Storytelling series B5, Modern yarns that convey Bible truths

  1. That’s not repentance –it is ego-preservation

If you are an American, July the 4ith is for you Independence Day – an occasion for national celebration. If you are British, it is more like Rebellion Day – to be ignored. But for me, Adrian Leftwich, an adopted Brit, July 4th 1964 is the day when – at the age of twenty-four my life in South Africa came to a sudden end. July 4th is a day I wish I could forget. .

I had been trying to change the world around me by active, but secret, political subversion – but I destroyed my own world because of my self-ignorance and fantasies.

Born into a liberal, Jewish, professional family – my father a quiet, much-loved doctor; my mother a part-time piano teacher, a charity worker and a bridge player; brought up during the stability of the 1940s and 50s in the tranquil beauty of the Cape I had a normal boyhood in a privileged, all-white, boys’ grammar school.

The Cape being exempt from the extremes of climate and politics characteristic of the rest of South Africa, I enjoyed a wonderful childhood.

But each time I travelled north to Jo’burg in the winter holidays to stay with cousins I was always struck by the vivid contrasts there:

[] the dry, frost-hardened brown veldt;

[]h the ugly squashing mine-dumps;

[] the violent city;

Throughout mt adolescence I developed a sense of outrage at how my fellow-South Africans were being treated under apartheid that had originated in those northern provinces of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that as soon as I entered university I became involved in student and national politics.


In the windy, foggy, midwinter dawn of July 4th 1964 I was woken by the security police, raiding and overcrowding my small flat.

[] They opened drawers and cupboards;

[] pulled books off shelves;

[] fingered their way through files;

[] rifled through papers;

[] read letters and checked addresses.

The raid was one of many conducted across the country that morning – as I later discovered. So far as I knew, the flat was ‘clean’. But, in fact, I had made a fundamental error that had earth-shattering repercussion for me and all my colleagues.

About two years previously, I had been recruited into the A.R.M. (African Resistance Movement), just one of its 40 or so active memberships nationwide. Its main purpose was to sabotage electricity pylons, but never to endanger human life.

Months before I had been given a document by our trainer in the use of explosives – of how to assess a target and attack it – typical of any elementary military handbook. I had hidden it in a book on one of my shelves and forgotten it. By pure chance the security man pulled that book out of my extensive library, glanced through it and handed it to Lieutenant Van Dyk, the well-known and much-feared member of the Capetown Special Branch. He flipped through it and added it to the pile of papers, books and an L.P. – after I had mumbles that it was ‘something I had found, but can’t remember where or when, as it didn’t seem important’.

But he noticed I’d begun to shiver. ‘Cold, hey?’ – the hunter smelled fear in his prey!

They let my girl-friend leave – so they could follow her and find where she would move her stock of my explosives from her flat and one involved.earby lock-up.

Now, in the ten to fifteen minutes they were gone I was unable to think. With the illusion of a child I told myself everything and everything terrible would happen. Time seemed suspended as I ritually washed and dressed around 7 a.m, that Saturday..

Suddenly they were back and I was detained in solitary confinement in a police cell, five feet by eight.

[] Grilled

For two days my confidence of release flapped back and forth like a curtain in a breeze, letting in waves of fear. I hoped news of my arrest would.enable colleagues in Capetown and Jo’burg to escape – in fact, only a few bothered do so.

On the third day I was marched from my cell and confronted with the contents of my girlfriend’s suitcase: explosives, detonators, wires, tools and documents. They wanted to know everything and everyone involved.

I am utterly ashamed to admit it, but as soon as Rossouw, the chief interrogator, took red rubber gloves from his desk drawer and began to punch me repeatedly in the stomach till I slid to the floor – more in shock than in pain – I started to talk.

Over the weeks, as they played the good-guy-bad-guy routine, slowly but surely I spilled the beans. I gave the names of colleagues – at first a few, hoping others would go to ground and escape as the few were arrested – then a few more and then more – Randolph Vigne, Eddie Daniels, Spike do Keller, Stephanie Kemp, Tony Trew, Mike Schneider and Alan Brookes. Then those of the Jo’burg wing whom I knew, including Hugh Lewin, one of my dearest friends. Most were quickly arrested.

Then, about three weeks after my arrest, John Harris planted a bomb in Jo’burg’s main railway station. Although a warning was given, it exploded before it could be found, killing a child and injuring twenty-three people.

Late that night van Dyk burst into my cell, white with rage, eyes bulging: ‘Twenty people have been killed in Johannesburg by one of your bombs. You effing Jew. Now you’ll hang ‘He believed I’d concealed John Harris’s name to allow the bombing to happen. But it had been our policy never to endanger human life.

For the rest of that night I could barely control a muscle, and shivered in terror till dawn. Under interrogation I poured out d just about everything I still knew.

Fighting to survive

I was to remain in solitary confinement for five months, but I was undone in the first two months – any remaining ability to resist dissolved that night. That night I also learned that at the root of every fear I had ever experienced was the impossible horror of my own extinction.

As a child, I did dangerous and stupid things:

[] climbed rock faces without ropes;

[] swam in treacherous currents;

[] rode bicycles without brakes in busy roads.

In early childhood:

[] I blew up pylons and dodged police patrols and felt excited.

But none of this implies bravery. It was false childish courage that comes from self-ignorance. Nothing ever felt life-threatening, so I never really understood fear – real fear. But now I truly understood

After three or four weeks I was moved to the local prison and, for a while, was held in one of the former death cells u– large, sunny and airy. Final messages by condemned men were scored into the walls, still visible despite many coats of institutional paint. One, in a corner near the door, read: ‘Why does man fear death but death fears no man?’

The weeks spent there only strengthened my longing to escape, whatever the cost.

Harris was found guilty and executed in Pretoria on April 1 1965. He went to the gallows singing ‘We shall overcome’.

I now realise that it was not the roughing up nor the solitary confinement nor the interrogation caused my collapse. It was the encounter with myself that brewed the acid that stripped me.

I gave evidence against my friends and colleagues at the trials of the Capetown and Jo’burg groups. Having been at the centre of the organisation, the evidence I gave was the most damaging. I told about recruitment, training, meetings, attacked on targets, who did what and where and when. Towards the end I broke down and wept.

Giving his verdict in the Capetown trial, a judge said: ‘To refer to you as a rat is hard on rats.’

Eight of the nine who were tried went to prison. Then the authorities kept their side of the filthy bargain, removing me from detention, and from South Africa, forever on New Year’s Day 1965 in the height of the southern summer.

The wasteland

Life was now a wasteland. Nothing remained of my many previous successes:

[] President of the national union of students;

[] active in the wide range of causes and committees;

[] a good speaker = energetic, courageous, and respected and expected to go far.

[] I had spoken out, marched, demonstrated and campaigned against every form of apartheid.;

[] I had helped raise scholarships k funds for black and brown students;

[] I had made illegal visits to black townships and colleges to forge links with the much more courageous students and activists there;

[] I’d been invited to conferences abroad;

[] I had criticised people for not standing up to be counted;

[] I had called for sacrifice;

[] I had led people to the expect things from me – and they did. People trusted me.

[] Increasingly my involvement in A.R.M. had urged action and more action.

[] I successfully recruited more volunteers.

But I had suppressed my fears about what I was doing, and entirely failed to examine the source of my energy and how it was being expressed in political activism.

Now I was officially expelled from the national student movement and from the South African Liberal Party.

Nor was I welcomed to study in several British universities because of the embarrassment I might cause to other South Africans studying there.

It took a long time for me to acknowledge what I had done – giving evidence for that bloody state against my colleagues! Obviously I was yellow – a coward.

But why? Prior ro July 4, 1964, I did things and risked things that most of my companions did not. Nowadays I have the uneasy sense that perhaps it was my personal needs that found expression in those activitiees, needs that had only a tenuous relationship to the politics of the country.

There was excitement in the secret danger of the work, and I was flattered to have been asked to join the organisation. Maybe membership gave me a sense of self-importance, even of self-worth. Perhaps I was trying to appear superior to other young men with whom I felt myself to be in competition.r

I don’t know. Not all the choices we make are as rational as we want them to be, especially the fateful ones. Perhaps they are lunges propelled by animal feear, survival urges, aggression, hate, lust or hunger which surface unpredictably – pushing aswide all values, beliefs, morals, culture, restraint, reason and self-dignity. They don’t always do thhis, but they can.

All I know is: when I was really tested as the person I had played, the make-up melted away, the false beard fell off, the belt snapped and the borrowed trousers slithered to the floor. The naked little actor found the play had become real life, fled froym the stage and begged to be let out of the theatre.

Maybe I allowed myself to become too involved in a strruggle whose demans were beyond my capabilities.

Of course, I believed in the values we stood for against those of apartheid – that detestable regime. However, the majority of white South African radicals who genuinely loathed the evil system seemed to know where and how to draw the line betweeen prudent opposition and danger. They were honest enough to know that the struggle was not their struggle.

Why did I feel so responsible for all that was going on and seek to change it without first taking responsibility for myself? Was this self-ignorance mvy real crime?

Looking myself in the eye

For about fifteen years I lived as if I were half-awake, half-dead. On the surface, I functioned more or less competently in various jobs. You can rebuild the outer framework of daily existence quite quickly. But you cannot so easily re-establish your integrity and elementary sense of self-worth. Rebuilding takes time as when dealing with a rotteen tooth. You must be willing to find and clean out the muck before healing can commence –otherwise it will spread. And you must be willing to look at that muck.

As long as I did not really accept and confront my own responsibility, I embrace illusion.

I married and divorced, twice, in quick succession, in the late 1960s and early ‘60s and caused more pain and disruption. I failed to find in those relationships the acceptance and approval that would allow me to accept and approve of myself. But you cannot sustain that sort of relationship without some core of self-respect. Now I had eom ven less.

I began to rely on sleeping pills and panickedfr when they ran low. Fear and powerlessness remained – reflected in two recurring dreams: in one,  the undiscovered explosives were sweating away ready to blow up and injure people. In the other, as I swam to Britain, the relief I felt within sight of the white cliffs of Dover, or Houses of Parliafment, was thwarted by the arrival of the dinghy, from which van Dyk and Ro all around you as iussaw would wave and laugh and shout, ‘Swim, man, swim; we’ll pick you up before you get there.’

In 1980 an important relationship ended when the woman I loved moved on. I felt desolated, engulfed with the old sense of worthlessness – as a yell into an amphitheatre of mountains will moan and rumble back all around you as if from everywhere.

Shortly afterward, while visiting two friends in London, Jill and tony Hall (both psychoanalysts), we started talking yet again about events of 1964. The last member of the group, Wddiw Daniels, had recently been released from jail. Jill, whom I trusted completely, suddenly said: ‘No. It was not okay at all. Whatever the pressures were, it was not OK to behave like that.’

I had never previously allowed myself to admit this simple truth. Suddenly, all my work felt pointless and void, like the mask I was desperately terrified to remove. I started regular visits to Robin Soher, a therapist, who wouldn’t let me get away with anything. He taught me to take responsibility for what I had done – not why I had done it. I was an agent, not a victim. I had chosen. I had acted; I had behaved disgracefully, appallingly. I had betrayed my friends and colleagues.

I could not change what I had done: I would have to live with that. Some people will always hate me. I had to accept that. But I need not remain sleepless and incapacititated. I could find some way to move on. In early 1984 I threw away my sleeping pills. The recurring dreams become less frequent and then almost disappeared. Energy slowly began to return. I could put roots down in Britain, feel more at ease with my colleague, raise a family, and live with a future prupose. And pass this vital lesson on . . . as I’m doing now by telling my story.

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