John Harris (1937-1965): Hero and martyr to some – coward and killer to others

Posted: 13 April, 2023 | Category: Uncategorized

Francis John Harris (known as John)  with wife Ann –  happy days before the July 1964  bomb blast in Johannesburg 


The Only White by Gail Louw, Chelsea Theatre, April 4– 22, 2023




Soon after 4 pm on July 24, 1964, a bomb in a suitcase was placed in the Europeans Only section of a railway station in Johannesburg by 26- year old Francis John Harris, leader of the recently formed anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement (ARM).

The blast was so strong that it killed 77- year old Ethel Rhys and removed half the face of her twelve year old grand-daughter, Glynnis Burleigh.

Twenty- three other men, women and children travelling at rush hour on a Friday evening were rushed to hospital.

When they came out again, their lives, and some  of their faces, had changed forever.

South African playwright Gail Louw. Of the play she said:”This is a beautifully enacted depiction of the story and is both poignant and heartwarming in the way the characters support and love one another.”


This is some of the background, but not the over-riding theme, of a new play in London called The Only White by the South African playwright, Gail Louw.

The title?

Harris was the only white to be executed  when apartheid dominated every aspect of life in South Africa.

On April 6, her play was the subject of a discussion on the BBC’s flagship radio programme Today. It included contributions from John Harris’s son, David, now a lawyer in London, and the Labour peer and author, Peter Hain.

In 1964, David was a year-old baby.

David Wolfe (son of Ann and John Harris) now a successful lawyer in London


Peter was fourteen.

The Harris’s and the Hains were close friends and the play and the BBC programme made it quite clear that while Mr and Mrs Hain were against apartheid they were also set against violence.

But they were loyal to those they liked and after Harris was found guilty of murder and hanged on April 1,1965 , the liberal-minded couple did what they could to help Ann and David.

Peter Hain (left) marching away from Pretoria and now sitting in the House  of Lords in London

Peter Hain, whose memoir A Pretoria BoyThe story of South  Africa’s ‘ public enemy’number one’ inspired Louw’s play, told Today listeners that he is proud of his parents for the way they defied the apartheid machine which forced his family,  and what was left of the Harris family, to uproot and begin again in Britain.

The handful of reviews written (so far) about The Only White say a section of the audience  at the Chelsea Theatre  will know next to nothing about what was going on in South Africa in 1964.

One suggested (maybe as a joke)) a quick dip into Google might help before you bought a ticket.

Better help for beginners  (I believe)  comes from David Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa -South Africa in Perspective published by the BBC in 1981.

Chapter 17 has the intriguing title You can carry on interrogating my dead body which is an extract from a suicide note from Mpetla Mohapi found dead in is police cell.

Harrison paints part of  the picture –

  • In October 1963 eleven men, six black and Indians and four whites appeared in court in Pretoria on charges of sabotage. Seven of the men in the dock during the Rivonia Trial, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, made up the high command of The Spear of the Nation. Mandela told the court that they had decided on sabotage rather than terrorism because they did not want to kill anyone.
  • On 12 June 1964 the seven- month trial ended. Mandela and seven others, including one white, were sentenced to life imprisonment
  • The verdict was followed by a fresh outbreak of sabotage, again mainly buildings and pylons.
  • But then on July 24, 1964 a time-bomb in a suitcase exploded in the concourse of the main railway station in Johannesburg. John Harris. a teacher and a former chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, was arrested and charged with murder. A statement was produced in court in which Harris admitted he had planted a bomb; he had meant it as a spectacular demonstration and he had telephoned a warning and had expected the concourse to be cleared.
  • Harris was found guilty sentenced to death and hanged.


In the Today programme, Peter Hain spoke with passion about the way Harris’s warning had been ignored by the police and the South African authorities.

He said, “He telephoned his warning having planted the bomb urging them to clear the concourse. It was deliberately ignored. The decision, it later emerged, went all the way up to the police minister who actually preferred the bomb to go off to create an excuse to clamp-down on anti-apartheid activists.”

The BBC presenter interrupted:  ” ‘He’d left it (the suitcase full of dynamite sticks) in the Whites Only section of the station, hadn’t he?”

Hain replied: “Yes, he had. And he’d placed a label on the suitcase saying ‘ Coming back’ on whatever but the most important thing is that he’d telephoned a warning that was absolutely ignored by the authorities.”

Those who want to believe that John Harris was a martyr rather than a killer, point to this time and time again.

Glynnis Burleigh next to her grandmother Ethyl Rys who died a few days after the bomb blast in Johannesburg on July 24, 1964

In short, the man who planted a bomb that killed a 77- year old woman, removed most of the face of a 12- year old girl and sent 23 people  into hospital was really a lover of peace who didn’t want  to hurt anyone.

The bomb blast would show the authorities that there were whited as well as blacks ready to stand up and fight a vile apartheid system.

And if, successful, the ARM would divide the white community and lay the foundation for a new, race-free, South Africa.

In External Mission – The ANC in Exile 1960-1990 (Hurst and Company, London 2012) Stephen Ellis ( a former editor of Africa Confidential)  wrote – “Many of the liberal activists who embraced violence as a tactic, like John Harris of the ARM, also believed that a few acts of exemplary violence would spark a general rising. The possibility that the state might re-organise itself and develop a particularly ruthless and effective security apparatus does not seem to have crossed their minds. Joe Slovo, for one, later admitted frankly how massively he had under-estimated the National Party government’s capacity to counterattack.”

But, say those who see Harris as a martyr, if only the authorities had acted faster.

Playwright Gail Louw said in an interview that her play was based on fact, depicting a period of apartheid South Africa “when an act of extreme violence was undertaken by a gentle, loving man who felt that such an act might lead to change for the oppressed people of his country.”


Glynnis Burleigh, the survivor of a bomb blast that left her with life-changing injuries.

Joanna Moorhead spoke to Glynnis Burleigh (The Guardian, August 13, 2016) who said – “I don’t think John Harris was a martyr.He might have been to others but he wasn’t ever in my eyes. I see any form of terrorism as cowardly.” Asked how she felt when people said that John Harris didn’t want to hurt people and didn’t want the bomb to go off, she said – “How could you put eight sticks of dynamite next to a woman and a child and not expect to hurt  them.”



Some in South Africa still see John Harris as a martyr  who died in the name of Freedom. He is said to have walked to the gallows singing ‘We shall overcome.’


But to return to David Harrison –

“The station bomb affair probably did more than any one single act to frighten and anger people. The whole Rivonia trial, of course, had shaken them. For the first time people realised that a widespread organisation was forming in the wings. It was seen as a tremendous coup for the security people to have pulled in the brains of the whole outfit. So the whole sequence of events dragged a lot of English-speakers along with the government.

“In the same way that Macmillan’s wind of change speech had propelled many English- speakers into the Nationalist camp over the Republic, so many more now accepted that white South Africans had to stand together to face what they saw as a terrorist onslaught. As it did in later years, danger, real or imagined, helped to bring English and Afrikaans-speakers together and provided the politicians with the perfect rallying cries.”

There might never be a last word on the subject of John Harris and the way people like him justify violence. But the last word here is by a man who knew John Harris well, the  South African liberal /anti-apartheid activist, Maritz van den Berg .

He writes – Ms Louw’s views are well-intentioned, and she is clearly a very nice person, but she has been badly misinformed about John Harris’s bomb and subsequent trial.  As a close friend and political ally of John’s who was arrested shortly after him, was held in a prison cell near to his for a month for interrogation, and who attended every day of his subsequent trial and regularly visited him in prison until the day before his execution, may I offer these corrections to what she has been told?

First, regarding the warning telephone calls mentioned by her.  According to sworn evidence given in John Harris’s trial on 22 September 1964, these calls were made to the Rand Daily Mail’s reporter J H Openshaw soon after 4.20 pm; to Johannesburg station’s Captain J Vermeulen between 4.25 and 4.27 pm; and to the Transvaler newspaper’s reporter J J van Rooyen at 4.27 pm.   None of these witnesses’ testimonies contained the phrase “it is not our intention to harm anyone”. They are an invention, made18 years after the Harris trial, by an English journalist Gordon Winter in his book ‘Inside Boss’ (page 93) and since widely repeated.

Second, Harris’s warnings left between 8 and 13 minutes for clearing a terminal almost the size of Waterloo station at peak hour on a Friday afternoon, with dense crowds of commuters streaming home to the suburbs.  This was an absolutely impossible time for clearing the station, and he must have known it.

Police hold back stunned crowds at Johannesburg’s Park Station after the bomb blast on July 24, 1964

Third, so far from Harris being a proponent of non-violence, he had for months been trying to persuade anyone willing to listen that it would be absolutely right to take some lives now if that would save more lives later.  Among these he proselytised were Peter Hain’s father Walter, and also myself, when I happened to visit him 10 days before his bomb blast.

Fourth, while planning his bomb John Harris wrote a letter (authorship of which he admitted in court) to the then Prime Minister Dr Verwoerd demanding political reform, ending with the threat that if the Government did not respond to his demands for reform “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”.

Finally, when on the evening of the bomb blast he came home from work and heard (with his wife Ann) the radio news of that afternoon’s bloodshed at the station, he showed not the slightest sign of remorse or even of surprise.  According to Ann’s sworn courtroom testimony on 20 October 1964, he was “very cheerful, talkative and elated”. When his father dropped in for a visit he “chatted animatedly” and then went to bed, and slept soundly until woken by the police and arrested.  Are these the reactions of someone who meant no harm to anyone, or of  one fulfilling his threat to Dr Verwoerd?

I offer my sincere apologies to the wholly admirable and well-meaning Gail Louw for this screed, but feel that I owed the truth to the many people whose lives were ruined by John Harris’s bomb.

For instance (a) the 77-year-old Mrs Ethel Rhys, who had all the flesh blown off her legs, leaving them as exposed bones, and died three weeks later after indescribable agony; (b) the12 year-old girl Glynnis Burleigh, who had much of her face blown away, spent years having skin transplants from her father’s backside to give her a passable semblance of a face, and lived the rest of her life as recluse; and (c) the scores of other innocent victims who have no voice at all.