My betrayer, my friend

15 April 2013 - 13:10 By Hugh Lewin
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Hugh Lewin and Adrian Leftwich, the 1960s student leader who died recently of lung cancer, were close friends.

That friendship was shattered by Leftwich turning state witness in the African Resistance Movement trials of 1964. More than 40 years later, it was finally restored. This is an edited extract from Lewin's book Stones against the Mirror, which won the 2012 Sunday Times Alan Paton award

My closest friend was Adrian. We met as students. We never lived in the same town, but we worked together as activists and then as undergrounders through four, maybe five, precarious years. I grew to think of him as my twin brother.

That was more than 40 years ago. My dearest friend, he said of me. Like twins, I said. But that was before my trial - and the bomb at Park Station, Johannesburg.

On a wintry July day in 1964, Adrian was detained by the security police in Cape Town. Five days later they picked me up in Johannesburg. He had given my name. A few months later he was a state witness in the trial that sent me to prison for seven years for anti-apartheid sabotage. We were both 25 years old.

Now I'm arriving at another railway station, in another country. I have travelled a whole lifetime of not wanting to meet Adrian again. Convinced that we never would. Never could.

But that's what I've been writing about. Trying to describe where we came from, how we got involved. And it's because of the writing - bumping into him again, as it were - that I have asked him if we can meet. He has agreed. So here I am, on the express train from London, arriving soon in York.

I'm still not sure I can go through with it. I've seen a recent photograph of him with the same enigmatic smile, but will we recognise each other? I've prepared a long list of questions, but will I ask them?

The train's beginning to slow down. It's a long way from Park Station ...

It has taken a long time to get back to Adrian. I start trying to measure the time that has separated us. It does not measure easily.

In my worst times, I thought to measure the difference: my time inside versus Adrian's time outside. How long he'd been on the loose while I'd been cooped up in a cage. Slowly, it began to even out, beginning to go in my favour, with only three years left for me, then two, then one - and then the balance changed completely and, in no time at all, my time inside was gone, finished. Then it was his turn to begin pushing time and I reckoned his sentence could never end as easily as mine had done - if it ended at all.

Now, as the English countryside skims past, I find myself thinking about our friendship from the point where it ended, rather than where it began.

After prison, when I began my new life as an exile in England, there were times when I wondered where Adrian was, but I did not seek him out. Once, I refused to present a paper at a conference because I thought he might be there. He wasn't, but I'm sure I would have left immediately if he had been. It was simple: he had made his choice and I could see no way of there being any reconciliation between us. It became a matter of pride: he had bought his freedom by giving our names and testifying and - as the struggle continued, with regular numbers being imprisoned back home - his long-ago actions helped define for me my own identity.

In later years, I thought about Adrian less and less. But when I did, it was with bitterness and anger, rolled together. Still, I told myself that I was becoming indifferent, that I could let go because I was free. Yet the more I experienced the reality of outside, the more I was brought face to face with what I'd missed by being in prison - and Adrian came to symbolise the difference ...

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The testimonies of women. Their voices dominate my memory of those years. Staunch and proud, they told their stories, talking not of themselves, but of their husbands and sons and fathers. The women who had borne the brunt of the oppression and who now came to tell of the pain of others. They made only one demand: that the bones of their loved ones should be brought home.

"Bring back the bones so that we know where they are."

What about revenge or compensation or justice? "There's no point in seeking revenge. I forgive them because not doing so will not help me in any way."

"What can the commission do for you?" we asked the witnesses. "Nothing," they replied, "just bring us back their bones - and let them tell us why it happened. If we know why, then we can understand. It is not a question of forgiveness, it is a question of knowing."

I wanted to discover how to stop the hating and I also wanted to know why things had happened the way they had ... I needed to get inside Adrian's head, to try to unravel what he had been feeling and thinking all those years ago.

It turned out to be easier than I expected.

In June 2002, Adrian published a piece in Granta magazine. He called it I Gave the Names. I later discovered it had taken him 15 years to write the essay - the same period of time that Eddie [Daniels, also a member of the African Resistance Movement] had been on the Island.

Adrian's Granta piece was acclaimed. Readers spoke about his honesty and the power of his prose. I wasn't sure how I would take it. I expected it would make me angry and that I would then brush the anger aside and feign my usual indifference.

But that's not what happened. I Gave the Names affected me deeply. It was as if I'd been waiting for it for years: this explanation, which didn't duck any responsibility.

In the piece, Adrian describes the "curtain of fear" flapping in the wind: an image that captures the essence of his "terminal terror" - the terror of his own extinction, which drove him, he says, to betray his friends ...

I was reading his article at home in Johannesburg and something shifted inside me. It was not a road-to-Damascus moment, but I knew that something had changed. I realised that I had grown used to clinging to Adrian's guilt - or what I saw as his guilt. The situation was not so much about him as it was about me. By focusing on his guilt, I could avoid acknowledging my own lack of self-understanding. If I forgave him, if I laid down my anger, what would define me?

I decided to try to contact him. I realised that this process would not necessarily be easy: in an e-mail world, contact would be instantaneous and it would be difficult to retract, because to ask the question ("Can we meet?") was already a decision and a commitment.

It was, indeed, frighteningly simple. I googled and e-mailed - and Adrian replied immediately, saying that he'd like to meet. So, it was fixed: we would meet. We agreed on a date, some months ahead, in his home town, York.

We did not begin any discussions across the oceans, just a few brief e-mails to confirm the dates. I began drawing up a list of questions to raise when we met, aiming to fill all the gaps, to answer all the imponderables. The list became so long that one day I just abandoned it.

The doubts kept surfacing. Could I go through with it? Did I want to go through with it? The pot hadn't been stirred for years, so was there any point in stirring it now? What did I want from the encounter?

"What do you want from the commission?"

"Give us back the bones, so that we can know."

I wanted to discover what had happened to both of us. Give me back the bones.

  • Lewin's book is published by Umuzi
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