Elegy on trial: Writing the African Resistance Movement

Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle, by Hugh Lewin. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011

In July 1964, during a wave of raids across the country, the apartheid security police picked up several members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM), an organization of liberals-become-radicals who had sabotaged pylons and other infrastructural targets in an effort to send a message, post-Sharpeville, that serious, principled resistance was still alive in (white) South Africa. Soon after being taken into detention, one of its members began to talk. Adrian Leftwich had been a charismatic student activist responsible for recruiting many of the ARM members; his enthusiasm and energy meant that he knew too much about an organization that was supposed to be built from secret cells. His exhaustive and gratuitously detailed testimony, first in detention and then as a state witness, was used to convict his closest friends and associates.  To refer to him as a rat was hard on rats, the apartheid judge remarked when sentencing those at whose expense he had bought his freedom. One of them was the person at whose wedding he had once been best man.

Hugh Lewin was that person, and in this work – part memoir, part political thriller, and also a post-TRC meditation on betrayal and forgiveness – he describes the journey which eventually led him, after decades of silence and bitterness, to find and reconcile with Leftwich, a man whom he had once regarded as almost a twin brother.  In it we read of his childhood as a parson’s son, the brutalities of an adolescence at boarding school, and then the student years of coming to consciousness, “a cascading, seductive time of intense relationships” (46) as political roles and personal lives became entangled in the most complex and intimate of ways: “There’s nothing quite as sexy as breaking the law – especially when it’s for the revolution” (47).

The mixture of commitment and naivety, seriousness and glibness, which gave rise to the organization is finely drawn. The ARM has often been written off as a group of misguided amateurs, or liberals out of their depth.  But in fact the organization predated the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC), and in the thirty-six months of its active existence did as much economic damage to state infrastructure as MK managed during the same period. This was of course partly because of the ease of movement and lack of official suspicion conferred by the racial profile of most members. Lewin writes perceptively about the “cloaks of immunity” which he and others believed were granted them by their whiteness, perhaps at some subconscious and unexamined level. The result, he implies, was an inability to believe that their band of saboteurs could be punished with the full weight of apartheid’s laws, and a fatal underestimation of the reach and skill of the Security Branch.

As such, we are led to the tragic final act of the ARM story, in which John Harris planted a bomb on the platform of Park Station, Johannesburg. Despite his telephoned warnings to the police and newspapers, the concourse was not cleared and a suitcase stuffed with TNT and petrol exploded at 4:33 pm on 24 July 1964, at the height of rush hour. A grandmother was killed, her twelve-year-old granddaughter terribly burned, and twenty-two others seriously injured. It was, as Lewin writes, a disaster on every level: “it consolidated white opinion, led directly to the demise of the Liberal Party, and strengthened the hand of the white government for more than a decade, until Soweto 1976” (116).  Harris was killed in Pretoria Central on April Fool’s Day 1965, the only white “political” hanged by the state, and went to the gallows singing “We Shall Overcome”.

Lewin’s book joins several other ways and genres in which this compromised, messy and contested narrative has been written of, or written up.  It is dealt with in several political memoirs and “jail diaries” from the time: Lewin’s own Bandiet (1974, 2002), Albie Sachs’ Stephanie on Trial (1968), as well as Eddie Daniels’ There and Back (1998). It has been fictionalised in ways that are both thinly veiled, as in C. J. Driver’s Elegy for a Revolutionary (1969), and more creative in their adaptation: see Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World (1966) as well as Athol Fugard’s radical experiment in theatre, Orestes (1978). Harris’s almost unreadably moving letters to his wife from death row have been threaded (somewhat cack-handedly?) into the Guardian correspondent David Beresford’s “personal journey through the apartheid war”, Truth is a Strange Fruit (2010).  In a 2002 edition of Granta magazine, Leftwich himself offered a confession which took him 15 years to write – “as much an essay in the personal politics of fear as it is in the politics of failure and betrayal”– and which was intriguingly judged variously as sincere and powerful, inadequate and evasive, by the different individuals affected by his actions.

Following his testimony, and as part of the deal he had struck with the apartheid prosecutors, Leftwich went into permanent exile, eventually ending up as a politics lecturer at the University of York. Having encountered his essay when I was a student there, and struck by the extent of its self-examination and self-disclosure  (the detail about him giving rats a bad name is, after all, drawn from this very piece), I used to go and snatch glances at his office door.  I never once saw him (did he come in and out under cover of darkness, I wondered?) but the bland, institutional oblong itself – “Fire door keep shut” – seemed enough. It was a kind of anti-shrine to the Struggle, standing for all the biographies that do not fit the more familiar narrative template: the thousands of humiliations and personal collapses edged out of the picture by heroic lives dedicated to fighting oppression.

Dr. A Leftwich - Politics

Stones against the Mirror is framed by a rail journey from London to York; with the train approaching the station, the narrator knows that Adrian will be waiting for him on the platform. But, without giving too much away, if one begins the work expecting a climactic showdown, the quiet, meditative, even melancholic prose soon suggests that the real reckoning here is with self rather than with other. Stations become an organising metaphor in the book – places of embarkation and terminus, “unstill centres of a moving world” (11) – as it traverses the historical and psychological distance between the events of 1964 and the unfolding present: “The train’s beginning to slow down. It’s a long way from Park Station”.

Great North Eastern Railway - en route to York

A more archaic sense of “station” occurred to me as I read the short sections which make up the work: the kind of meditative, halting-place implied by the phrase “Stations of the Cross”, the Via Dolorosa which pilgrims retrace in order to come to self-knowledge. Leftwich’s act of betrayal forms only one strand of a narrative which also explores Lewin’s own giving of Harris’s name while being assaulted in detention (albeit after the Security Branch had already apprehended their man); his work on panels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; as well as a more obscure sense of guilt and shame derived from the tangle of friendship and violence at the heart of the ARM story: “My non-involvement with the bomb, yet my closeness to it” (18).

York Railway Station

One particularly affecting section, or station, concerns Glynnis, the granddaughter who was burnt across sixty per cent of her body, who underwent thirty-five operations and eventually moved to the UK – “because the African sun was too hard on her skin” – where she worked in “agterkamertjies”, in back rooms out of the public eye.  When Lewin’s cousin runs into her by chance, it leads to Glynnis passing on a message: that at least she has been granted the certainty that all her friends like her for who she is, and not how she looks.  “It is a certainty, said Glynnis, that is not given to everybody” (19).  But this statement of a kind of triumph over adversity holds little meaning for the narrator, who conflates the PC monitor on which he reads it with a very different kind of screen memory:

I stare at my cousin’s words in the email on the computer screen.  And I read them and I read them and I read them.  The screen has become the perspex window of the visiting room in prison.  I can’t hear any meaning.  The words exist in a different world.
I cannot reach them. (19)

The prison image takes us back to Lewin’s earlier memoir, Bandiet, one of the most accomplished and affecting texts from a large and grim South African literary sub-canon; its depiction of Pretoria’s “hanging jail” is unforgettable. In being so descriptively textured and alert to the micro-routines that make up incarceration, Bandiet is also very different to this latest work. The prose of Stones against the Mirror is so clipped, the sentences and sections so short, that at first I found it difficult to sustain any kind of affective relationship with the writing. As the book approaches its conclusion, though, it seems that this economy is less a stylistic tic than a way of managing the extreme personal difficulty of the material: a holding pattern for the intense weight of emotion and memory which the prose must work through.

As someone interested in the growing influence and popularity of “literary” or “creative” non-fiction in South African letters (rather inadequate labels for those diverse strands of writing which, as Duncan Brown puts it, make their meanings “at the unstable fault line of the literary and the journalistic, the imaginative and the reportorial”) I have been interested to read the various treatments of the ARM alongside each other. What are the possibilities and limits of each given genre or mode?  What is it that each can or cannot say?

On first encountering Leftwich’s apologia in Granta, “I Gave the Names”, I found it extremely convincing. Read without knowledge of the backstory, and simply as a kind of rhetorical performance, it seemed virtually unanswerable. Looking back, the writer struggles to give a clear profile of his motives, but is able to detect “a fatal mixture” in them; without realizing what he was doing, he “slipped into a kind of danger for which [he] was neither suited nor prepared”:

In the gulf that opened up between my reach and my limits, between my knowledge and my self-ignorance, between my fantasies and my capacities, I crashed. It did not happen privately, but publicly and in full view of everyone who knew me. (11)

In Lewin’s memoir, the narrator gives his own reaction to the piece, a reaction that is ambivalent and hard to read. One senses perhaps a kind of misgiving that (such is the slipperiness of the mode) it represents too perfect a confession. For what happens when someone, like a character out of Dostoevsky, begins to take a kind of pleasure in their own disgrace, or at least a pride in articulating it so unflinchingly? The suspicions seem to be compounded precisely by the fact that “I Gave the Names” was widely praised; that it appeared in a foreign literary journal and was acclaimed far beyond its immediate context.

Having Googled the piece, Lewin finds that it even served as the inspiration for an installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale by an artist from the Philipines, Miljohn Ruperto. In it, Leftwich’s words were flashed onto an LCD screen, allowing participants to read the essay aloud through the microphone. The work is accompanied by the kind of explanatory art-theory jargon that comes as standard at such international gatherings: the participant is able to “embody” and “enact” the limits of the confessional by sharing and occupying “the space of the transgressor”.  “Oh well. Who’d have thought?” Lewin remarks, wryly (184). Finally, though Leftwich’s piece spurs him to make contact again, one senses that the few, commonplace phrases they exchange after meeting again on the station platform are worth more than the finely wrought apologia.

Finally, this highly abbreviated, even cryptic work suggested to me that many difficult narratives from South Africa’s past ask for a kind of cross-reading where different genres and forms are read in counterpoint. The form of Lewin’s memoir itself registers this pull towards multivalence and blurred genres: it is in effect a string of short prose experiments, poems, quoted letters and emails, epigraphs and self-conscious meditations on the very process of telling stories. In the epilogue, he quotes some advice given to him during a period of writer’s block by fellow bandiet Harold “Jock” Strachan. Setting the act of artistic shaping (and aesthetic pleasure) against mere “archival truth”, it is a passage that ends things on a lighter note, but also makes one think harder about what exactly it is that the “literary” in “literary non-fiction” might come to mean:

You don’t in fact have any material other than your own recollections, and what you’re suffering from is a lack of confidence; so why not get in there, my china…chisel at the form as does a poet, in tranquillity, get the utmost compression from the fewest words, make technique and style as important as content?

The risk otherwise is of falling into archival truth. Nothing wrong with that, of course; it’s an honourable moral compulsion, but it’s not what literature is made of.  I mean, nobody wants to read it.  Literature is not a court record.

All power to your pen, comrade. Throw caution to the winds! I mean what are you afraid of? Disrepute? You already have a criminal record.  (187)

Works cited

Beresford, David.  Truth is a Strange Fruit: A Personal Journey through the Apartheid War. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2010.

Brown, Duncan and Antjie Krog.  “Creative Non-Fiction: A Conversation” (2011). Available online at

Daniels, Eddie.  There and Back: Robben Island 1964-1979. Bellville: Mayibuye Books, 1998.

Driver, C. J.  Elegy for a Revolutionary [1969]. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Fugard, Athol. “Orestes. An Experiment in Theatre as described in a Letter to an American friend”, in My Children! My Africa! and selected shorter plays, ed. Stephen Gray. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1990, 115-126.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Late Bourgeois World [1966].  London: Penguin, 1982.

Leftwich, Adrian.  “I Gave the Names”, Granta 78: Bad Company.  London: Granta, 2002, 9-31.

Lewin, Hugh.  Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison [1974].  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Bandiet Out of Jail. With illustrations by Harold “Jock” Strachan. Johannesburg: Random House, 2002.

Stones Against the Mirror. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011.

Sachs, Albie.  Stephanie on Trial. London: Harvill Press, 1968.