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International Socialism, June 1976


Bryan Rees



From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.26-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison
Hugh Lewin
Penguin, 90p

In the winter of 1969/70 I was involved in the ‘Stop the 70 Tour Campaign’, and one of the most vicious incidents of the tour took place in Swansea. I remember going home in the evening and passing a black maria, and wanting to blow it up, or something like that. The South Wales Constabulary had excelled themselves that day. Several thousand miles away in Central Prison, Pretoria, Hugh Lewin was serving a seven year sentence for translating thoughts like mine into practice – in his case blowing up electricity pylons.

The book he has written is not a straight political text on South Africa and apartheid. It does not deal in any great detail about the situation in that country, neither does it concern itself with the problem of substitution of a small group of people engaged in sporadic acts of violence as opposed to an armed and organised mass movement. Despite this, it is an interesting little book which shows how a ‘political’ in the South African penal system comes to terms with the system and the attempts to beat it.

Being a ‘political’ in a South African prison is not an enjoyable experience. For a start you are treated much worse than the other inmates, i.e. those people inside for murder, rape, armed robbery, etc. It means no radio, no news, no newspapers, no contact visits, and if you were a ‘C’ or ‘D’ category prisoner (as Lewin was for several years), it means no tobacco.

It also means that once inside, the prison officers can do what they like with you, and throughout the book we come across the classic warder – Mr Du Preez:

‘Du Preez’s genius was not in inventing hardships, nor in even contravening the regulations. His strength lay in knowing – more by instinctive cunning than any marked intelligence – just how far he could push the regulations without breaking them. He was, I suppose, the ideal prison warder in that he maintained, with deadly consistency, an active antagonism towards the prisoners.’

In the South African prison system, particularly in an all-white prison like Central Prison, Pretoria, the ‘politicals’ take on the role of the black man in that society. For Lewin, it was,

‘a useful lesson to find out what it is like – in the South African context – to be black.’

Well, Hugh Lewin served his sentence, was released, and had to leave South Africa. The blacks of South Africa are still, in a very real sense, men in prison. A break-out on that scale will be something, and it cannot be far off.

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