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Bandiet: out of jail

20 February 2016

Bandiet: out of jailBandiet: out of jail by Hugh Lewin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hugh Lewin was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in sabotaging electrical installations in protest against apartheid in the 1960s. He spent the seven years in jail in Pretoria, where white “political” prisoners were kept (black ones were imprisoned on Robben Island, near Cape Town). This book is an account of his years in prison. The title of the book, “bandiet”, was the name given to convicted prisoners by the prison warders, while the prisoners referred to the warders as “boere”.

For the most part the “political” prisoners were isolated from common criminals, and enjoyed fewer privileges. They were allowed one visit and were allowed to send and receive one letter every six months. Other prisoners could have their sentences reduced for good behaviour, but the “politicals” had to serve the full term. Warders who were too friendly with them were punished.

One of the prisoners in this group, Harold Strachan, was released after serving his sentence, and the Rand Daily Mail published his account of prison conditions in 1965, which caused a public uproar, and he was soon back in jail for spilling the beans. But the publicity did lead to some improvements, and some more public scrutiny of the prison system.

Hugh Lewin also exposes the sleazy corruption that flourished in the prison system, protected by laws enforcing secrecy. Sometimes nowadays people talk as if corruption were something new, but the main difference between the 1960s and today is that today we have a constitution that protects freedom of the press, so the corruption is more easily exposed. Back then it flourished under the protection of official secrecy laws, which is why Harold Strachan soon found himself back in jail.

The first edition of Bandiet was published overseas, and banned in South Africa. The revised edition, Bandiet: out of jail, contains the complete original text, but also some additions that could not be published before, as that could have endangered those who were still in jail.

In my blog I have written a series of posts, Tales from Dystopia, anecdotes from the apartheid era in South Africa, reminders of the darkness from which we have come. This book belongs in the same category, telling it like it was. I wouldn’t include it in my series, because it is not my story but someone else’s, though in some ways the story touches me peripherally. Two of of Hugh Lewin‘s fellow prisoners were related to friends of mine, and one was a fellow-student at university with me, though I did not know him well.

One of the fellow prisoners was Marius Schoon. Though I had never met him, after he was released from prison he married Jeanette Curtis, the sister of a school friend of mine. Jeanette and their six-year-old daughter were killed by a parcel bomb sent by the South African Security Police.

One of the shortcomings of the book, I thought, was that in the revised edition, when he was able to tell all, he did not include a kind of prospography, with potted biographies of his fellow prisoners, giving something of their background, and what they were convicted of, and what happened to them after they were released. Since they were perforce a very close-knit community (though he does describe some tensions), this would have helped to broaden the story to include others. Perhaps at the time the book was first published, they would have been sufficiently well known from other sources, but few younger readers are likely to know this.

There are also some oblique references to people who were not imprisoned with him, like Looksmart. Now I know, from memory, that Looksmart Solwandle was one of the first to die in detention, but that was 50 years ago, and anyone under 65 might find it difficult to get the reference. He does, however, include quite a lot on the ill-treatment of Bram Fischer, especially in his last illness.

I don’t generally like prison books (or films) and so didn’t go out of my way to read this one, but I’m glad I did read it. I did read Darkness at noon by Arthur Koestler back in 1967, when I was studying in the UK. Though it was set in the USSR, I kept comparing it to the South African prisons described in the Strachan reports a couple of years earlier. Lewin mentions Darkness at noon, and I think that while I was reading it, Hugh Lewin was in jail in Pretoria, in very similar conditions.


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