South Africa

Hugh Lewin (1939 — 2019)

Farewell to a modest giant of the revolution

Farewell to a modest giant of the revolution
Hugh Lewin (supplied)

South Africa is mourning the loss of Hugh Lewin, a giant of the liberation struggle. A gentle, self-deprecating giant, aged 79, who never sought the limelight.

Hugh Lewin was described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as “an incredible writer and courageous soldier”. Lewin’s jailmate Paul Trewhela wrote: “He sought for no high office, and never trumpeted his name. He always did what he thought was right, no matter what the cost.”

Born in 1939 to Anglican missionary parents in Lydenburg, Hugh initially wanted to be a priest – perhaps influenced by his boyhood mentor, Trevor Huddleston. But soon after his arrival at Rhodes University, he became embroiled in student politics, together with fellow black students from neighbouring Fort Hare, and my activist aunt, Josephine Stocks.

After graduating, he honed his journalistic skills at The Natal Witness, Drum and Golden City Post. Like my parents, his close friends Adelaine and Walter Hain, he became a member of the South African Liberal Party, by then the only legal non-racial political party in the country, following the banning of Mandela’s ANC.

Frustrated at the ruthless police state repression, Hugh joined the clandestine African Resistance Movement (ARM) and embarked on a sabotage campaign targeting government installations like electricity pylons.

ARM members were soon arrested after the police discovered its entire cell structure and its plans at the Cape Town flat of the national organiser, Adrian Leftwich, also a prominent liberal. Best man at Lewin’s wedding, Leftwich turned state witness to convict him at his 1964 trial, as did his close friend and co-conspirator, John Lloyd.

Lewin told the judge: “I was terrified. Instinctively I was opposed to any form of violence and I knew that I was not suitable for the active role I was being asked to play … (but) I thought that sabotage might shock the whites into an awareness of the conditions under which blacks were living and, in due time, change the system. The motive was to shock, not to injure.” He was sentenced to seven years in jail.

With typical modesty, he later described his prison sentence as “a parking ticket” compared to the much longer jail terms of the Robben Islanders like Nelson Mandela. But he was seriously tortured, beaten regularly, constantly intimidated, and subjected to the pettiest cruelties. Like other white “politicals” he was pilloried for betraying white volk.

But Lewin’s spirit remained undaunted. He kept a secret diary, writing between the lines of his Bible in the minute, almost-invisible pencil.

Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg remembers: “He sang beautifully in his baritone voice to entertain our prisoner group and was a great actor in our Christmas concerts, singing revolutionary songs with communist tenor Eli Weinberg. The red flag and the Internationale were as much part of his repertoire as liberal songs out of the US Christian movement. He really contributed to building our unity.”

I was then in exile in Britain leading the 1969-70 demonstrations to disrupt and stop whites-only Springbok rugby and cricket tours. There was a news blackout in prison, but a delighted Lewin heard about the campaign and that “bastard traitor” Peter Hain from his furious warders.

Following his release in 1971, Lewin left South Africa for London on a one-way exit permit, and immediately started transforming his secret jail diary into Bandiet. It was a book hailed as a classic in prison writing, containing a heart-wrenching poem Touch, about being tactile, which prison forbade.

The sequel, Bandiet – Out of Jail, published only when it was safe to do so after apartheid had ended, won the 2003 Olive Schreiner Prize. In its foreword, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Hugh Lewin went through sheer hell and emerged, not devastated, not broken and not consumed with bitterness or lust for revenge. He is endowed with ubuntu – the very essence of being human.”

Lewin spent 10 years in London, working at The Guardian and for the International Defence & Aid Fund and was active in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. He also started writing his much-loved Jafta children’s books about a little boy growing up in an African village.

Less publicised was the key role he played in the publication of Steve Biko’s iconic I Write What I Like. Biko’s biographer Xolela Mangcu commented: “Lewin was not one to go on the rooftops to shout about how he had contributed to the production of that seminal book, but those of us who were influenced by Biko’s ideas will be forever indebted to him.”

When Zimbabwe gained independence, Lewin moved to Harare with his then-wife, and former solicitor in prison, Pat Davidson, and two small daughters. He felt it would be “closer to home”. There he trained a new generation of journalists, and co-founded Baobab Books for many emerging Zimbabwean writers who went on to achieve global success.

Following his return to South Africa in 1993, he headed the new Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and served on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In 2012 he won the prestigious Alan Paton award for Stones Against the Mirror: a soul-searching beautifully crafted masterpiece about friendship and betrayal in the liberation struggle.

In his final years, Lewin lived with Lewy Body Dementia, navigating this with typical courage, selflessly cared for by his journalist partner of 30 years Fiona Lloyd.

Hugh Lewin, born 3 December 1939, and died on 16 January 2019, is survived by his partner Fiona Lloyd, and daughters Thandi and Tessa. DM

A version of this obituary was first published in The Guardian


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