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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

Stones against the Mirror is a must read


Isaac Ndlovu - 2011-09-06

Title: Stones against the Mirror. Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle.
Author: Hugh Lewin
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415201480
Price: R180.00

Click here to buy an electronic copy from Kalahari.net.



Although written some 36 years later, Hugh Lewin’s Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle (2011) can be read as a sequel to his award-winning autobiographical prison narrative Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison (1974). The traumatic years that he eloquently and graphically chronicles in Bandiet continue to be the defining experience of his existence. He writes: “Long after completing my seven-year stay in Pretoria Local, I am still haunted by prison ... It remains the touchstone of my existence” (184). Lewin calls himself a storyteller trying to describe his own mythologies, and yet in doing so finds himself trespassing on the stories of others. Borrowing from the penal jargon he writes: “I play the judge. I pass sentence. I build word upon word, sentence upon sentence; I’m building a prison of sentences whose corridors echo with voices not my own” (40). This suggests that Lewin is still caught within the prison logic and that writing this story was as painful as the seven years he spent behind bars.

Whereas Bandiet chronicles the time spent in prison, Stone against the Mirror relates the road leading to prison and the difficult journey of rebuilding one’s life after prison trauma. Among other things, Lewin’s book is a meditation on what activism against anti-apartheid meant back then and what activism means now. With the benefit of hindsight, the words of John Lloyd, one of Lewin’s friend who turned state witness during their sabotage trial and betrayed his colleagues, are much more meaningful. He compared activism to sleepwalking. Commenting on this analogy, Lewin writes: “Like a dream, [activism] had its excitement and, often, its resemblance to reality. Yet all too often it remained a fantasy, removed from reality and therefore without proper coherence, and with no informed understanding or ideology” (108). This is a sobering assessment of activism from one who was and still is immersed in it!

The book is also a moving confessional tale about a series of betrayals involving members of an obscure whites only anti-apartheid movement, the African Resistance Movement (ARM), of which Lewin was a prominent member. Although the story is one man’s search for “self-knowledge about his own limits” (183) it can also be viewed as an allegory of the apartheid and post-apartheid states. The connection of the personal and the larger national story is elaborated on in section V of the narrative titled, “Truth and Reconciliation”. Lewin calls the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) South Africa’s attempt at redressing past injustices through revealing the stories of the victims of the grievous human rights violations perpetuated under apartheid. The demand of one TRC female witness that she see the killers of her son before she can forgive them mirrors Lewin’s own failure to forgive Adrian, his best friend, who turned traitor. Not only was Lewin a member of one of the committees of the TRC, but he had the occasion of meeting, and in a way confronting, one of his former captors and interrogators during his 1964 arrest; the then Special Branch Lieutenant Johannes Viktor who eventually retired with the rank of brigadier-general. Lewin presents this moment as one of the highlights of his long journey to coming to terms with his traumatic past. In a self-congratulatory tone he writes: “I stared at him a moment ... I’d done it. I’d broken out of his web of fear. The terror was gone. He no longer had control” (171). In a way, this is one of the aims of the narrative. It is meant to provide a healing to wounds that were inflicted almost 40 years ago when Lewin was betrayed by Adrian. The narrative is a quest for knowledge and a difficult journey to purging bitterness of betrayal. He writes: “Bitterness has clung to me like armour. I do not know how I will feel without it, but I can no longer be the guardian of my friend’s guilt” (102).

The bulk of the narrative is a meditation on how Adrian, Hugh Lewin’s best friend, fellow student activist during their university days in the early 1960s, best man at his wedding, and the man who recommended his recruitment to ARM, subsequently betrayed him and many others to the Special Branch of the South African apartheid police. The narrative opens with the dramatic and emphatic statement: “My closest friend was Adrian” (9). Lewin goes on to call Adrian his “twin brother” (9), and in turn Adrian called Lewin his “dearest friend” (9). In trying to understand Adrian’s motives for betraying him Lewin comes to the shocking realisation that he also betrayed others. One of Lewin’s friends put it succinctly: “Hugh Lewin betrayed me. I betrayed Hugh Lewin” (135). Lewin exclaims: “The murkiness of betrayal, indeed” (135). Lewin candidly admits: “I knew we would all eventually do what Adrian was doing. We all did the same eventually … A whole line of induced betrayals, especially by those closest to us” (98-99).

John Harris, the man who set the bomb that killed a person and maimed many others in 1964 at Park Station in Johannesburg, had been recruited into ARM by Lewin. Although Lewin was already in prison by the time Harris decided on his own to perform this dramatic bombing, Lewin comes to the realisation that he is inextricably implicated in Harris’s actions. Before he was executed, John Harris himself put it this way: “There are no innocents” (114). This is a powerful observation because it does not implicate only those who were perceived as terrorists but a lot of South Africans at the time as well. The apartheid state was surely not innocent. But neither was the white electorate that acquiesced with the regime and all those who chose to turn a blind eye to the regime’s excesses while benefiting from its actions. Lewin makes this statement emphatically: “Of course [John Harris] wasn’t crazy – no crazier than the whole society was crazy, enmeshed in its politics of oppression and discrimination” (112).

As my brief review has shown, Lewin’s Stone against the Mirror is a must read. It is not just another autobiography, but a veritable study of the autobiographical genre, and an incisive exposé of the logic that still animates the post-apartheid state. It is a self-conscious narrative which questions the very modes of its operation. Lewin writes: “It’s been a struggle, writing about the Struggle” (187). He is very much aware that the autobiography’s claim to truth does not please everyone. He observes: “Some will feel I’ve said too much; others that I haven’t said enough” (187). Yet, many others may claim that Lewin’s memory betrayed him. Lewin’s response to these dangers and disquieting thoughts raised by the autobiography are words of his friend, Jackson Pollock, who observes that literature is not an archive of truth and a court record. Lewin’s book is indeed “the utmost compression from the fewest words” (187).