‘Hamba kahle’ John

2010-04-01 00:00

CURRENTLY we live with the African National Congress and all its foibles and have forgotten the African Resistance Movement (Arm), whose member John Harris gave his life for the democracy we enjoy today.

While the apartheid government thought it was a joke to execute Harris on April Fools’ Day, we who knew and loved him remember him with much fondness. At 7 am on that morning of his execution, we met at a tea room in Saville Street and I heard someone say: “So what if a white is killed?” But Mamflo (Florence Mkhize) tore into this person, saying: “He is my comrade. Hamba kahle, John.”

I can see Harris in MN Pather’s (secretary, South African Nonracial Committee, [Sanroc]) office, opposite mine, his face against the glass door teasing me. I enter, we hug and go into Pather’s office. He has sports business and I tag along for coffee.

Forty-five years ago, the Rand Daily Mail carried a picture of Ann, his wife, watering her garden. Ann must have heard the loud clap of the trap door that took her John’s life and stepped out to water her garden. Later Solomon Mahlangu would say his blood will water the tree of freedom. Was Ann watering that tree? And where was David, their son?

So what was Arm? They were all ex-members of Alan Paton’s Liberal Party of South Africa. Harris in the then Transvaal was an executive member of the party. However, like the ANC, post Sharpeville in 1960 he and other members of the party broke away as they felt that armed resistance was the only way to answer the violence of apartheid. In fact Arm was born just before Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Like MK it targeted specific government installations and not people.

Harris was the only white person to be hanged for a political offence during apartheid. Harris, a teacher and a sportsman, was chairman of the Sanroc. This was the nub — many of its members had their passports removed, making travel impossible, for example MN Pather, its secretary, and many others. Sam Ramsamy will tell that story. Too late to talk to Dennis Brutus now.

This grouping fought for nonracialism in sport — the government for division and apartheid.

In February 1964, Harris was banned and restricted to Johannesburg with six pages of restrictions. I am not sure how he earned his keepuntil July 24,1964, when he planted the bomb at the Johannesburg station to spark opposition to apartheid. But this backfired as Ethel Rhys (77) was killed and 23 people were injured, including Rhys’s grand daughter Glynnis Burleigh, who was horribly burnt and suffers today.

Despite giving a warning on the railway loudspeaker system, Harris did not stand a chance in the face of white South Africa’s horrified reaction. Within seven hours after the bomb exploded, Harris had confessed in spite of two cracks to his jaw and his body in agony.

Our current justice system, which takes years to conclude trials, except for those highly placed in our society, could take a leaf from some apartheid trials. Harris placed the bomb on July 24, 1964, was arrested seven hours later, detained under the 90-day Detention Act, and executed on April 1,1965 — eight months later. Great judicial record.

In Cape Town, Arm members Stephanie Kemp, Alan Brooks, Antony True, Eddie Daniels and David de Keller were also arrested. The first three were charged with furthering the aims of the Communist Party and were sentenced to five years — with parts suspended. Daniels and De Keller were charged with sabotage and were sentenced to 15 and 10 years. Daniels went to Robben Island and served 15 years to the day, while De Keller went to Pretoria Central Prison (this was where white politicos were sent) for 10 years.

On April 1, 1965, when Harris walked from his cell to the execution chamber to be hanged, he sang for Ann, Dde Keller and all of us: We shall overcome. He was 27 years old.

At his cremation, 13- year-old Peter Hain, whose family had been friendly with Harris, stood up and recited a passage from Ecclesiastes chapter three: “A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up”.

We who knew you, knew the gentle sod you were, and will love and treasure your memory.

Hamba kahle dear John, comrade and friend.



“SOME of our members, including John Harris, were involved in opposition to uniracial sport and the attempt to institute an international boycott of whites-only teams.” She says her husband, Ken, was with Harris at Durban Airport as he prepared to fly overseas in pursuance of these objectives when his passport was confiscated. “John was so disturbed by this that he conceived the mad idea of planting a bomb at Johannesburg Station. He put the bomb in a suitcase next to an unsuspecting old lady and a girl, and then telephoned to warn the authorities of what he had done. No one took him seriously. The bomb went off and the resulting injuries shocked South Africa, or at least, white South Africa. Alan Paton was horrified. John was arrested. Ruth Hayman, a party member, defended him and thereafter could not find other work than work given to her by the Defence and Aid fund to defend political cases. She eventually had to leave South Africa. The Hain family did their best for John’s wife and when John was hanged, their son, Peter, conducted his funeral service which included the singing of We shall overcome.” Peter Hain left South Africa to spearhead the boycott of apartheid sports. He is now a well-known British politician.”

JOHN Harris was a teacher who became active in the Liberal Party and was soon elected to the National Committee. Soon afterwards he also became active in the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee (Sanroc). He became chairman when the previous chairman was banned, arrested and then shot in the stomach while trying to escape from police custody.

As chairman of Sanroc, Harris travelled to Switzerland in February 1963 and testified in Lausanne at the International Olympic Committee (loc), seeking South Africa’s exclusion from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics because of its racially discriminatory sports policies. On his return from Switzerland, Harris’s passport was seized and, in February 1964, he too was served with banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act. During this time he received death threats and gunshots were aimed at his living-room window. South Africa was indeed banned from the Tokyo games, a first step in the country’s isolation from world sport for the remainder of the apartheid years.

Cut off by his banning order from normal political activity, he became convinced that the only way left to fight for human dignity and freedom in his country was by more drastic means. He joined the African Resistance Movement (Arm), mostly made up of members of the Liberal Party whose frustration with the lack of success of traditional politics had driven them, like those in the ANC who joined Umkonto we Sizwe, to engage in acts of sabotage. Harris joined others in blowing up economic targets, such as electricity pylons.

When most fellow members of the Arm were arrested or fled the country during the security crackdowns following the Rivonia Trials, Harris took a final stand. His plan to place a bomb in Johannesburg’s Park Station was intended to demonstrate to the apartheid regime that it had not yet dismantled armed opposition within the country. He felt that he was in a position where he might affect the course of the history of South Africa, that by doing something that only a white person could do (i.e. place a bomb in the “whites only” part of the station) he might bring whites to their senses, make them realise that apartheid could not be sustained because there were people of all races opposed to it and prepared to take action against it. With warning telephone calls to the Railway Police and prominent newspapers half an hour in advance, he assumed that the railway concourse would be evacuated before the explosion took place. But someone who discussed the plans with him had been arrested the night before and — unbeknown to Harris — had apparently told the police of the plan. Testimony from a security policeman many years later appears to indicate that a decision was then taken at the highest level of the government to take no action when Harris rang through his warnings. So the station concourse was not cleared and an elderly woman died later of injuries sustained due to the bombing, and others were seriously injured.

Harris was arrested that night. He was badly beaten up and kicked in the head by his interrogators, who broke his jaw. He admitted that he had planted the bomb but always denied intending to kill.

He was hanged on April 1, 1965. Harris was cremated by the prison authorities. His ashes were kept for years by the prison authorities until given to the prison chaplain, (ironic given Harris’s profound atheism), who had them placed in a simple grave marked only by his name and dates. It was over 30 years before his family discovered what had happened to his body. (From www.sahistory. org.za)

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