John Harris: Hardly a martyr

2010-04-15 00:00

MAY I make a few points regarding Phyllis Naidoo’s article about John Harris (The Witness, April 1, 2010). Her statement that he “gave his life” for the democracy we enjoy today makes him sound like a martyr.

The African Resistance Movement (ARM) that Naidoo mentions was closed down in July of 1964, when a police lieutenant found a notebook in the flat of founder member Adrian Leftwich that contained a list of targets for demolition. Leftwich was arrested and charged, and soon agreed to talk. He agreed to give evidence to the state, evidence that would convict many that he had recruited for the ARM. Members of the ARM were arrested in the Cape, Natal and Transvaal.

It was following these nation-wide arrests that Harris detonated a suitcase bomb on the rush-hour platform of the Johannesburg station. His argument had been fairly simple. He watched the whole movement coming apart, and decided to do something to prove that resistance was not dead. Harris had felt unwanted all his life. A highly intelligent and highly unbalanced man, he had — he later said — felt “terrifically, ecstatically happy” before placing the bomb. The reaction of white South Africans to his act was one of intense revulsion.

Stories of Harris issuing warnings of the impending blast differ. Harris’s son David said that his father telephoned warnings to the Railway Police and prominent newspapers, but no action was taken. Naidoo said: “Despite giving a warning on the railway loudspeaker system … ” If a warning was broadcast over the railway loudspeaker system, surely those at risk would have taken heed?

Alan Paton and his disciples were appalled by Harris’s action. “Was this the end result of our campaign for right and justice? Had one given up 11 years of one’s life to achieve this?” He wrote that “John Harris’s act did incomparable harm. I cannot think of his deed with anything but revulsion. In my judgement Harris had done a wicked and totally futile deed. I was never able to forgive him.”

Harris was arrested on the day of the explosion. John Lloyd, a friend and fellow ARM member in whom Harris had confided his plans, gave evidence for the state against Harris in exchange for his, Lloyd’s, freedom. Harris was hanged on April 1, 1965.

During Harris’s trial, the ARM resorted to the farcical. Some members had written a draft letter to the Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, to be sent after some dramatic explosion. Verwoerd was called upon to announce over the air that he submitted to the demands of the ARM, and would presumably resign or declare a change of heart. How, asked Paton, could intelligent men and women have entertained such an illusion?

If Adrian Leftwich and his fellow radicals of the ARM ensured that the Liberal Party would be regarded with the deepest suspicion, then John Harris’s act hardened public opinion against the party and its causes to an even greater extent. By their actions the members of the ARM handed to their enemies far more lethal ammunition than they themselves ever accumulated for their dramatic deeds.

What did the ARM have to show for its efforts? Not much. Most of those mentioned wrecked their lives. Harris was hanged. Adrian Leftwich, “a broken, self-lacerating wreck of a man,” was last heard of lecturing at York University, where he confessed his shame in an article from the heart titled “I Gave the Names”. A cancer of mistrust and mutual suspicion developed among those ex-ARM members who fled to England. Even in 1996, 32 years after Leftwich betrayed his comrades, accusations of intrigue and treachery were still being bandied about. In that year Lloyd, the friend whose evidence was instrumental in convicting Harris, had his application to stand as a Labour Party candidate in Exeter turned down after his duplicity was exposed by two former ARM members in Britain, John Laredo and David Evans.

The ARM must rank as the most pathetic and ineffectual “resistance movement” — if it can be called that — in the history of “revolutionary movements”. The wretched memory of their humiliating and total failure, and their record of stabbing each other in the back, must sit heavily on the hunched shoulders of its gutless perpetrators, most of whom still cower in the countries to which they scuttled. The ARM didn’t do much to end apartheid. Apartheid was defeated by those forces of established authority that wished to see a stable and prosperous nation.

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