Professor Adrian Leftwich

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Author, exile, President of NUSAS, member of the African Resistance Movement, Professor of Politics

Title: 
Professor
First name: 
Adrian
Last name: 
Leftwich
Date of birth: 
1940
Location of birth: 
Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape)
Date of death: 
April 2013
Location of death: 
United Kingdom

Adrian Leftwich grew up in Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape), in 1940 in a liberal Jewish family. His father was a doctor, and his mother gave piano lessons and carried out charitable works.

Leftwich obtained his BA Honours degree from the University of Cape Town (UCT), Western Province (now Western Cape), South Africa and his PhD degree from the University of York, United Kingdom. He taught at the Universities of Cape Town, York, Lancaster and Reading in the United Kingdom (UK).

In 1962, Leftwich was recruited into the African Resistance Movement (ARM), an organisation that targeted infrastructure as a way of expressing protest against the Apartheid state.

Leftwich spent two years as President of National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), after which he joined the National Committee of Liberation (NCL) in mid-1962. On 12 June 1964, the NCL changed its name to the African Resistance Movement (ARM), issuing a flyer announcing its existence and commitment to fighting Apartheid.

The ARM predated the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. In the thirty-six months of its active existence, it did as much economic damage to state infrastructure as MK managed during the same period through its sabotage campaign.

In the early part of 1963 Robert Watson, a student at UCT who had served in Malaysia and Cyprus during the British anti-guerrilla campaigns, and Leftwich spent the early part of the year strengthening the NCL’s organisational capacity, operating out of Cape Town. Watson left the NCL in June 1963, citing the organisation’s lack of professionalism but also because it refused to launch attacks that might injure people and was not willing to prepare for guerrilla warfare.

Following the capture of top MK leaders in 1963, some time towards the end of 1963 or early 1964, the NCL prepared two draft discussion papers on its policy review. Randolph Vigne, an NCL leader, drew up a document entitled Reasons for Military Action: The Time for Unity, which Leftwich revised.  He wrote that the two versions were almost at odds with each other. Leftwich, believing that Vigne’s paper was inadequate, then drafted an eight-page paper, whichspoke about how the NCL should employ sabotage and guerrilla warfare in order to meet the NCLs goal of total revolutionary change. The document concluded by pointing out that the NCL regarded unity with other military groups as essential and was committed to socialism.

 In July 1964, when I was 24, my life in South Africa came to a sudden end. The events, which brought this about, were of my own making. No one else was to blame. 

In this slightly abrupt fashion, Adrian Leftwich begins his 2002 essay “I Gave the Names.” It was the first time in 40 years that Leftwich, by that time a successful academic in the United Kingdom, would break his silence in public on the events that had condemned him to a life lived in exile from his home country.

Leftwich, looking back at events that occurred more than 40 years earlier, wrote:

For reasons, which I still do not fully understand, I tried to do things, which were far beyond me, and I failed. I tried to help change the world around me but in the process I destroyed my own, I betrayed my friends and colleagues and I damaged the cause which I believed in and had worked for...It has taken me a long time to be able to look at what happened and try to come to terms with it. But now that the obscenity of official Apartheid has been formally buried, perhaps it is time to do so.

Whatever his motives, Leftwich concludes, he was ill prepared for the real dangers that the work would entail. As a member of the ARM, he undertook tasks like importing plastic explosives and blowing up electricity pylons and railway cables: the kind of acts of sabotage that carried a minimum mandatory sentence of five years, but anything up to the death sentence.

When the security police arrived at his Cape Town flat on 4 July 1964, they searched books on his shelves at random. By chance, the first book one police officer happened to extract was a volume in which Leftwich had hidden a training document schooling the reader on the use of explosives. The police left, but returned 15 minutes later to arrest him. He was taken to Caledon Square for interrogation and detained under the 90- day law, which allowed people to be held for 90 days without charge in solitary confinement.

When news of Leftwich’s detention spread within the ARM, some of his comrades left the country. Other ARM members did not. “Why did they wait?” Leftwich mused.

“I don’t know, although I think I should have done exactly the same. After all, I had remained in my flat for that critical 15 minutes between the departure of the security men and their return to arrest me. Why did I wait? Could I have escaped? Did I want to be caught?”

In the essay, Leftwich says he is “ashamed” of the events that followed his arrest. “Whenever I think about them, there is a side of me that simply wants to die, and always will,” he wrote. The state had damaging evidence against him: security police had found explosives, detonators and documents at his girlfriend’s flat, and confronted him with the evidence. While others in his situation resisted giving the police any information at all, Leftwich sang like a canary almost immediately. During his interrogation by the Security Police he provided names of ARM members who were involved in sabotage as well a those that had assisted them.

“The suddenness, speed and near-comprehensiveness of the disintegration of my will and ability to resist interrogation in solitary confinement took me totally by surprise,” Leftwich wrote. “It took others by surprise, too. I just caved in.”

While Leftwich was in detention undergoing interrogation, an ARM member, John Harris, planted a bomb in the Johannesburg train station. Despite his telephoned warnings to the police and newspapers, the concourse was not cleared and a suitcase stuffed with explsoives, went off during the afternoon rush hour. A grandmother was killed, her twelve-year-old granddaughter terribly burned, and twenty-two others seriously injured.  

 The security police used this against Leftwich. “Late that night, my cell door swung open to reveal Van Dyk (a notorious Security policeman), white with rage, his eyes bulging behind his glasses,” remembered Leftwich. “He screamed, ‘Twenty people have been killed in Johannesburg by one of your bombs. You fucking Jew. Now you’ll hang.’” Leftwich was terrified, and proceeded to tell his interrogators “more or less (though not quite) everything that he still knew about the organisation.”

Leftwich was beaten up by an interrogator, “But it was nothing, absolutely nothing, in comparison to what other people in South Africa and elsewhere have been subjected to at the hands of political police,” he wrote. He knew, however, that they would continue to rough him up until he talked. And so "slowly but surely [Leftwich] spilled the beans.” Leftwich gave the police the names of his colleagues in Cape Town, and then those in Johannesburg, including one of his dearest friends, Hugh Lewin. Some escaped, others were arrested.

His exhaustive, detailed testimony, first in detention and then as a state witness, was used to convict his closest friends and associates.  To refer to him as a rat was hard on rats, the apartheid judge remarked when sentencing those at whose expense he had bought his freedom. One of them was the person at whose wedding he had once been best man.

It was, as Lewin writes, a disaster on every level: “It consolidated white opinion, led directly to the demise of the Liberal Party, and strengthened the hand of the white government for more than a decade, until Soweto 1976.”

Harris was sentenced to death and executed in Pretoria Central Prison on 1 April 1965, the only white “political” hanged by the state.

Leftwich had been considered a voice of considerable integrity and bravery up until then. He had involved himself far more broadly in the ARM than was usual, which is why he had so much damaging information to offer the police. Just before his arrest, he had published an article titled “Courage of Conviction,” calling for sacrifice and commitment to the struggle.

Following his testimony, and as part of the deal he had struck with the Apartheid prosecutors, Leftwich went into permanent exile, eventually ending up as a Politics lecturer at the University of York.

Leftwich left South Africa for the UK in 1965 and never returned. He wrote that for a long time after, if he saw a South African exile in London, he would “turn and flee.” He said that people who spoke to him about his actions tended to take two possible routes. The first was the response: “How on earth could you do it?” The second was more charitable: “No one really knows how he or she will react when faced with those kinds of pressures, however severe or slight, and it is prudent therefore not to judge others.” Leftwich seems to have found this response as an excuse: “I have often wondered why we do not know how we will react,” he wrote. “Is it because we do not know ourselves sufficiently well?”

After arriving in England, Leftwich became a schoolteacher for a while; then worked in a kibbutz in Israel; then as a farmhand in the United State of America. Returning to Britain, he found more work as a teacher, completed his postgraduate studies and eventually found a permanent academic home at York. Still, he writes, he lived a “half life.” He married and divorced twice twice in quick succession, developed a dependency on sleeping pills and was haunted by nightmares of the security police.

Leftwich tried to make contact with all the former comrades and friends he had wronged through his testimony. Some accepted his advances and others did not. Sometime around 1980, he visited some friends in London and they discussed what had happened. “We had talked about the events of that year countless times before,” Letfwich wrote. “But then Jill, a person I knew and trusted completely, suddenly said: ‘No. It was not okay at all. Whatever the pressures were, it was not okay to behave like that.’”

This was, he records, a breakthrough; it forced Leftwich to confront the truth about his past. He began to see a therapist, and he learned what he describes as his single most important lesson – to take responsibility for his actions. Gradually, Leftwich’s nightmares faded. He settled in the UK, devoted himself to research and writing, and focused on raising a family.

Looking back on his betrayals from a distance of 40 years, Leftwich believed that a deep fear of his own death, and a realisation of the extent of his own weakness, spurred on his testimony. “It was much less what was done to me in detention, and much more the encounter with myself that brewed the acid that stripped me,” he wrote. For Leftwich did worse than merely give statements to the security police. In exchange for his own freedom, he also testified against his friends and colleagues in their trials. All but one went to prison. Eddie Daniels served 15 years on Robben Island and Hugh Lewin served seven years.

In 2011, Hugh Lewin published a book titled Stones Against The Mirror, the winner of the 2012 Alan Paton prize for non-fiction, in which he chronicled his relationship with Leftwich. The two were “like twins,” he wrote, before the events of 1964. Lewin went into exile in the UK after being released from prison and for a long time could not see any possibility of reconciliation with Leftwich. “Once, I refused to present a paper at a conference because I thought he might be there,” Lewin wrote. “It became a matter of pride: he had bought his freedom by giving our names and testifying and – as the struggle continued, with regular numbers being imprisoned back home – his long-ago actions helped define for me my own identity.”

After Leftwich’s death of lung cancer at the age of 73, colleagues at the Developmental Leadership Program (York University), where he worked, released a moving tribute. It serves as a reminder that despite the long shadow which the events of 1964 cast over Leftwich’s life, to those who knew him later, he was simply a generous and dedicated academic and a loving father. It paid tribute to his “deep rooted humility and integrity,” and his “extraordinary and genuine interest in and support for others.”

He was an Honorary Fellow and a respected politics professor at the University of York, in England, in the Department of Politics and was the Research Director of a multi-stakeholder research and policy programme: The Developmental Leadership Programme at York University.  Dr Leftwich was for five years co-director of the international research consortium on Improving Institutions for Pro-poor Growth (IPPG) funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). He worked on state business relations in Malawi and on modifications in the theory and practice of developmental states. His research interests focussed on the roles which leaders, elites and coalitions play in the political processes, which drive or undermine sustainable growth, political stability and inclusive social development.

In addition to a wide range of articles in major journals, his monograph and edited publications include South Africa: Economic Growth and Political Change (1974); Redefining Politics (1983); Democracy and Development (1996); States of Development (2000) and What is Politics? (1984 and 2004).

Professor Adrian Leftwich died in April 2013 in the United Kingdom

Selected publications

2010. 'Beyond Institutions: Rethinking the Role of Leaders, Elites and Coalitions in the Institutional Formation of Developmental States and Strategies'. (1), pp.93-111

2009. 'Analysing the politics of state-business relations. A methodological concept note on the historical institutionalist approach', Discussion Paper no 23, IPPG

2008. 'Developmental states, effective states and poverty reduction: the primacy of politics ', United Nations Research Institute for Social development (UNRISD)

2007. 'The political approach to institutional formation, maintenance and change', IPPG Discussion Paper no 14

2007. 'The politics of state-business relations in Malawi', Discussion Paper no 7, IPPG

2007. 'Theorising the state', in P. Burnell and V. Randall (eds.), Politics in the Developing World, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

2005. 'Politics in Command: Development Studies and the Rediscovery of Social Science', New Political Economy, Vol. 10, 4.

2005. 'Democracy and development: Is there an Institutional Incompatibility?', Democratization, Vol. 12, 5.

2004. What is Politics? Cambridge, Polity Press

2000. States of Development Cambridge, Polity Press

Memberships

Sits on the ESRC Commissioning Panel for research into Non-Governmental Public Action

Member of the International Expert panel of the Swiss National Science Foundation, assessing research into democracy and democratization

Member of the Advisory Board of the DFID-funded international Research Consortium on African Politics, Power and the State


References:
• Davis R. (2013). Adrian Leftwich, The Unforgiven from The Daily Maverick online 22 April. Available at www.dailymaverick.co.za online. Accessed on 23 April 2013
• Twidle H. (2011). Elegy on trial: Writing the African Resistance Movement. Posted on 28 June online. Available at http://slipnet.co.za/view/reviews/elegy-on-trial-writing-the-african-resistance-movement/. Accessed on 23 April 2013
• York University. (2013).  Leftwich what is politics from Againwhatisonline. Available at www.againwhatis.com.  Accessed on 23 April 2013
• Gunther M. (2004). The Road to Democracy in South Africa ”“ Vol.1 (1960 -1970). pp 209 ”“ 255, SADET, Zebra Press, Cape Town

Last updated : 02-Sep-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-May-2013

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