A glimpse into the old South Africa

During my recent visit to South Africa I had supper with an old school friend, Hugh Lewin. He was the son of an Anglican priest and, although he was in my brother’s class two years ahead of me, I knew him fairly well as he was in my house, we sang in the choir together and he holidayed in my home town, Amanzimtoti, which is just south of Durban on the KwaZulu/Natal coast. Hugh became a much respected prefect in our boarding house and was universally popular. Our Johannesburg school was founded and heavily influenced by the Community of the Resurrection and, as Hugh wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Anglican priest, he was invited by Father Trevor Huddleston to be a frequent visitor to the Community’s base in Sophiatown which, in 1956, was still an African “township”. Soon afterwards the government designated Sophiatown a white area and the black Africans were forcibly moved further from central Johannesburg to places like Alexandria and Soweto which were black areas. While visiting Sophiatown, Hugh confronted the poverty, suffering and frustration of the black people who had to live and stagnate under apartheid.

As he had been brought up to believe that all were equal in the eyes of God, he felt a powerful need to do something which would alter the inequality in his country. At Rhodes University he joined the non-racial Liberal Party and, in his own words, “worked hard” for non-racial causes “but my efforts seemed puny and hopeless”. After university he became a journalist as he did not feel ready for the priesthood. It was then, in his early twenties, that he was approached to join a secret sabotage group called the “National Committee for Liberation”. This went against all his instincts as he was opposed to any form of violence but he joined for three reasons. The first was that all peaceful means of opposition had been prohibited in some form or other. The second, was that he had come to the conclusion that only some form of extremist act would shock white South Africans into realising the iniquities of apartheid and, third, because he was assured that the sabotage would not endanger any human life. Anyway he participated in three acts of sabotage involving electric pylons over the next eighteen months before he was arrested, brutally interrogated and jailed for seven years. He was 24. In fact it took five months from his arrest until he was sentenced and, as that was not taken into consideration, he effectively served seven and a half years. Political prisoners did not qualify for remission and when he was released on his 32nd bithday he was given four days to leave the country. Failing that, he would have been put under 24 hour house arrest. He left.

In 1974 he wrote “Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison” but, because friends were still serving their sentence, he had to choose his words with caution. He rewrote it as “Bandiet out of Jail” which was published by Random House in 2002 and this edition includes a fuller account of that horrific time. It is well worth reading.

This edition also includes some subsequent poems which give a glimpse into the impact of those terrible years in his life. With Hugh’s permission, I include one below.


When I get out
I’m going to ask someone
          to touch me
            very gently please
           and slowly,
          touch me
I want
          to learn again
          how life feels.

I’ve not been touched
for seven years
           for seven years
           I’ve been untouched out of touch
           and I’ve learnt
           to know now
           the meaning
           of untouchable.

Untouched – not quite
I can count the things
           that have touched me.

One: fists
At the beginning
           fierce mad fists
           beating beating
           till I remember
           don’t touch me
           please don’t touch me.

Two: paws
The first four years of paws
            every day
            patting paws, searching
            – arms up, shoes off
            legs apart –
            prodding paws, systematic
            heavy, indifferent
            probing away
            all privacy.

I don’t want fists and paws
I want
            to want to be touched
            and to touch.
            I want to feel alive
I want to say
            when I get out
Here I am
please touch me.

Peter Lapping