1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

10 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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