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Memoirs of a 'White Who Crossed the Line'

The Final Prize: My Life in the Anti-apartheid Struggle by Norman Levy (Cape Town: South African History Online), 2011; pp 478, Rands 275.


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opportunities of the colony, and later by

Memoirs of a ‘White Who Crossed

the discovery of gold and diamond deposits, led to rivalries and the inevitable

the Line’

wars between different streams of the colonial settlers, extending the contentions of Europe to southern Africa. M S Prabhakara Everyone wanted a piece of action, a

enalising legitimate dissent, let alone active political opposition to an entrenched iniquitous social and political order, is a near universal practice. Where such social and political inequities are institutionalised with all the coercive authority of the State, one can only imagine the violence let loose on democratic opposition. Dissidents and opponents of the regime are branded criminals, are routinely imprisoned, tortured and killed. Yet, no country ever admits that it does such things, that it holds political prisoners.

Conquest and Expansion

Apartheid South Africa presented one of the starkest examples of this phenomenon in practice. The country, more exactly the land that is now the state of a democratic South Africa, was colonised by European settlers in quick stages in the latter part of the 17th century. In the mythology of colonialism in this part of Africa this was done more by accident than by design when Jan van Riebeeck

Economic & Political Weekly

march 31, 2012

The Final Prize: My Life in the Anti-apartheid Struggle by Norman Levy (Cape Town: South African History Online), 2011; pp 478, Rands 275.

of the Dutch East India Company, founded two years after the founding of the East India Company, landed in Table Bay in what is now Cape Town on 6 April 1652 and established a victualling station there, without a clear design of occupation and conquest. However, within a week of his landing, the Fort of Good Hope began to be built; and less than a decade later the Dutch settlers, no more voyagers in transit, were fi ghting the Khoikhoi, the original inhabitants of the Cape, to occupy their lands and enslave them.

The history of the land and its people over the next three centuries was one of the relentless spread of the colonial settlement, conquest and expansion, and violent suppression of native resistance which never died out. Further, the arrival of settlers and adventurers from other parts of Europe drawn by the

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piece of territory. Eventually, after the conclusion of the two Anglo-Boer wars (or the Anglo-Transvaal War, 1880-81 and the South African War, 1899-1902), the contending Boer/Afrikaner “nationalists” and the English colonialists joined hands and signed the Treaty of Vereeniging (31 May 1902), whose objective was the joint dispossession of the lands of the overwhelming majority of the native black people, and the eventual establishment of the Union of South Africa eight years later, on 31 May 1910, as a dominion of the British empire, analogous to the old dominions like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, independent countries owing loyalty to the British crown.

Three years later, and causally linked to the establishment of the Dominion of South Africa, came the passing, by a socalled “parliament” where the majority of the people were not represented, of the Native Land Act, 1913, effectively dispossessing millions of Africans of their lands. The formation of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912 was


historically a concomitant development. This was followed in July 1921 by the founding of the oldest Communist Party on the continent, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).

An Active Partisan

Norman Levy (born on 7 August 1929), the author of the book under review, was heir to all these developments, with the crucial exception that he was not the heir to the colonial settlement in South Africa or the legislations of the illegitimate parliament; rather, he was an active partisan in the long struggle of the majority of the people against these abominations. Born in Johannesburg, he was not a migrant, but a child of fi rst and second generation migrants, part of a stream of political and economic migrants from Russia and the Baltic states with their complex linkages to pre-revolutionary Russia. Many of them were of working class origin, Jewish migrants who had fled from anti-Semitic persecution of Tsarist Russia, who chose to emigrate to South Africa seen as, and in many ways was, a desirable environment to build a new life. Some of them brought with them many skills, new radical ideas and a progressive political culture which found new avenues for growth and development. It is not accidental that many of these moved towards the CPSA, the first and, after an initial distortion, the only non-racial political formation in the country at that time.

Anti-Apartheid Struggle

Norman Levy belongs to this tradition represented by a small number of whites who “crossed the line” and devoted their lives to the struggle to get rid of the monstrous system of institutionalised racism for establishing a democratic South Africa. The book’s subtitle says it all: My Life in the Anti-apartheid Struggle. The centrality of the struggle is evident in the very opening page where, while joy-riding his identical twin brother Leon’s bicycle at the age of 14 in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, he takes a tumble and lands where Hilda Watts, later Hilda Bernstein, CPSA candidate for the Johannesburg municipal council, was addressing a street corner election meeting.

That literally “accidental” encounter led to a lifelong engagement with the Communist Party. The CPSA was then legal, though harassed. It was, however, outlawed in 1950, under the shamelessly self-explanatory Suppression of Communism Act, part of a series of laws enacted by the National Party government following its narrow victory in the May 1948 elections in which, then as until 1994, the majority of the people never could vote. Other anti-democratic legislations curtailing freedom of movement, forcing people to live in ghettoes, compelling Africans to carry passes and restricting their presence in cities. This led to the first peaceful mobilisation of mass resistance to these unjust laws, the Defiance Campaign of 1952, led by the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (saic).

While not totally eschewing important events of his personal life, these memoirs are in essence political memoirs, dealing with the “struggle” aspect of his life. His engagement with the CPSA and, after it was outlawed in 1950, of the South African Communist Party (SACP) clandestinely reconstituted three years later, covered some of the most momentous events in the liberation struggle. These included the Defi ance Campaign (1952), the adoption of the Freedom Charter (1955) by the Congress of the People representing all the people of South Africa, irrespective of race and colour, a core document of the liberation movement, the Treason Trial (1956-61) that the State launched following the adoption of the Freedom Charter in which 156 defendants across the race and colour lines were charged with treason, a capital offence, with Nelson Mandela as the fi rst defendant; Norman Levy and his brother Leon Levy were among the defendants. All the defendants were acquitted.

The Treason Trial

The Treason Trial, despite the capital charges the defendants faced and what a historian describes its “archival malevolence” (“at the very preparatory stage some 12,000 documents ranging from the ANC membership card to notes on the slave trade, the Bavarian succession and the Polish-Saxon question of 1750,

march 31, 2012

the Vienna Settlement of 1815, the foreign policy of Castlereagh were fi led by the prosecution”), was also a bit of an absurdist carnival, as recollected in the memoirs of some of the defendants. Many defendants, who were “banned persons” and so forbidden to meet or communicate with each other could now meet their comrades as they came together in the “cage” housing them. The identical Levy twins were often mistaken by the security police for “being the other”. The book’s cover carried in part a famous photograph of almost all the defendants taken in stages, for there were so many of them, and put together; the twins are third and fourth from the right, second row from the bottom. Even more interesting is the person sitting on the ground, extreme right bottom row. He was Bartholomew Hlapane, who made the strange journey from being a Treason Trialist, and later a central committee member of the Communist Party to become a police informer and a key prosecution witness at the trial of Bram Fischer and 13 others (1964-66), among whom was Norman Levy. Bram Fischer, a heroic figure in South African history, a member of a prominent Afrikaner family had “crossed over”. The leading defence lawyer in the Rivonia Trial in which Nelson Mandela and the rest of the top leadership of the ANC were sentenced to life imprisonment, Bram Fischer was himself arrested soon thereafter, tried on charges of being a communist and promoting communism and sentenced to life imprisonment. Hlapane was later killed by cadres of Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, on 16 December 1982.

The Treason Trial marked the end of the age of relative innocence in South Africa. Even as the trial was lumbering to its predictable conclusion, graver events overtook the trial, with the shooting down by the police in a matter of less than two minutes of 69 unarmed Africans protesting against the Pass Laws on 21 March 1960 at Sharpeville, a black township about 35 miles south of Johannesburg. The protests were organised by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), avowedly more Africanist than the ANC which, according to the PAC, was being

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Economic & Political Weekly


manipulated by communists, whites and Indians with their own agendas. While the ANC had given a call for anti-Pass Law demonstrations on 31 March, the foundation day of the “Republic”, the PAC literally stole a march over its rival by organising the protests 10 days ahead. These nuances made no difference to the regime that banned both the ANC and the PAC, imposed a state of emergency and even more repressive legislations that enabled detention without trial for 12, 90, and 180 days, and virtually indefi nitely.

Fascinating Features

Having realised that its peaceful protests had led the struggle nowhere except to further strengthening of its repressive state machinery, the ANC decided that the time had come when the only honourable course open to it was armed struggle. Announcing on 16 December 1991 (the date, 16 December, has several resonance in South African history), the launching of “planned attacks against government installations particularly those connected with the policy of apartheid and race discrimination”, the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, said:

The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.

Though MK was created by the ANC, structurally the MK was to be a new, independent body, formed by Africans that included in its ranks South Africans of all races. The distinction is important. Though the Freedom Charter proclaimed that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”, and the South Africa of the future would be a nonracial state (not multiracial, for in the context of South Africa the expression “multiracial” becomes another fancy word for apartheid), such was the nature of the beast that even the ANC, the leader of the liberation movement, had its membership limited only to black Africans. The other components of the Congress alliance that functioned till 1960 were the SAIC comprising the Natal and the

Economic & Political Weekly

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Transvaal Indian Congress, the (white) Congress of Democrats, and the South African Coloured Peoples Organisation which were joined by the South African Congress of Trade Union. It was only at its Morogoro (Tanzania) conference in April-May 1969 that the ANC admitted non-Africans to its general membership; and opened its executive positions to non-Africans only at its Kabwe (Zambia) conference (June 1985), when Joe Slovo was first elected to the ANC National Executive Committee. One of the most fascinating features of the liberation movement is how these complex links were negotiated during the struggle.

Touching Narration

Norman Levy’s narrative touches on all these events. He went through all, the arrests, the 90-day solitary, the brutal interrogation by that archetype of apartheid sadism and torture, Theunis Swanepoel, the experience of Pretoria Cenral, the hanging prison, the tensions and the camaraderie of prison life, and fi nally, the release in March 1968, and the 22-year long exile thereafter, for as a banned person, he could not simply lead a normal life, hold a job, socialise. His marriage that survived all these collapsed after his release.

All these are collected, if not in tranquillity, but with a certain detachment, even humour. For me, the most moving part of the memoirs is his account of Bram Fischer in prison, physically a little shrunk but still defiant, unbroken and uncompromising in his commitment to his political beliefs. Despite many pleas from all over the world, and despite the fact that he was terminally ill, the apartheid state would not release Bram Fischer; a life sentence in South Africa meant exactly what it said, the person would die in prison. So, in a “humanitarian” gesture, the dying man was “released” to his brother’s custody, with the brother’s house being declared a prison; and when he died the state took the ashes away for they were the property of the prison department. One of the very first things I did when I went to Bloemfontein in December 1994 to cover the ANC’s 49th national conference was to visit the Garden of Remembrance and

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locate the slab bearing the inscription: A Fischer, followed by a star and the date, 23 April 1908, the date of his birth; and below a cross, followed by 8 May 1975, the date of his death. Democratic South Africa has honoured his memory; Nelson Mandela delivered the fi rst Bram Fischer memorial lecture; other institutions too have honoured his memory.

However, such is the fragility and selectivity of that memory that he lives more in the memory of ordinary South Africans who may not have a fi ne appreciation of the complexity of his achievement than the more informed. At the joint sitting of the two houses of South African Parliament in Cape Town on 8 May 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war, tributes were rightly paid to those, including many South Africans, who died in the fight against fascism and Nazism in Europe. One, however, noticed that the none of the speakers that afternoon, not even known members of the SACP in parliament and other profound admirers of Bram Fischer’s life and achievement noted that the day was also the 20th anniversary of the death of Bram Fischer, a heroic communist revolutionary who died in his fight against fascism closer home, in South Africa.

History has served Norman Levy a little more fairly. He has had a most productive life in post-apartheid South Africa as an academic, making major contributions to the restructuring of administration and governance. Be well, friend, you and your partner Carole Silver who, in your words, you and your family married in February 1991.

M S Prabhakara ( has been writing on the North-East for more than three decades.

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