1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

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..

10 thoughts on “1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

  1. John Harris would always be my hero. There is little doubt that his intention was not to cause injuries but to cause damages to government property. There is no doubt that a telephone call was made warning that the area be cleared to avoid carnage Harris ,being a very bright young man, would have been able to forsee reprisals by the S.African racist regime against anti-apartheid organisations should white lives be lost. Does anybody really believe that Harris who showed much compassion for blacks under a reprehensible government would randomly target whites? The government of S.Africa had not provided any logical answers to its failure in clearing the railway station. I do not believe that the police intentionally failed to act to avert injury to human lives.

    Many S.Africans paid with their lives in their fight against a tyrannical and ruthless system, and its misdeed still wreaks havoc on its victims. Among the long list of heroes, the name of John Harris stands.

    • My father died because of that bombing……Frederick George Henry Lategan…….why was his name never mentioned??

      • Lorraine, that’s just the way things are, I’m afraid. I can’t name a single person who was killed on 9/11, but I know the name of Mohamed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the plot, and all of us know who Osama Bin Laden was.

        • So that means my father was collateral damage!….I would just ike to know! Was Harris responsible or John Voster? For the outcome??

        • Your father wasn’t “collateral damage” — he was a human being and the victim of a terrible crime. I do think it’s a terrible shame that the media and people in general care so much more about killers than they do victims.

          • I disagree. Do we say when someone dies in a car accident that they where collatoral damage of someones desire to drive somewhere? Of course not.
            Lorraine your fathers death was unfortunate for him, his family and his friends. That is all that can be said.
            Collateral damage means something other than an innocent person getting caught in a crossfire of two gangs or two armies.
            In modern warfare bombs will kill everyone within a 50 meter or more radius. If you father was a civilian and had been killed by a German artillery shell in Leningrad he would have been collateral damage. If your father had been killed by a Landmine in Vietnam 20 years after the war he would have been collateral damage. When people are at war professionals will take precautions to limit collateral damage. In this case those precautions were taken
            Your father died because the SA police either accidently or even possibly deliberately did not act on a warning about imminent danger.
            The person who planted that bomb bears some responsibility and also lots of credit for planting that bomb.
            If I had been living in SA at that time I can only hope that I would have had the courage and the integrity to plant that bomb. Those who are responsible for your fathers death are the bastards that supported the evil regime that was in power at that time who made it necessary to conduct an insurgency to change the government.
            Anyone who accepts the idea that the civilian population of a society run by an evil government can not be subject to any risk or violence is left with pacifism by default.
            I can accept it if other people are pacifist. Evil people will never be pacifist though as violence gives them a critical political advantage. A lie that we are constantly told is that the violence of the powerful is legitimate but the violence of the weak is not.
            In many cases to fog of life makes it very hard to tell who is fighting for a good cause and who is fighting to perpetuate oppression. In some cases the skies are clear.

        • Lorraine,
          I think that I need to clarify that I was disagreeing mostly with what Meaghan said. Rather than putting the heroic freedom fighter on trial all over again it is actually your father along with every other father in South Africa at the time who should be on trial, both black and white. The charge is supporting a continuing criminal enterpirse, AKA the South African government.
          If your father would have been found guilty of that charge he was a bastard who got what he deserved. If your father would have been found innocent he was the tragic victim of a freindly fire action.
          If your father supported the South African govenment at that time the world is better off that he is dead and so are you. If he did not oppose what was going on in SA at the time it is a good thing that he had less time to mold you as a person. That same can be said for every other person killed or injured in that blast.
          What I just wrote might seem incredibly insensitvie and rude. The sad fact is the world can not be changed for the better with out challenging peoples perceptions. It does not matter if the people are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Athiests or Polythiests or what ever, once you challenge the beliefs and behaviors that they take for granted they are going to be insulted. They have to be humiliated again and again until it slowly starts to sink in, it is not the dissident that it crazy. It is the leadership that creates bad rules the masses that follow bad rules and the governmetnal and non governmental officials that enforce bad rules.
          Therefire everyone should consider it a duty to insult someone at least once a day. With so many people to insult how should one know where to start? The first rule is that you start with those creating the worst problems and work your way down from there. The second rule is that you put a priority on working on those problems that you have more experience with.

  2. The entry is not objective and, in several places, not factually correct. Harris was not hanged for “an anti-apartheid bombing”. The charge that carried the death penalty was the murder of Mrs Ethyl Rhys, a criminal offence which also (theoretically) carried a mandatory death sentence in the UK until that same year. “Sabotage” charges were additional to the main charge of murder. It is also not correct that the bomb was a symbolic device. It was designed to cause severe injuries and death — as is obvious from the number of casualties, some of whom were severely burnt, including the young child with Mrs Rhys. No reliable evidence has been produced to date to support the allegation that the bomb threat was phoned in. In any case, there had been no bomb attacks on civilians in South Africa for at least twenty years, and the authorities would obviously have required more time than the alleged twenty minutes to make a sensible decision in such unprecedented circumstances. Harris did not use the same methods as Irish Republican bombers to ensure that the police would accept the authenticity of the threat. The attack most certainly did not contribute to the end of apartheid a generation later. In fact it resulted in a considerable hardening of the Apartheid state’s methods, resulting in increasing hardship especially for Black political activists and was probably one of the main reasons for the disbanding of the Liberal Party of South Africa in 1968. Only those of us who were politically active against Apartheid IN South Africa at that time have direct knowledge of the entirely negative and quite disastrous consequences of Harris’s act of irrational terror..If anything, it prolonged the worst period of the Apartheid era.

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