‘It was the only way we could escape our whiteness’—Read ‘Struggle Heroes’, an excerpt from Hugh Lewin’s memoir, Stones Against the Mirror

The JRB presents an excerpt from Stones Against the Mirror, the memoir of journalist, author and anti-apartheid activist Hugh Lewin, who died in January.

During apartheid, Lewin served seven years in prison for his activities in the African Resistance Movement, a small group of activists dedicated to acts of ‘protest sabotage’ against the state.

While in prison, he began secretly writing his first memoir, which was published in London in 1974 as Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison. The book was hailed as a classic of prison writing, but was banned in South Africa for many years. It was eventually re-published in 2003 as Bandiet out of Jail, in an edition that also contained samples of Lewin’s poetry and notes on his experiences as a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s committee on human rights violations in Gauteng. Bandiet out of Jail was awarded the Olive Schreiner Prize.

Lewin left South Africa on a ‘permanent departure permit’, or exit visa, in December 1971, living in London and Zimbabwe, and returned in 1992. In 2012, he won the Alan Paton Award for Stones Against the Mirror.

Read an excerpt from Stones Against the Mirror:


Struggle heroes

It is 1965. I am trudging around the exercise yard of Pretoria Local Prison with the other white politicals. Round and round for half an hour under a scrap of sky framed by brick walls. Sometimes we’re allowed to talk. Sometimes not.

There are twenty-three of us serving sentences from two years to life, for offences under the Suppression of Communism Act as well as the Sabotage and Terrorism Acts. We’re all male. All white. Only five of us are members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM). Far away on Robben Island, another ARM comrade, Eddie Daniels, is serving fifteen years in the same cell block as Nelson Mandela.

Apartheid rules, even in prison, so white and black political prisoners are separated. The authorities do not even bother to respond when we request them to move us to the Island so that we, the white politicals, can join our black comrades.

Take a look and see who’s in the exercise yard: three lawyers, one very senior; one doctor, and one medical student; five journalists, with varying experience; three academics, mainly senior lecturers (physics, anthropology, notably no political science); two practising civil engineers; one professional photographer, one full-time artist; and two bookkeepers. Only four are full-time political activists.

All are white, middle-class, professional, intelligent and interested members of society. Most would not have considered a career in politics, but each of them has talents which would make them useful contributors to a better sort of society. Yet here they are, cleaning their own shit-pots together in the yard reserved for white politicals. Ordinary people, in an extraordinary environment.

I do not know how they all got there. I can speak only of my own journey to Hoofbewaarder du Preez’s barren prison yard, and the journey of some of my friends.

My journey to dissent had begun at home, taking me through boarding school and the streets of Sophiatown. But it took three years at university for me to begin to channel my growing sense of indignation at the apartheid system. My first political activity was shaped by the academic freedom campaign to defend Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape. Fort Hare was the only university in South Africa where black students from all ethnic groups could study together. But now the apartheid government was threatening to introduce a new policy, which would mean that the university could admit only Xhosa students. We decided we must fight this. Our campaign failed, as did so many other protests against the government’s growing brutality, expressed in the shootings at Sharpeville in 1960, where the police killed sixty-nine peaceful black protesters. There were endless debates in those days about non-violent versus violent protest—always against the background of a repressive government and a docile white electorate. Nobody would listen, it seemed, to the repeated attempts by the silenced black majority for discussion, for reasoned debate.

Something desperate was needed to rock the complacency of white rule, and resistance seemed the only option. ARM chose the minimal route of ‘protest sabotage’ to try to stir up the electorate by attacking installations—never people—and so shake the foundation of the kragdadige, stone-hearted regime.

It was a perilous step to take, and there weren’t many whites who took it. My fellow-dynamiters were totally unsuited for their clandestine, quasi-militaristic role. But it 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 barriers, the simple, daily mechanisms of living were dominated by laws which separated the races. Even where the barriers were breached, the differences remained. We were white and therefore privileged—and this gave us protection. However much we tried to ignore it, we were wrapped in our magic cloaks of whiteness. To deny it was dishonest: we could always retreat into our impenetrable privilege and exclusivity. The worst would always happen to them, not to us. If it did happen to us, it required only a quick flick of readjustment to reassert our separateness.

Thus our guilt. However much we hated the system, we benefited from it and it gave us protection. Nothing was simple, except colour.

The ‘non-whites’ were fighting for their freedom and their dignity. They were born into a world that labelled them as ‘other’. We, on the other hand, were suffocated by the privilege that made our lives so comfortable. In some ways, though, it would have been easier to embrace that space and simply accept its ease, as most whites chose to do.

But we were young and exuberant. We were the undergrounders, flirting with dynamite. We were pushing the limits of white society, just as we had pushed against our parents and the rules and regulations of school.

It was a cascading, seductive time of intense relationships. You could never be close to someone who didn’t hate the system. You chose your friends because they shared your ideals and your outrage. You had to trust each other absolutely, because your survival as undergrounders depended on each other’s reliability. In a clandestine organisation, there could be no secrets between friends. We were comrades and lovers together, all at once, bound by the certainty that the justice of our cause was irrefutable. Our struggle was the Struggle, and there was a thrill about it that allowed us to put doubts aside.

There’s nothing quite as sexy as breaking the law—especially when it’s for the revolution.

As our political and personal lives collided, alliances transformed into intense friendships and passionate affairs. When these liaisons exploded, they were full of hurt because they so often involved personal betrayal. In the fever of activity, there was seldom time to reflect. But we lived with the lurking anxiety that everything could suddenly shatter.

When four of us appeared in the Supreme Court in November 1964, we pleaded guilty to acts of sabotage. But we insisted that we had been trying to protest against a government that was itself guilty: an oppressive government based on unjust laws. We claimed we were morally innocent, even though we had used apparently ‘illegal’ means to make our point. We had not set out to harm people, and the state had not linked our trial to the station bomb incident. Thus, we maintained, we could not actually be deemed ‘guilty’.

Years later, when we emerge from prison, having served to the last minute the court’s sentence, we join an elite group who can add PG to their credentials: Prison Graduate. It is our badge of honour, and we wear it with pride.

Prison remains the touchstone: the place we never escape from. We were trapped in it, did our time and were released. Yet still we return. There is perhaps some strange comfort in the memory of it. Prison was a time without responsibility or the possibility of choice. And we survived. The memory of prison becomes a secure wall around our insecurities.

But it also makes us feel we are morally unassailable, unlike those friends and comrades (black and white) who betrayed us. The ones who turned state witness. The ones who stayed outside while we circled the exercise yard.

I used to believe that they had put themselves inside a different kind of jail: a jail that had no keys. We served our sentences and were released, I used to say. They bought their freedom with pieces of silver and they would live with that knowledge for the rest of their days.

It feels less simple, now.

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