A True Patriot?

A 60-minute documentary.


Often, in the struggle for justice, a true patriot is not without honour, except within his own community.



On Friday, 24th July 1964, John Harris planted a bomb on a “Whites only” Johannesburg Station platform.

A rather quiet & un-assuming man – John Harris, a teacher by profession, had no desire to hurt – let alone kill anyone. He had reached a point where he needed to stand up & be counted.

Acting alone – a committed individual driven by an overwhelming sense of despair & frustration – John Harris’ intention was to let the South African authorities & the world know that there were many whites in South Africa who were totally opposed to racism and the policies of the Apartheid regime.

In order to avoid casualties, John Harris telephoned an urgent warning to a Senior Railway Police official, the Rand Daily Mail & Die Transvaaler newspapers.

His warnings went unheeded & at 4.33pm the bomb exploded killing a 77-year-old white woman and injuring 22 other white commuters.

John Harris was tried, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

On 1st April 1965 – gently mouthing “We shall overcome” – John Harris was hung at Pretoria Central Prison.

“A True Patriot ?” focuses on the life & times of John Harris the only white South African to be sentenced to death for opposing Apartheid.

In so doing the documentary interrogates the question: “when if ever is the taking of a life of a non-combatant justified in pursuit of a perceived just cause”? The answer is “never”.

The documentary makes a clear distinction that in John Harris’ case loss of life was never intended but happened by accident.

In a broader international context, however, on the world stage, since WWII, civilian fatalities have increasingly become factored into the strategies of war to the extent that we now have the accepted household term “collateral damage” which through its very definition serves to legitimize this phenomenon

With John Harris, however, this was never the intention – “collateral damage” was not even in his vocabulary, let alone his consciousness.

But what if anything at all did Harris achieve by his actions?

There is also the question of why Justice Minister John Vorster did not clear the station after receiving the warnings.

There is a belief that – having been notified by Harris’ telephone calls warning of the ticking bomb & his plea to have the station platform evacuated – the authorities took a conscious decision not to act and to allow the atrocity to play out.

This is borne out in the way that the South African government took full advantage of the atrocity and used it to whip indifferent and uncommitted White voters into line behind them.

The incident was a watershed – a line had been crossed – this was South Africa’s first taste of terrorism, and by the time John Harris came to trial, he never stood a chance.

Public opinion was totally against him.

In the eyes of the brainwashed general public, Harris was a mad bomber who had “deliberately set out to kill and maim innocent men, women and children”.

In their eyes, John Harris & his kind were terrorists that the general public needed to be protected against & if the state needed to introduce draconian measures to ensure this safety, then so be it.

In this kind of situation, personal liberty is readily compromised for the sake of personal & state security. In many ways, this was “white” South Africa’s “9/11”.

Condemned to the gallows, John Harris had one modest final request of his family and friends –
that his tombstone epitaph should one day read, “A True Patriot”.

It took 44 years for his wish to be fulfilled.

At a ceremony held at Freedom Park in 2009, John Harris’ name was officially entered into the “roll of honour” of those who sacrificed their lives fighting against Apartheid.

After the ceremony, the delegation moved to his grave-side in Pretoria where a tombstone was erected reading, “John Harris – A True Patriot”.

“A True Patriot ?” is the intimate & personal story of the life and times of John Harris & the extraordinary circumstances that led to the Johannesburg Station bomb-blast of 24th July 1964.




At eighteen minutes past four on the afternoon of Friday, 24 July 1964, a calm and precise man telephoned a senior official at the Johannesburg Railway Police and said:
“This is the African Resistance Movement [ARM]. We have planted a bomb in a large brown suitcase twenty feet from the cubicle above platforms five and six on the concourse of the new Johannesburg Railway Station. On the handle of the suitcase is tied a label bearing the words “Back in Ten Minutes”.

It is not our intention to harm anyone. This is a symbolic protest against the inhumanity and injustices of apartheid. The bomb is timed to explode at 4.33 p.m. Clear the concourse by using the public address system at once. Do not try to defuse the bomb as the suitcase is triggered to explode if it is opened.”

The man who made that call was John Harris.

A rather quiet & un-assuming man – John Harris, a teacher by profession, had no desire to hurt – let alone kill anyone.

He had reached a point where he needed to stand up & be counted.

Acting alone – a committed individual driven by an overwhelming sense of despair & frustration – John Harris’ intention was to let the South African authorities & the world know that there were many whites in South Africa who were totally opposed to racism and the policies of the Apartheid regime.

Harris then telephoned a briefer message to the liberal Rand Daily Mail which, believing human life to be in danger, quickly phoned the Security Police at their Johannesburg headquarters.

Finally, Harris telephoned a third warning to the pro-government newspaper Die Transvaler.

All these calls are on record and were later admitted as evidence in the High Court.

In spite of this, no warning was broadcast over the loudspeaker system at the Johannesburg Railway Station, and the bomb exploded at 4.33 p.m., throwing the beautifully tiled concourse into utter chaos.

A 77-yr-old white woman was killed and twenty-two other innocent white commuters injured.

What drove an outwardly seemingly normal man like John Harris to commit such a desperate act?

Certainly, he abhorred the system of Apartheid and had long been politically active.

On 12th February 1964, Harris was listed as a “Banned Person” in terms of the South African regime’s Draconian security measures.

An anti-apartheid activist, John Harris was a member of the Liberal Party, the South African National Nonracial Open Committee for Olympic Sports (SANROC) and had recently been recruited into the African Resistance Movement (ARM).

But these were all strictly non-violent movements.

Even the African Resistance Movement (ARM) – whose strategy was to protest and make spectacular political statements through sabotage – had as its strict central policy to avoid at all costs civilian targets.

With the advent of the Rivonia Trial, ARM affected a moratorium on further sabotage attacks in order to prevent any increasing pressure & justification for the death penalty on the Rivonia trialists.

Once sentencing had been concluded, ARM started up its attacks again – designed to show that even with the Rivonia Trial – the regime had failed to crush opposition to Apartheid.

In response to ARM’s renewed campaign of blowing up electricity pylons, radio masts, railway signals, post offices and government buildings, on the 5th July 1964, the regime began a systematic, concerted and comprehensive sweep of arrests and detentions of all know anti-Apartheid activists.

One of those detained on the 9th July was Hugh Lewin.

Hugh Lewin was an active member of ARM and had recruited John Harris into the movement six months earlier:

“Then on the 5th July 1964, they carried out a whole sweep of detentions. They systematically went through their ‘lists’.
In the process, they picked up MK people & suspected members of ARM. Under torture, people started breaking & more arrests were made.

One of the last people to get picked up was John Lloyd – he had been with John Harris up until the Thursday afternoon of the 22nd when he was detained. After that, John Harris was on his own. He was one of the very few that had still not been picked up”.

After the bomb-blast, as the injured were still being taken away on stretchers, the Security Police mounted a massive comb-out of all known political activists, Black and White.

During the next six hours, no mercy was shown.

Every person picked up for questioning was first beaten and then asked to talk.

Of the hundreds of people so treated, only two knew about the actual bomb plot.

The two were John Lloyd and John Harris.

John Lloyd was already in detention and talked within seconds of being kicked and punched by wild-eyed screaming security policemen.

By the time John Lloyd broke, John Harris had finally been picked up and was being interrogated in the same building.

A Black BOSS [Bureau of State Security] undercover police agent named Matthew Nkoana reported that a White liberal had asked him to find an old broken alarm clock.

This information linked in with other data obtained during the mass interrogations, and it all pointed to one man. He was John Frederick Harris, a South African schoolteacher living in Roodepoort, near Johannesburg, who had studied philosophy and economics at Oxford University.

Less than seven hours after the bomb blast Harris was arrested by Security Police officers and
immediately interrogated by Captain J. J. Viktor.

Gordon Winter, a self-confessed undercover security police agent was a friend of Captain JJ Viktor:
“ Viktor later boasted to me how he had persuaded John Harris to make a full confession within five minutes. This is roughly what he told me:
‘One of the latest tricks in interrogation is to lull the suspect into a false sense of security. You start by being over-friendly with him and then suddenly scream like a maniac. I’ve always believed the only way to make a man talk is to give him a bloody good hiding, but there’s something to be said for these new-fangled psychological methods from overseas.
I tried my own variation on Harris and it worked.’

Viktor said he first sat Harris down on a chair in the middle of the room.

Then he told him: ‘Look, John, you are a member of the South African Liberal Party, so I know you are not the type of man to go round blowing people up with bombs – so I’m not going to waste time trying to interrogate you about the station blast.’

Viktor said Harris started to smile when he heard this and thanked him.

Viktor then reassured him more by saying they could spend their time better by discussing sport because Harris’s file showed he was a leading figure in the anti-apartheid sports organization SANROC (‘South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee’).

‘When I asked him to name his favourite sport, Harris said he preferred playing cricket and tennis.

I told him I was mad about rugby but that I always made a hash of my dropkick.

Harris said he was a keen student of rugby but didn’t actually play the game as it was too rough for him.’

Viktor told me this gave him a good idea.

He picked up a newspaper, crunched it into a ball and walked back to the far wall with it.

He ran forward three or four steps and drop-kicked the ball of paper at a table in the corner.

‘Harris told me he knew at once why my kicks went wide and said I swung my foot out as I kicked, which took the ball off course.

I thanked him for his advice, picked up the ball of newspaper and carried it back to the wall.

I ran forward again and delivered a massive kick. Not at the ball but right on John Harris’s jaw.’

Harris hurtled backwards and somersaulted over the back of the chair.

As he lurched to his knees he swayed dizzily, cupped his chin in both hands, and blood spurted from his mouth as he coughed.

Viktor continued: ‘Agh, man, you should have seen the astonishment on his face. If he could have moved his jaw, man, I’m sure it would have fallen to the floor. He just couldn’t ’t believe my sudden change of mood had happened.’

Viktor said he did not waste any more time and as John Harris knelt there coughing he kicked him on the jaw again saying: ‘And that’s how I take a penalty.’

Viktor then walked back to the far wall, stood with his palms pressed against it and leaned forward snarling: ‘You see, Mr John Bloody Harris, I asked for special permission to interrogate you because my little child walks through Johannesburg station every day at the time your bomb went off. You could have killed my kid, so now I’m going to score some more points off your chin.’

Saying this Viktor ran forward screaming and kicked Harris again but this time in the stomach.

As Viktor returned to the wall and took up his pre-kick stance once more Harris managed to mumble: ‘I’ll talk, I’ll talk, but for Christ’s sake don’t kick me again, you’ve broken my jaw.’

He made a full verbal confession and next morning repeated it before another Security Police officer, Lieutenant W. J. van der Merwe.

A brain-washed general public convicted John Harris long before he got to trial.
A line had been crossed. This was “white” South Africa’s “9/11” – their first close-up experience of urban-terrorism.

In their eyes, John Harris represented “the enemy” – a cold-blooded killer with an extremist anti-South African political agenda. For them, it was a priority concern that the country should be protected against John Harris & “his kind”.

In this hysteria, the burning question of why Justice Minister John Vorster failed to clear the station went into the wind.

Spy-master HJ van den Bergh testified that the Railway Police had alerted Vorster about the anonymous telephone call received at 4.18 saying a bomb had been planted.

HJ had got this warning by 4.20 and had used his hotline to call Justice Minister John Vorster.

Even the judge dismissed Harris’s protestations that he had gone out of his way to having the railway concourse cleared ‘to eliminate all risk of harm to people on the concourse’.

The court did not believe that Harris had only meant the bomb blast to be a symbolic protest which would be witnessed by hundreds of people safely herded outside a police cordon.

The court was not interested in Harris’s insistence that he had put two gallons of petrol in the bomb so that the cordoned-off crowd would witness a massive sheet of flame and would be able, as he put it: ‘to visualize it quite clearly.’

At the time of the trial, Hugh Lewin was being detained under the indefinite “90-days” detention clause and was on trial for sabotage.

Lewin tells of how John Lloyd turned states evidence against John Harris at his trial:

“Lloyd gave evidence against Harris – he effectively put the rope around John’s neck.

He then smuggled a note to me – I was in detention at Pretoria Central – 90 days & now charged under the sabotage act.

Lloyd said he had to give evidence against Harris because it became a murder trial – but he did refuse to give evidence against me – after all, I was his flatmate.

In the second week of John’s trial – Lloyd came in as a witness and laid it all on the table.

As a result of his telling evidence, we changed our plea from not-guilty to guilty.

At the trial – we were separated from John.

Arthur Chaskelson was standing for us – we were never linked to the station Bomb”.

Self-confessed undercover security police agent, Gordon Winter whom posing as a left-wing student got to know Harris well claims that Harris was anything-but a violent man and would never have planted the bomb to kill or harm anyone:

“ I knew John Harris well, and in fact, he took me with him on the very first public demonstration he made against segregated sport in South Africa several months before the bomb blast.

No. John Harris was anything but violent.

He was, in truth, a softie and dozens of his friends who live in Britain today will, I am sure, confirm that”.

Winter has one further anecdotal insight into the unwavering integrity of John Harris.

“I have one more story to tell about John Harris which gives a good insight into his character, and also into the tactics used by H. J. van den Bergh.

As John Harris sat in the death cell a warder asked him if he would like to escape.

When Harris said he would the warder said it could be arranged for £7,000.

The warder wanted a down payment of about £1,000 as proof of goodwill and £6,000 after the escape.

Harris quickly whispered this to one of his visitors (probably a relative) and within a matter of days the warder received a brown-paper parcel containing banknotes to the value of £1,000.

The parcel was sent anonymously but I understand that a short note inside it told the warder that nobody outside the prison would be contactable and that the warder must arrange the escape with John Harris.

The note added that if Harris succeeded in his escape a further £6,000 would be posted to the warder.

Harris and the warder hatched an escape plot which would be mounted one or two weeks before the date Harris was due to hang.

On a particular night, the warder gave him a suit of civilian clothing, a toy gun and some black shoe polish.

The polish was for Harris to daub over his face so that his skin would not reflect the moonlight as he sneaked out of his cell, climbed a rope over the wall and jumped into a car parked nearby which he would use to drive to freedom.

Convinced he was going to cheat the hangman, Harris lay in bed wearing the suit and waited for the warder to open the door at 2 a.m. as arranged.

The door did open. But instead of the warder it was a smiling H. J. van den Bergh who walked in and said: ‘Come on, John, give me that thing you have in your pocket.’

Astonished, John Harris handed HJ the toy gun.

The warder had been planted on Harris by HJ right from the start.

He had been told to offer an escape plan to Harris because HJ wanted to capture Harris’s other associates in the underground African Resistance Movement.

As he stood in the death cell that night, H. J. van den Bergh offered to let Harris escape if he agreed to spy for South African intelligence when he reached Britain.

But even this was a trick. If Harris had agreed to spy for South Africa, H J intended asking him to
disclose, as proof of ‘good faith’, the names of the people involved in the escape plot.

But HJ never got to first base.

Harris told him: ‘You are wasting your time. I’d rather hang than a spy for you people overseas.’

That plot by H. J. van den Bergh is one of South Africa’s best-kept secrets.

I tried every trick in the book to persuade HJ to let me publish a splash front-page story disclosing that ‘the dreaded Communists could even infiltrate the death cell’.

But HJ could not do so. It would have exposed his warder as a plant”.

On 1 April 1965, as the noose was placed round John Harris’s neck he sang We Shall Overcome.

His body was taken to the Pretoria West Cemetery for cremation.

There, a boy aged fifteen, whose parents were banned and could not attend the ceremony, stood up at the last minute with a farewell message to John Harris.

Reading from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, he said:

‘A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up… .’

The young boy and his parents had been friendly with John Frederick Harris and they knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that he had been a gentle, peace-loving man who would never have planned to harm anyone with his misguided bomb of protest.

The boy was Peter Hain, who also became a prime target of Pretoria.

Years later in exile in London Peter Hain headed up the anti-Apartheid movement’s international sports and cultural boycott campaign against South Africa which became one of many effective weapons used to finally bring about the collapse and demise of the apartheid regime.

Along with other members of the African Resistance Movement, [ARM], Hugh Lewin was tried for sabotage. He was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

John Harris was tried, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

The only white South African to be sentenced to death for fighting Apartheid, John Harris’ dying wish was that his tombstone epitaph should read, “A True Patriot”.

It took 44 years for his wish to be fulfilled.

At a ceremony held at Freedom Park in 2009, and attended by his wife Ann, daughter Lynn & son David – John Harris’ name was officially entered into the “roll of honour” of those who sacrificed their lives fighting against Apartheid.

After the ceremony, the delegation moved to his grave-side in Pretoria where a tombstone was erected reading, “John Harris – A True Patriot”.

“How loud must I scream…? – [A True Patriot]” is John Harris’ intimate & personal life-story and the story of the extraordinary times in South Africa during which he lived & the circumstances surrounding the 1964 Johannesburg Station bomb-blast with subsequent developments.

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