Hugh Lewin, who provided a unique voice on the South African story over many decades as militant, prisoner, journalist, author and much else, has died in Johannesburg at the age of 79.
Lewin is perhaps best known for two books that arose from his early involvement in the anti-apartheid underground. Bandiet, Seven years in a South African Prison, which has been described as a remarkable piece of prison literature, and Stones against the Mirror, published decades later, in which he describes grappling with the betrayal of the man whose testimony sent him to jail.
But his poetry, his children’s books and his work in publishing and the training of journalists and refugees leave as big a legacy. An outpouring of tributes has greeted news of his death. He has been called “an incredible writer and courageous soldier” by President Cyril Ramaphosa. and “a courageous stalwart” by Lord Peter Hain.
I first encountered him when he ran the small publishing house Baobab Books in Zimbabwe. Later I worked with him at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, and will mainly remember his gentle humour, a sharp intellect that was never cutting, his ability to listen and his concern for others. It made him a great friend and outstanding teacher and mentor to many.
I will also remember the quiet dignity with which he dealt with his gradually failing health over the past decade, cared for by his partner Fiona Lloyd. His wit was still on clear display when I saw him just about a week before his death, despite frailty and struggling with the words that were his life – “I keep bumping against empty sentences,” he had previously said.
Lewin was born in the small town of Lydenburg in 1939 into an Anglican missionary family. He studied at Rhodes University before entering journalism at the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg.
He was quickly drawn into anti-apartheid politics of an increasingly radical kind, and got involved in the National Committee of Liberation, later renamed as the African Resistance Movement. This group of activists grew out of the Liberal Party and embarked on a campaign of sabotage of infrastructure targets, which it carried out between 1961 and 1964.
In July 1964, Lewin, then 24, was sentenced to jail for seven years for sabotage. He served this time in Pretoria Central prison, where he kept notes of his experiences in his Bible. After his release, he left the country on a “permanent departure permit”, to begin life as an exile in London.
Bandiet was published during this time. It manages both to provide harrowing detail of life in an apartheid jail and to use prison as a metaphor for the system as a whole. Reviewer Daniel Roux described the book as deserving, “its place in the global canon of prison writing”. Roux called it an,
understated, elegant and honest memoir that resists self-pity and self-glamorisation, and shows in careful detail what it feels like to drop out of one reality and to enter a completely different world.
Long banned in South Africa, the book was republished in 2002 as Bandiet – out of jail, including additional later material.
His family remember an additional result of the prison years: his skill at sewing, from sewing mailbags in jail. His stitching was apparently large but very neat.
During 10 years in London, he worked as a journalist and for the International Defence and Aid Fund, a support organisation for anti-apartheid causes.
Another 10 years of exile followed, this time in Zimbabwe, where he worked as publisher and wrote a series of children’s stories, the Jafta series, whose simple narratives spoke to the ordinary reality of Southern African children.
Hugh returned to South Africa in 1992 and began work at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the institution founded by Allister Sparks to train journalists for the new democracy.
He served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission before returning to the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in 1998 as its executive director. It was during this time that he was involved in the early initiatives that led to the establishment of the journalism programme at Wits University.
But processing of the traumatic events of his youth was clearly not complete, and after retiring from the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, he worked on the memoir that became Stones against the Mirror. Published in 2011, the book deals with a friendship that ended in betrayal. Adrian Leftwich was the man who gave his name to the security police and testified against him in court, and the book describes Lewin’s 40-year search for some kind of resolution.
South African author Nadine Gordimer wrote about the book:
There have been many accounts of life in the active struggle against the apartheid regime but this one is a fearless exploration into the deepest ground – the personal moral ambiguity of betrayal under brutal interrogation.
It won the Alan Paton Award in 2012 – one of many honours he has received.
During these later years, Lewin also continued his involvement in training, travelling to the Myanmar border to work with refugees with his partner Fiona Lloyd. However, failing health made this more and more difficult.
Lewin leaves his partner, two daughters from an earlier marriage and three grandchildren.
During the massacre of Igbos in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970, one to three million people died. In the decades since, writers have worked to make sense of the immense human tragedy.
These literary representations of the massacres use the Holocaust as an important point of reference.
The war in Nigeria, with its associated mass atrocities, is arguably one of the first major moments in postcolonial Africa when accusations of genocide were made. Following military coups in Nigeria in 1966, the military and ethnic extremists systematically targeted and killed Igbos across the then Northern and Western regions of Nigeria.
Massacres of Igbos and other Easterners across the country led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions.
The massacres led the Eastern Region of Nigeria to declare its secession from Nigeria. The region was renamed the republic of Biafra. Nigeria invaded Biafra in July 1967, leading to a protracted war. The federal government used starvation tactics which led to upwards of three million civilian deaths in Biafra. Biafra officially surrendered to Nigeria in January 1970.
After its genocidal war, the Nigerian government proceeded to engineer a culture of denial.
To counter that propaganda, writers reflecting on that past have often framed the war as genocide. A common feature in the writings is the comparison of Igbo experiences of atrocities to Jewish ones during the Holocaust.
The Holocaust as cultural icon of genocide
During the Biafran War, U.S.-based Igbo poet, Onwuchekwa Jemie, compared the murder of Igbos in Nigeria to the Nazi German murder of Jews during the Second World War. His poem, “Requiem” (from his 1970 poetry collection, Biafra: Requiem for the Dead in War) reflects this:
Once in 53 Three times in 66 Nigerians shoot civilians through the ears rehearsing all known tortures murdering all males and raping old women forcing teenage girls in leper clinics hundreds butchered… the 30,000 innocents mowed down Nazi fashion a final solution that failed again.
In “Requiem,” Jemie catalogues the systematic persecutions and murders of Igbo civilians, which he considers similar to the Nazis’ “final solution.”
The lines “a final solution / that failed again” encapsulate the poet’s defiant view that Biafra will survive the genocidal onslaught from Nigeria.
Global history scholar Lasse Heerten has explained in his work on Biafra, that such comparisons of Igbo suffering to the Nazi genocide of Jews reveal the growing awareness of the Holocaust in African conflict zones at the time.
The comparison of Igbo suffering to the Holocaust offers a way for the writers to internationalize Igbo experience in Nigeria. In so doing, they are sharing a moral message about the universal condition of human cruelty.
The cruel human condition
Similarly, the 1971 poem “Vultures” by Chinua Achebe reflects on the troubling realization that humans possess simultaneously a capacity for human care and a vulture’s inhumane savagery. The poet imagines a Nigerian military commander as a vulture and compares him to the Commandant of the Nazis’ death camp at Belsen:
Thus the Commandant at Belsen Camp going home for the day with fumes of human roast clinging rebelliously to his hairy nostrils will stop at the wayside sweetshop and pick up a chocolate for his tender offspring waiting at home for Daddy’s return…
Achebe’s reference to the Holocaust evokes the Nazi death camps as a site of savagery: “fumes of / human roast.” He seems to be alluding to Paul Celan’s 1948 poem, “Death Fugue,” which describes the cremation of Jewish victims in the Nazi camps as a “grave in the sky.”
Reference to the Holocaust in Achebe’s poem provides a way to meditate on the ironic condition of human cruelty.
Another writer who used the Holocaust as a metaphor for moralizing about the human condition is Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who was jailed for his attempts to mediate between Biafra and Nigeria. His 1972 prison memoir The Man Died expresses his frustration over the unending cycles of brutality and the pattern of genocidal murders taking place in Nigeria. Soyinka’s other books, plays and poems on the 1966-1970 crisis equally draw on the Holocaust as a way to comment on cruelty.
‘And the World Has Remained Silent’
Such comparison between Igbo suffering and the Holocaust intending to convey a moral message on human condition can be found in several other writings, including Flora Nwapa’s Never Again, Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004), Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasy novels, Who Fears Death (2010) and The Book of Phoenix (2015), and notably too in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).
In Half of a Yellow Sun, there are several instances comparing the experiences of Igbos to those of Jews under the Nazis.
For example, the title of the character Ugwu’s story, ‘The World Was Silent When We Died,’ echoes the original Yiddish title of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, (“And the World Has Remained Silent”).
Universalize can also mean generalize
I believe these literary analogies between Jewish and Igbo experiences have helped to make the atrocities public and known. However, these analogies can also overwhelm the particulars of the Nigerian context of the crisis.
Because the political contexts of such historical mass atrocities being compared vary significantly, these comparisons may come at the cost of our understanding of genocide in African states. Both African and European historical contexts within which these atrocities occurred may become de-territorialized and depoliticized.
In the meantime, local suppression of political questions of Igbo self-determination and justice in the war’s aftermath remain unaddressed.