fractals make stories into geometry as Lewin structures his book with a spirograph. This structure allows for doubleness, even severalness, to emerge as Lewin spins the stories of himself and his many others, his doppelgangers. It permits him to get close to the perpetrator-betrayer-friend and move further out again over and over, loop in, loop out.

The first few pages open the main artery of the book: betrayal, culpability, responsibility as hung on the could-have-been-me double, the evil twin, the good twin, the betrayer and the betrayed, the free and the imprisoned; and then, in later years, the literally free and the metaphorically imprisoned, a structural and corporeal pairing and duplication found again and again. Finally, it allows him to take up the role of victim, even while contemplating his culpability.

Moral courage

As a man of moral courage, Lewin marshals the complexity of this structure to test his culpability, creating, in these circles and through the doubling, ways to enter and exit the skin of the betrayer, the state witness, the station bomber. Lewin wonders what he would have done had he been asked to stand state witness in exchange for indemnity, or if he had been, like Harris, one of only two members of ARM left out of detention. Would he have chosen different paths, the route of exile and escape or of deadly violence in a last attempt to show the government that they had not won, that the struggle was not over? Each time he answers with his seven years in prison in the first instance, and his non-involvement in the station bomb in the second. Nonetheless, his willingness to wonder shows his huge capacity for empathy.

“There were endless debates those days about non-violent versus violent protest,” Lewin remarks, “always against the background of a repressive government and a docile white electorate … ARM chose the minimal route of ‘protest sabotage’… [to try to] shake the foundation of the … stone-hearted regime.” But in choosing to protest, and more precisely to use violent protest, Lewin enters a murky, compromised world that risks what violence brings: death, destruction.

As a result of his participation in ARM’s violent sabotage — he recruits Harris — a bomb is placed in Park Station and people are harmed. Is moral innocence possible in a world besmirched by violence? As Lewin tries to piece together his past and make sense of it in Stones, he must find a way to negotiate actions that are simultaneously good and bad, always. In any engagement against a violent regime, the activist is pulled into the muck of that world, and does not emerge clean, even if he or she is on the side of good.

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Lewin writes:

“[Protesting against the apartheid regime] was the only way we could escape our whiteness. Apartheid had crippled us. We had grown up in a world of privilege, arbitrarily bestowed on us by the colour of our skin. However much we tried to break the barriers, the simple daily mechanisms of living were dominated by laws which separated the races … We were white and therefore protected. However much we tried to ignore it, we were wrapped in our magic cloaks of whiteness.”

Part of protesting was a way to navigate the unfairness of what his whiteness inevitably gave him in apartheid South Africa. How do you shake off privilege? Lewin learns much later at the TRC that whiteness is inescapable. Being white is to be complicit no matter how long you spend in jail. This seems a defining disappointment for Lewin, who wants to atone for what his whiteness gives him. Atonement, and its attendant terms — confession, forgiveness, reconciliation — is linked to what the TRC offered but also to how Lewin was raised: his father was an Anglican priest. What Lewin finds is that whiteness is a spiritual disease from which it is impossible to recover.

Over and over, he attempts to show his reparation, his struggle, his expiation for his skin. But part of being white was to learn that no matter what, no matter how many sacrifices were made, he always had it better than black people, including in prison. He will never escape the complicity and compromise of whiteness, that all-devouring thing. But it must nonetheless also always be carefully mediated. How does he find a balance, knowing as he does that whiteness gives him power and protection? He is always circling in his dissent: privilege must be fought with dissension, but it is inescapable because you are protected.

Four bombs

In Stones, four bombs go off: one explodes a pylon, which, legs broken and twisted, topples; tensioned wires strain then snap, ping, whip away, flail in the air with a shower of hot sparks, then land in the cold veld, dead, like snakes, like men at the end of ropes. The other explodes a railway station, women, like witches, fly, burn. A third explodes in Lewin’s mother’s brain, electricity spurting into skin, like the electric fence on the perimeter wall of a house set to almost lethal, clicking and humming, stretched and taut, blue and arching to explode into a person. Electric fences, like pylons, keeping the electorate in TVs and sleep. The fourth is the bomb in Lewin’s heart.

Lewin’s use of the mirror as an extended metaphor is repeated often in Stones, slightly shifting each time. It appears first in the fourth chapter, “Survivor”, which opens: “Throw a clatter of memories at the mirror of your life and watch the pieces scatter on the ground. There is no pattern.” The sentence is beautiful: clatter rhymes with scatter and the alliterative “m” of memories and mirror give it lyricism, something found in these moments of reflection in the book. The collective noun “clatter of” speaks to how Lewin sees, or rather, hears his memories; clatter meaning the noise made when hard objects hit each other.

Memories are like objects, things, entirely unto themselves. The second-person “you” refers to the rememberer. This “you” is the man who reflects, separated from the “I”. It is also you, the reader. You throw these memory-objects at the mirror of your life. As a physical gesture, “throw” shows a felt interaction between you and the memories. The mirror of your life, or your life mirrored, is not the memories of your life: these are objects thrown at the mirror.

Does the mirror break? “Scatter” as opposed to the equally rhyming “shatter” suggests that the memories bounce off the mirror and land, jumbled, on the ground. So memories don’t break the mirror, but the mirror does not order them. The mirror of your life is, then, a reflection of your life, not your true life, but its verisimilitude.

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Stones’s epigraph, taken from a book by Brian Keenan, reads: “Stories should be a mirror held up to life. Sometimes these mirrors are cracked or opaque.” Lewin warns us that this mirror is also potentially distorted or distorting. Warped mirrors reflect imperfectly, as do minds. He plays on the dual meaning of reflect — to double and to ponder. The reflection of your life is not your memories: reflection is interpretation. It is not remembering but meaning-making: to mull, muse and consider, to contemplate. Throwing memories at this reflection makes sense because deliberation needs material. The mirror is an act of making meaning out of memories, of bringing coherence to memories scattered without discernible pattern.

Including these mirror images brings to the fore the act of writing, itself an act of making meaning. Lewin is careful to assert, over and over as these mirrors flash and turn, that the book is a form of magic, a story woven and spun, constructed, made, storied by him, the rememberer. He acknowledges that others could remember more, differently or better, and that in writing this story, he risks a terrible betrayal: that he will use stories not his own to make a narrative filled with his own self-deception, a world that cannot, does not and never will reflect anything close to the fullness of the past. He risks the half story, the one-sided tale; worse, he risks becoming a witness, like that other witness, Leftwich.

Bomb survivor

The chapter “Survivor” is about Glynnis Burleigh, who at age 12 was terribly burned by the Park Station bomb. She had to move to Britain because the South African sun was too harsh for her burnt skin. Once there, she told a journalist, she could work only in back rooms because of her disfigured face. Lewin contemplates responsibility. “I share [in Harris’s] responsibility [for the bomb],” Lewin writes. “I helped create the child’s battered body … I stare at the mirror and try to find the words to conjure up the reality of her life. I cannot picture it, but equally I cannot escape it.” Lewin thinks about apologising to her, but, he writes, “I shudder at the thought of facing her.”

Which mirror does he mean — the metaphorical mirror of reflection or an actual mirror in which he sees his face, which cannot face Burleigh’s disfigured face? The mirror could equally mean the reflexive mechanism that drives the book. When this mirror is given the memory of Burleigh, it does not work; Lewin cannot conjure the words to make her life seem real, let alone contemplate it. “Conjure” is also interesting. It invokes a sense of magic. Words, then, are a type of spell, a magical way to see or picture something, to make something appear.

Words are parsing turned to seeing. If they fail, the reality of Burleigh’s life fails, too, for Lewin, collapses, but not into nothing. He cannot evoke the burnt woman’s life, but he also cannot escape it. His inability to think about her life is not total; he feels the edges of “the pain of her existence [and] the strength of her survival.” Equally, Lewin “cannot imagine trying to explain the inexplicable circumstances that created the link between us. My non-involvement to the bomb, but my closeness to it.”

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The failure of imagination here is also a failure to launch. It must be at the very least imaginable. It must be possible in terms of the scope of one’s mental possibilities. If it is impossible to write and see a memory or a person’s life, no action can take place.

But this inability to imagine Burleigh is a failure of greater proportions than only imagination. Lewin continues to describe the memories thrown at the mirror in the beginning of the chapter: “They glint in the shadows, demanding inspection, as you hesitate to choose which one you’ll pick up first. Some pieces choose themselves, however much you try to avoid them.” You don’t choose memories, and memories don’t choose you; they choose themselves. Thus they have selves that they choose, as in, they have being, they have life. In this formulation, memories have agency.

That Lewin enters the lives of memories as an observer is an idea that reappears throughout the book. Memories are spread across several people: all those who participated in the event or moment being remembered, those who witnessed it, those who heard about it first hand, and then those who heard about it second hand. The actual moment remains hard and fast in the past, irretrievable. But the memory of it acquires a life of its own. It is fluid, moves, melds, manoeuvres, is one thing and then another, is several things for the several people who remember.

Part of this aliveness is taken up by Lewin’s metaphor of the mirror of memory. But, that the memory of the harm caused by the station bomb chooses to be remembered, no matter how much Lewin wants to avoid it, suggests passivity on his part. This echoes his inability to give flesh to the burnt woman, who remains obscure — another type of passivity, especially considering Lewin’s huge capacity as a writer, which would usually suggest an equally rich imagination. “Sometimes the meetings we seek to avoid come seeking us,” Lewin continues, after stating his inability to imagine explaining himself to Burleigh.

Again, he is passive. The meeting sought him, another instance of magic, like the memory that chose itself. Magic is a kind of shield: if he cannot conjure her, she can remain insubstantial, her hurt no longer a wild flag flapping, bursting and snapping in Lewin’s heart. As evidence, as hard proof of the consequences of the choice made by ARM to sabotage with explosives, Burleigh is Lewin’s guilt, his culpability, his responsibility made flesh, and he cannot face her.

Arresting the past

“How to arrest the past?” Lewin wonders, after writing about his childhood. Of course, arrest here has a double meaning: police arrest and arrest as in stop, hold down, pin down the past. Pin it, secure it, trap it in words, be a warder of words, walk the corridors, baton in hand. Lewin knows the stakes in this. “I trespass on the stories of others.”

As soon as a memory is written, is given solidity and singularity, it is a betrayal of the very nature of memory, fluid and several, almost always a shared thing.  Lewin worries he is creating a prison for memories, thoughts and ideas not his own. He is aware that parts of the story he is telling are not his own, that the memories he reflects upon (or which reflect upon themselves) are the memories of others. Is this a betrayal of his friends, of the people who would better remember or remember differently?

Using memories, pinning them down, Lewin warns that he is “building a prison of sentences whose corridors echo with voices not [his] own”. “I play judge,” he goes on. “I pass sentence.” This last neat little pun, which plays on writing a sentence and passing sentences or sentencing people (or memories) to prison time, is, like his opening one, a warning. What is he saying? “We are in this together, reader and writer … Conspirators … We are warders of the Struggle, scanning each word to make sure it is polished and shiny … [But] none of us is immune to deception.”

His book is a jail, each sentence part of a penitentiary place that contains, controls, holds — or is a placeholder over something impermissible, impossible, taboo. Narratives, he seems to be intimating, are collective acts of agreement. Together, the reader and the writer spin a luminous story, one that we can both face and stomach, one that mirrors not ourselves exactly, but versions of us. In South Africa, this narrative, as it was conceived through the TRC, was called nation-building. We are co-conspirators, Lewin reminds us. Together we are creating a hopeful tale, packed with heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators. But it’s not true, Lewin implies. I am deceiving you. We read on, though, and do not heed the warning. We all love a good yarn.

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This uneasiness about the act of storytelling is inherent in the title of this chapter, “The Telling of Stories”. This has a double meaning, storytelling or telling stories, lying. Who gets to tell stories? What are the stakes in telling stories? Leftwich told stories on the witness stand, that most lonely place. He told Lewin’s story in great detail. It is stories and their telling that contain betrayal. They are the substance of betrayal.

Adrian Leftwich was the raconteur, the master storyteller. But, because we know that Leftwich stands in court, in the witness box, and tells other stories, this ability takes on a taint; the stories he and Lewin share will be their ruin. It is important to remember, though, that Lewin, who has characterised himself as retiring and as almost beguiled into being involved in politics by Leftwich, is himself weaving and spinning a story of incredible complexity. This hints at why Lewin is so intent on reflecting on his act of writing: he and Leftwich are the same, both capable narrators, even fabulists, each entering into the act of storytelling, and thus into the act of betrayal.

When Lewin states, firmly, “I am the storyteller,” he shows us he understands the irony in connecting betrayal with telling stories — but, in doing so, he pulls us, the reader, into the cycle of blame. I am the storyteller, says Lewin, but so are you. The reader and Lewin are together, creating worlds, agreeing on what is acceptable to write about and what is not — and it is the reader, in the end, who will judge the mirror Lewin has created.

Secrecy and silence

In times of political turmoil, secrecy and silence are often all that stands between you and a cell, or a rope. The one who tells, the intimacy breaker, note taker, archivist, author, is the enemy — thus Lewin’s reluctance. So much is risked in breaking silence, and so much depends upon the story with which he will break it. How can he tell it all? How can he hope to conjure its fullness, to include all its characters, to get it right, to get to nothing less than truth? He tries, with his structure, looping and cycling, trying at every turn to complete the story, to shade in its nuances. But he never succeeds. What can he do, knowing what he knows, knowing that stories are the stuff of betrayal, and that he betrays everyone in this story by never quite getting to the centre, by always beguiling, deceiving, even?

In response to the possibility that people involved in the events described in Stones could accuse Lewin of embellishing, omitting or otherwise being betrayed by his memory, Lewin writes: “Well, Dear Reader, treat it as fiction. That is what I would advise.”

Part of what Lewin is circumventing in doing this is the claim that he has some kind of special access to the truth. If his book is fiction, it is released from that claim; it is something else altogether, a dreaming or a nightmare — nagmerrie, Lewin writes — following contours that can get to something true nonetheless, and perhaps even to the heart of things. “Remember the piece of surrealist sculpture at the Constitutional Court complex?” Lewin’s friend Harold Strachan writes to him. “It says more about Apartheid than the many ‘true’ symbols standing about.”

This is his mirror, his refrain. Look, he says with the mirror metaphors that puncture the text, I am distorting, I am warping. Lewin betrays the trust his friends put in him by telling their stories here, and he betrays the story by spit and polishing it, shimmying it with his sleeve till it shines, till it reflects. He pins down memory, arrests the past, tells a single story. This story looks honest, full, but it is not. Certainly not. But he is not trying to hoodwink us, though we are winked, every one of us. Because we want to be. We want his story, his reflectiveness, his beautiful book. Like a salve, his words are balmy.

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In the end, Lewin goes so far as to make the story out to be fiction. He tells us a good story, but warns us that it is a construct: “None of us is immune to deception.” This book is a figuration of his mind, sculpted by his pen, a work of fiction of the highest order, reaching, as it does, for something essentially true.

All the things left out and living in oblivion off the page cannot haunt him if this is just fiction. Surely?

Lewin tells a story of bravery and stoicism, fatherly love, forgiveness, atonement, possibility, kindness, stern fairness, but mostly courage. The courage of good men and women, who chose to struggle, who committed their bodies to bombs and prison, to rope. Who suffered, and who served. Who, sunk in muck, wrote the mire, described it swamp and stick. Who, nerves shot, dreams sliced through with clang and bang, have memories that burn and cut, memories that betray.

But in Lewin’s beginnings, we also find darkness: a mad mother, wives whisked away, ignored, the violence of men, of silence, merries and screaming pain, screaming men. Lewin stood all night in a chalk circle while men screamed and punched. In it he undid himself, and then made himself up again.

Now, finally, he is at rest.

Hugh Lewin’s funeral will be held at 11am on Saturday, 26 January 2019 at St John’s College, Johannesburg.

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