Hugh Lewin: anti-apartheid author who refused to see himself as a hero
Betrayed by his friend and jailed for his part in the struggle, he remained a man of quiet integrity and intellectual honesty
Hugh Lewin, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 79, was an author and anti-apartheid activist who was betrayed by his best friend and sentenced to seven years in Pretoria Central for sabotage.
Born on December 3 1939, in Lydenburg, Mpumalanga, where his father was the local Anglican priest, he was sent to boarding school at St John’s College in Houghton when he was eight. He said the nine years he spent there prepared him well for jail.
After matriculating he went to Rhodes University in Grahamstown and taught briefly before becoming a journalist. He joined the African Resistance Movement (ARM) after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. “Something desperate was needed to rock the complacency of white rule”, he felt. “ARM chose the route of minimal protest sabotage to try to stir up the electorate by attacking installations, never people.”
He recruited his good friend John Harris who planted a bomb at Park Station in Johannesburg on July 24 1964. A 77-year-old grandmother died of her injuries four weeks later, and 22 others were seriously injured, including her 12-year-old granddaughter who was maimed for life. Harris was executed eight months later.
When the bomb went off Lewin was in solitary confinement where he spent 90 days after being betrayed by his best friend Adrian Leftwich, who then gave evidence against him at his trial in November 1964. He pleaded guilty to sabotage and spent the full seven years of his sentence in jail. They’d become friends when Leftwich was the president of the National Union of SA Students and Lewin vice-president for international affairs.
Lewin was married at 21 (divorced at 23) to Tina. They were both caught up in the politics of the struggle while he worked as a sub-editor on the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg, the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth and Golden City Post in Johannesburg.
Frustrated by the non-violent policy of the Liberal Party, he was recruited into ARM, which at the time was called the National Committee for Liberation. He joined a small cell and learnt how to blow up electricity pylons and railway lines. He also learnt that Leftwich had recommended him for recruitment. On July 4 1964, Leftwich was detained.
Within days police started rounding up members and it was evident that Leftwich had been singing. Lewin was urged to leave the country as others in his cell wasted no time doing, but he didn’t. His reasons included bravado, not wanting to be seen as running away, not having any money and being too tired to think straight. He also said he couldn’t believe his best friend would betray him, although hours before his arrest he told Harris that he expected it to happen soon.
His last words to Harris were to “lie low and don’t do anything”. Hours later, on July 9 1964, he was arrested, and two weeks later Harris planted his bomb. He was dragged to the station by his interrogators who, berserk with rage, real or manufactured, screamed that he would hang for this, and subjected him to sustained and brutal interrogation.
After serving his sentence Lewin left SA on a “permanent departure permit” in December 1971. He used notes he had secretly scribbled in the pages of his Bible while in prison as the basis of his book Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison, which was published in 1974 in London but banned in SA until 1989. In 2003, he wrote an extended version, Bandiet out of Jail, which won the Olive Schreiner Prize.
He spent 10 years in London working for the International Defence and Aid Fund and on the Observer and Guardian newspapers. After 10 years in Zimbabwe he returned to SA in 1992, became the director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, and in 1996 a member of the human rights violation committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Almost 40 years after his betrayal by Leftwich he went to England, where he was living, to forgive him. Lewin’s account of this, Stones Against the Mirror, won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in 2012.
Lewin was a man of quiet integrity and intellectual honesty with a self-deprecating, deadpan sense of humour. He refused to see himself as a hero. His seven years in jail was “a parking ticket” compared with what the Robben Islanders went through, he said.
He died after suffering from Lewy Body Dementia for 10 years. He is survived by two daughters and his partner Fiona Lloyd.