This piece was first published by Style Magazine in 1996.
One morning in 1983 I woke up with a Security Policeman in my room. I was sharing a house in Mons Rd in Bellevue East with my friend the painter, Carl Becker, and a beautiful young woman, since emigrated to Australia, called Carol Constancin.
The Security Policeman was bearded and casually dressed. He demeanour was relaxed, even warm. He seemed pleasantly surprised at the tastefulness of my quarters. The empty whisky bottle was placed just so on the rat-arsed Persian rug. The packet of Camels somehow highlighted the Becker etching on the mantelpiece. He spoke without looking at me.
Keith was Carol’s lover. But I was trying to figure out who the hell my visitor was. Had I met him during the course of some revelry and then forgotten all? But the previous night had been abstemious. The whisky was demolished two days previously.
"Isn't she in her room?"
I could only presume that he was a friend of hers.
"I don't know."
"What's your name?”
"Thanks." He smiled pleasantly left the room. I went back to sleep.
Keith worked for the South African Students Press Union. (SASPU.) The union put out a newspaper advocating obscure, evil notions like democracy. Keith knew that The Branch were after him. He laid low for a few days and then decided to give himself up. He went round to John Voster Square on a Friday afternoon and handed himself in.
“Look, its really busy,” they said, “can you come back on Monday.”
He did and they locked him up for many months.
It was around that time someone slipped me a battered, banned, coverless copy of Hugh Lewin’s Bandiet. I devoured it. The book told tales that we weren’t allowed to hear. Stories that were the opposite of what was coming out of Cliff Saunders’ mouth on the television during the eight o’clock news.
Hugh Lewin was in Pretoria Central, right next to gallows, when he first read Herman Charles Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug. Bosman had been in Central for killing his step-brother, Lewin was in for blowing up electricity pylons. Sentences and 40 years separated the prisoners. Other than that nothing had changed. The men in “married quarters” still grasped each other in the darkness. Dagga and tobacco were still the currency. The place still had a spooky evil feel whenever there was a hanging.
Lewin was there when they hanged the man he knew as Deysel, a rare white among the many blacks who occupied the cells of the condemned. Lewin sat in his cell and listened to the special programme that the secretary of the entertainment committee played over the loud speakers the night before Deysel stepped into the void. The secretary played Home on the Range, and Don’t Fence Me In, and finally, at the end of the programme, I’ll see You in my Dreams.
Lewin heard horrible stories about hangings in Central. Stories about the noose sticking and taking someone’s face off, dropping him maimed and alive onto the sawdust covered concrete. Stories of women strapped between their legs because of the way the blood would gush from them. One dark, shivery morning he heard a woman sobbing as she was taken, straight-jacketed, to the gallows. She didn’t go well, they told him afterwards.
Lewin was picked up after the Rivonia trial. His organization, the African Resistance Movement (A.R.M.) had ceased sabotage for the duration. The plan was that when government had locked up the Rivonia men, A.R.M. would ride again, showing the state that the forces of resistance were still alive. Blowing up electricity pylons. Not harming any people. Just a signal really: “You haven’t stamped us out.” They never got a chance to do it.
Adrian Leftwitch, who had been Lewin’s best man, and who had recruited Lewin into A.R.M., was picked up. He talked. Leftwitch, who always insisted that members keep no records, had not followed his own orders. The Branch knew a lot about A.R.M. After twelve hours of interrogation, Lewin also talked. But he talked selectively, only confirming information the police already had. They threw him in a cell and forgot about him.
Then a bomb went off on Johannesburg Station.
“Tonight,” the interrogators told Lewin, “we’ll kill you.”
They pulled off his glasses and started beating him. Close, personal stuff, using bare fists. When he fell over they kicked him upright again. To stop the beating, Lewin gave them what he though was the name of a further A.R.M. member: John Harris. But John Harris was the station bomber. He was already in the building.
It was a busy night. Next door, Lewin’s flat mate, John Loyd was been interrogated. Later he would turn state witness. A man with bloody hands came into the room.
“That Harris,” he said, “another one who wouldn’t talk without a lawyer.”
And then, says Lewin, he wiped the blood off his fists and laughed. A couple of hours later John Harris’ jaw was broken. Four months later, John Loyd’s evidence put a noose round his neck. The word in Central was that he went well.
It was the beginning of a seven year education for Lewin. Its lessons were simple. Hanging doesn’t work and prison makes criminals. Survival in prison demands that you lie and cheat and steal. The Government was taking one out of four black South Africans, jailing them for pass offences, and training them in criminality.
But the people Lewin was in with did not end up criminals. For most of the seven years he was part of an elite company. Bram Fischer was Afrikaans aristocracy. Dennis Godlberg was a civil engineer. Jock Strachan was the prisoner’s hero. On his release he published an expose of prison conditions, which improved dramatically as a result. Irritated, the security police framed him and put him back inside.
No, the people Lewin was in with were not criminals. They were middle class whites, intellectuals. They studied through UNISA and staged classic plays. They had acted because they had faith that a better future was possible, and they suffered for their faith. In the early stages their isolation was almost complete. Outside the world continued, their children died, their wives made lives in England. They were adrift in the wash of history.
At the end of the seventies John Lloyd, flat mate turned state witness, re-emerged as chairman of the Anti-Apartheid group in Exeter, England. At the time of writing (1996) the Labour Party executive is deciding whether he should be allowed to stand under their banner. He claims that the ANC have effectively given him amnesty. Lewin feels he should face the Truth Commission before he makes such claims.
“If A.R.M. had been as efficient as the ANC,” says Lewin, “ he would have been dead a long time ago.” Despite his protestations, an old Bandiet anger burns against the men who shopped him.
The past is relentless. It seeps into the present like water finding its way to the sea. Marius Schoon, a fellow prisoner, is suing Craig Williamson, the fat spy who admitted responsibility for the murder of Schoon’s wife and child.
Lewin is back in South Africa now, teaching journalism. He has never again been a member of a political organization. He came back as soon as he could. He was always coming back. He only blew up the pylons because he loved the place. He seems a quiet, methodical man. But every now and then he uses a word like “ouens”, a bit of Bandiet-speak, a hint that a middle-class boy was changed by years in prison, a sign that history lives.