An untold story of forgiveness

rof. Jonathan Jansen (pic courtesy Timeslive)

Written by Jonathan Jansen

This is by far the best book written and published in 2011, and I would be very surprised if it did not win the Alan Paton award for non-fiction in 2012.

It is a story that challenges the dominant narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle - that of evil white against good black, of the wicked apartheid system against noble warriors, of clear-cut perpetrators against defenceless victims.

I speak, of course, of Hugh Lewin's astounding new book titled Stones Against the Mirror, in which he tells the most touching story of two intimate friends who decide to join the fight against apartheid in the 1960s.

It is a story of friendship and betrayal between a larger group of white friends, but especially of the bonds between Lewin and his bosom friend, Adrian Leftwich.

They befriend another white man, John Harris, who breaks with their agreed strategy of armed resistance (no harm to human beings) and in 1964 places a bomb at Park Station, Johannesburg, killing an old woman and injuring others. For this Harris becomes the first white man to be executed by the apartheid regime.

The friends are rounded up by the police and tortured mercilessly, even though they knew nothing about the bomb decision by Harris. In fact, some of them were already in detention at the time of the fatal bombing.

For hours, days and nights on end, the torture continues with a terrible racist slant heaping the worst kind of bigotry on those suspected of the crime of being Jewish or communist or k*****r boeties.

Familiar tyrants from South Africa's torture chambers emerge once again - Johannes Viktor, Lieutenant Van der Merwe, Craig Williamson and others; Viktor kicks John Harris in the face, breaking his jaw. Under a rain of torture, men break. Leftwich betrays his close friend Lewin, who is sentenced to prison. In exchange, Leftwich walks free to a normal life in England.

The story begins and ends with the decision by the two friends, after more than 40 years of anger and bitterness, on Lewin's side, and shame and guilt, on Leftwich's side, to seek the path of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Lewin starts the book with the train journey from London to New York for the meeting, and it seems to the reader as if the train will never reach its destination as the author takes a long detour between the first and the last pages through a relatively unknown part of our tragic history.

Much of our public, and recorded, history jumps from black resistance in Sharpeville in 1960 to Soweto in 1976, leaving untold - at least in depth and detail - that moment of madness around 1964 and its impact on white resistors to apartheid. In this sense Stones Against the Mirror enriches the pages of the recorded struggle history.

The train begins its difficult journey from London to New York. After more than 40 years, "the twins" meet on a train station, and a painful process of reconciliation begins.

"I am sorry for what I did in '64," says the betrayer.

"It was a long time ago," says the friend.

Both men are relieved of their misery, of anger and shame. Friends are restored.

There are tens of thousands of South Africans still bearing the terrible burden of anger and bitterness, among those hurt or betrayed, or the equally horrible burden of guilt and shame. What the beautiful story of these two old men demonstrates is that it is still possible to find forgiveness, healing and reconciliation before it's too late.

But what Lewin's story also reveals is how vulnerable we all were, and still are, during the trying days of struggle, and now. Under pressure, all of us, even those most committed to a noble idea, can break and betray our closest friends and family.

The evil of those who defended apartheid is easy to condemn, and we should. But the book shows how possible it was to cross the line between right and wrong, and between solidarity and betrayal.

If only our bold and brash politicians showed a little of this humility and vulnerability about the past. If only more friends and family divided during the struggle, on both sides, would find the courage to make peace with the violent past.

We might just become less angry and less combustible when faced with the terrors of the new South Africa.

(This story was provided and used with permission by Timeslive.)