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Response to Terry Bell on John Harris

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Editor’s Note

Terry Bell’s obituary for Ann Harris also dealt, in brief, with the bombing of Johannesburg station by her husband John Harris in 1964, and his subsequent torture and execution. Maritz van den Berg asked GroundUp to publish the letter below in response to Bell’s article.

A GroundUp reporter researched the events of 1964. She also called several people who were alive at the time, knew John or Ann Harris, and were familiar with events.

What is clear to us is that there are conflicting versions of the station bombing and it would require time and resources that we do not have to fairly evaluate what happened five decades ago.

A brief response by Terry Bell appears at the bottom of van den Berg’s letter.

Bell knew both John and Ann Harris, and has first-hand knowledge of some of the events in question. He has a track record as an accurate recorder of news events. We stand by his report.

I knew Ann Harris well, and I wish Terry Bell had concentrated his obituary on the life and character of one of the kindest and most honourable people I’ve had the privilege to know, instead of writing an ill-informed tract about the bomb that her husband, John Harris, placed in Johannesburg station on 24 July 1964.

As a friend of John Harris who attended every day of his trial in Pretoria, and kept detailed records, may I offer the following corrections to Bell’s error-filled account?

Paragraph (1): Bell writes that “John Harris was “the only man classified ‘white’ to be hanged for a political offence against the apartheid state”.

Fact: Harris was not hanged for a “political offence”. He was hanged for murder, of which he was found guilty after a trial conducted to standards equal to any in a British court, defended throughout by an exemplary legal team.

In passing sentence on 6 November 1964, Mr Justice Ludorf made 3 points:

(a) “A person had been killed” by Harris’ bomb;

(b) Harris “had intended to kill people with the explosion, and a threatening letter he wrote to the Prime Minister, Dr Verwoerd, was no idle threat”.

(c) The court could therefore “not allow this potential mass murderer to be at large again”.

The threatening letter mentioned above was found by the police with the cache of explosives Harris had used in making the bomb. It made various demands of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, and concluded with the threat that if Dr Verwoerd did not respond, “you will be forcing us to accept that you will be moved only by the killing of White people. We have plans for such killing, and with great reluctance will put the plan into operation if you reject or ignore our ultimatum”. Harris admitted in court to writing this letter, and it led to his execution.

Paragraph (3): Bell writes that Harris “placed a small explosive charge and several containers of petrol in a suitcase on the main ‘whites only’ concourse”

Fact: The “small explosive charge” comprised 8 sticks of dynamite which blew a 150mm x 150mm hole through a 200mm thick concrete wall, and (together with the petrol) created a sea of fire with – according to an eye-witness, “flames going up to the concourse ceiling”. People (including children) with burning hair and clothes were running about; 23 were injured, some of them horribly, and one died an extended and dreadful death in hospital.

Paragraphs (4) and (10): Bell writes that Harris “telephoned warnings to newspapers and to the police to clear the concourse. These were ignored”; and: “It now seems probable that the police knew in advance of John Harris’s plan; they certainly were warned to clear the concourse after he had placed his suitcase bomb and did not do so”.

Fact: According to sworn courtroom evidence given on 12 October 1964, the telephone warning to the station police was made at 4.25 pm (neither Harris, nor his defence counsel, challenged this testimony, then or later). The bomb went off at 4.33 pm. The police could not possibly have cleared the concourse in 8 minutes. The issue of whether they “ignored” the warning, or acted in a dilatory fashion, does not arise.

Paragraph (4): Bell writes: “Whether or not the case was moved [to the waiting room where the bomb exploded] is still a matter of conjecture”.

Fact: There has never been any conjecture about this, except in Bell’s mind. On 22 September 1964 an eye-witness, Mr F A J Jansen, testified that shortly after 4.00 pm he saw Harris “put down a suitcase in the corner of the waiting room for platforms 5 and 6 and then acting quite suspiciously”. On the same day Mrs M J Fogwill told the court that she “saw Harris put down a suitcase on the bench in the waiting room at 4.17 pm”. Neither Harris, nor his defence counsel, challenged these testimonies, then or later.

Paragraph (11): Bell writes that John Harris “made clear — and his actions bore this out — that he had not had any intention to hurt or kill anyone”.

Fact: Harris’ letter to Dr Verwoerd (para 1 above) unequivocally stated an intention to kill; and his behaviour after arriving home, and hearing of the station carnage on the radio, confirms it. According to courtroom testimony given by Ann Harris on 20 October 1964, after arriving home Harris was “very cheerful, talkative and elated”. His father dropped in for a visit, and “he chatted animatedly”. He also telephoned somebody, then went to bed and slept soundly until woken by the police and arrested. Were these “cheerful” and “elated” reactions those of a man who had intended no harm, and was betrayed by the police with shocking results? Or those of one whose plan had worked exactly as intended?

I regret having to write about the above matters, but Terry Bell’s inaccurate and tendentious tract could not be left unchallenged.


Response by Terry Bell

There is a lot that can be said about the timing of warnings, the way the trial was conducted and the nature of the evidence produced. But to describe an apartheid court as akin to “British justice” is surely a sick joke.

And it is a fact that John Harris was the first name inscribed on Freedom Park’s Wall of Remembrance for heroes of the struggle against apartheid. 

I stand by what I write and have neither the time nor the inclination to indulge in any further response.

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