Betrayal and forgiveness

2011-05-25 00:00

FROM the intriguing title to the very last page of his book, author Hugh Lewin weaves a powerful tale, showing a master craftsman at work. There is the measured yet artful way he chooses words, the imagery he invokes and the honesty with which he bares his soul.

All of this combines into a deeply moving memoir involving a fascinating cast of characters.

Lewin was a political activist and member of the African Resistance Movement (ARM) who was imprisoned in the sixties for sabotage. He wrote about his prison years in his award-winning book Bandiet — awarded the 2003 Olive Schreiner Prize for writing.

From that earlier work it was clear that he struggled with the fact that he was in jail because of the betrayal of a friend who gave in under pressure of the security police or who had valued his freedom more.Just how deep that betrayal cuts is laid bare in Stones Against the Mirror.

Lewin’s Judas was his closest friend, Adrian Leftwich.

Years later, Leftwich wrote about his betrayal in an article in Granta magazine under the headline: “I gave the names”.

After serving time as a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Lewin witnesses different levels of betrayal and forgiveness, and comes to question whether it is time to break down the walls of his self-imposed prison.

In an interview he once said: “Betrayal is a many sided thing that creates a prison of its own nature in your mind. I needed to move beyond the bitterness, but I did not know how I would feel without it.”

The struggle to break down those self­-imposed prison walls is the essence of his book.

Lewin explores his life and upbringing, trying to understand what made him a revolutionary and whether under torture, he too would succumb and sell out his friends.

This opens up one of the most fascinating layers of Lewin’s tale — his friendship with John Harris, the first white man to be hanged in apartheid South Africa, for planting a bomb at Johannesburg’s Park Station.

The explosion led to 23 people being badly injured, one of whom, a grandmother, later died from her injuries.

Harris is a forgotten figure in South Africa’s struggle history and Lewin brings him to life, painting a picture of who he was and the circumstances that could have led him to carry that bomb in a suitcase to the station on that fateful day.

Trains and stations form the imagery that runs through the book and like the network of railway tracks that go out in different directions, but ultimately come together, Lewin pulls the tracks of his story to an ending that leaves you pondering over a powerful piece of prose and a myriad of thoughts it provokes.

A journalist and subeditor, Lewin once worked at The Natal Witness. He also worked on Drum and Golden City Post.

On being released from prison he went into exile, returning to South Africa after 1992. He became the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism.

Like many journalists, I attended some of his enjoyable courses, in which he shared his love and passion for writing, and always left you believing that you too could one day be a good writer.

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