24 July 1964: 4:18 p.m.
A man carrying a suitcase rushes down the stairs to the crowded Whites Only platformohannesburg train station. Looking straight ahead, he runs his hands through his floppy fringe and mops the sweat off his brow with the sleeve of his tweed jacket. The man bends down, sets the shabby leather bag on the concrete platform, stands up, looks around, and carefully ties a cardboard tag onto the handle: “Back in 10 minutes.”
This is how I imagine it.
He glances at an elderly woman, wearing a coffee-colored cloche with an ostrich feather in the hatband, sitting on a nearby bench reading a newspaper. A train whistles in the distance. Two little girls run around in circles and bump into the man’s legs. He smiles and steps away. Taking the stairs two at a time to the station’s main entrance, the man races to his car and drives a few blocks to the Jeppe Street Post Office. The car tires squeal as he swerves around corners and jerks to a halt. He parks on the pavement, jumps from the car, opens the door of a red telephone box, lifts the receiver, drops a ten-cent coin in the slot, and dials “0” to be connected to the main police station.
“This the African Resistance Movement. We’ve planted a bomb in a large brown suitcase twenty feet from the cubicle above platforms five and six. 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 now by using the public-address system. Do not try to defuse the bomb as the suitcase is triggered to explode if it’s opened.”
He makes two more similar calls to local newspapers.
He lets out his breath, replaces the telephone receiver, dashes to his car, and drives home to his wife and baby boy.
24 July 1964: 4:33 p.m.
On the station platform, the timing device—connected to an electric battery, concealed in the innocent-looking bag—releases dynamite, cordite, a two-gallon plastic container of petrol, and two detonators. Metal shards shatter windows. Splinters, shrapnel, and rubble fly into the air striking and injuring twenty-two bystanders. Flames engulf the area setting three-year-old Cecelia Koekemoer’s clothes alight. The heat blisters twelve-year-old Glynnis Burleigh’s cheeks and scalp, and flames scorch nine-year-old Reinholdt Buttner’s face, head, and arms. The woman on the bench—the girls’ grandmother—dies instantly.
24 July 1964: 7 p.m.
Horror and fear echo in white society. Telephones ring constantly, but we don’t speak openly. The secret police are known to tap telephones. They have ears and eyes everywhere—buses, stores, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, churches, parks, schools, and universities. Politics is never discussed outside our family home.
Government-controlled newspapers and radio stations downplay the threat of the anti-apartheid movement, but many are not convinced. There is talk that this is the beginning of a communist revolution even though Nelson Mandela is already behind bars for inspiring a miners’ strike.
The fascist government under Prime Minister Vorster, however, is not to be underestimated.
24 July 1964: 11:45 p.m.
The apartheid regime’s security police mount a massive search of all known political activists. Hundreds of suspects, mostly blacks, are arrested under the 90-Days Detention Act, which allows suspects to be detained without trial for up to three months.
They show no mercy to one key suspect. A police officer punches the man’s face, breaks his jaw, and kicks him in the stomach. Blood spurts from his mouth and a few teeth fall onto the stone floor. The suspect, John Harris, confesses to planting the bomb. He is charged with murder and two counts of terrorist activity.
27 July 1964: 8 a.m.
The cafeteria on the university campus is full of chattering voices, scraping chairs, and clattering dishes. The smells of oatmeal, bacon, fried eggs, and coffee fill the air as I sit down at a corner table. I take the Cape Times out from under my arm and stare at a half-page profile photograph of John Harris. I press my glasses higher onto my nose and read and re-read the print underneath. Mr. Harris is named as the terrorist who placed the ticking suitcase on the station platform. To me, Mr. Harris, my favorite high school teacher, is anything but a terrorist. My jaw clenches. My stomach convulses. This is a man I thought I knew—he doesn’t have the eyes of a killer. The newsprint blurs and Harris’s photo goes out of focus as I press my index fingers against my temples.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. When I turn around I see that, except for the cleaners, the room is empty. My chair falls as I stand up. Leaving it on the floor, I walk over to scrape the congealed egg and soggy toast into the bin behind me. Then I rush to the bathroom, lean over a basin, and splash cold water on my face. Before I can stop myself I retch into a nearby toilet bowl.
On the way to class I call my mom from one of the campus pay phones.
“Mom, can this be true? Our Mr. Harris wouldn’t kill innocent bystanders.”
“They say he’s a member of the African Resistance Movement. You know that’s a terrorist organization.”
“They only bomb electric pylons and railroads. Not people.”
Before the morning school bell, I wait at the entrance to Johannesburg’s Hyde Park High School, watching for Mr. Harris’s black Austin to crunch down the gravel drive to the teachers’ parking area. He takes out his leather briefcase, closes the car door, turns around to wave at me, and strides to the assembly hall for the school’s morning prayers. He always wears the same clothes—a tweed jacket, gray slacks, and brown shoes. Old Spice aftershave wafts behind him.
Inside, the teachers sit on the stage facing us pupils. We sing daily hymns. Mr. Harris’s voice booms “Abide By Me” down the hall. When I bow my head to recite the Lord’s Prayer— “Our Father who art in heaven”—I ask only for his, Mr. Harris’s, grace.
I excel in all the subjects he teaches. Every time I conjugate French verbs, his voice echoes in my head. To my parents’ surprise, I read Camus’s L’Étranger. They thought it was difficult enough in English and are thoroughly impressed. I don’t tell them that I’m doing it for him, for Mr. Harris. The only teacher who never scolds me when I giggle or chat out of turn, who never overloads us with homework, who throws back his head and laughs when I tell him I will study French as well as psychology at university.
In art class one day, Mr. Harris’s soft green eyes settle on my watercolor painting. A man stares out through prison bars into the courtyard where wooden gallows with a trapdoor and a rope await him. “This is a very insightful view of what life in prison must feel like,” Mr. Harris says. “Please keep drawing. You have real talent.”
“Thank you, sir,” I reply, feeling my cheeks burn.
It’s the only time I get an A+ for art, my weakest subject. In my heart I know it’s not very good but I am happy for once to get a good grade.
In French lecture on campus that morning, instead of taking notes, I doodle, trying to piece together what I know about Mr. Harris and reconcile the high school teacher I thought I knew with the terrorist described in the paper. As chairman of the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee, I know he failed to persuade the International Olympic Committee to exclude South Africa from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and that he’s an active member of the legitimate Liberal Party, which advocates non-violence to dismantle apartheid.
What I don’t discover until a few months later is that Harris’s passport has already been seized; that he’s been served banning orders under Verwoerd’s Suppression of Communism Act, which means he’s prohibited from attending any meeting larger than two people; and that he’s a member of the underground anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. While I empathize with this condemned “terrorist” organization, which, like Mandela’s African National Congress, promotes the use of violence against infrastructure—not people—to overthrow the government, Harris’s action caused more harm than good. Hundreds more blacks were arrested, and additional inhuman laws legalizing their deportation to the Bantustans were introduced.
Harris is taken to Pretoria’s high-security prison. His wife, Ann, is allowed to visit him. Decades later the letters he wrote to her while awaiting trial were published in David Beresford’s book Truth is a Strange Fruit.
“I want you to have the happiest, fullest life you can manage, dearest, sweetest heart.” Harris wrote. “My love for you means that I profoundly want you to have as much happiness as possible for your entire life. And there is the separate very important point—that David must have happy surroundings.”
John Harris appears in court to face charges of murder and sabotage, having made a statement admitting guilt before a magistrate.
There is no trial by jury. Only one judge, white and right wing.
In the dock Harris admits to planting the bomb. He says that he intended it to be a non- violent explosion as a means of bringing about a change of government. He claims to have telephoned a warning to the police and to two newspapers—the Transvaaler and the Rand Daily Mail—and that he’d expected the concourse to be cleared so that no one would be hurt. The police deny any knowledge of the call.
Justice Ludorf finds Harris guilty of murder and sentences him to death.
John Harris is the only white person to be executed for political crimes during the apartheid regime.
1 April 1965
John Harris is hanged.
The hour he is to die, I close my eyes and imagine his executor slipping a black bag over his head. In my head, I hear the loud clap of the trapdoor, a plop, and see Harris’s legs involuntarily writhing, kicking, panicking, and then still.
When my head clears I open my photograph album and stare at our 1960 class photo. A row of us girls sit cross-legged on the floor. Harris, hands folded and smiling, stands to the right, next to a row of boys. Papers bulge in his jacket pocket.
The Rand Daily Mail posts a photograph of his wife, Ann, wearing dark glasses, her shoulders hunched watering their garden. Harassed by the security police and unable to find work, she and her son, David, move to England. Then the affair disappears from the public gaze, swept under the rug by the tightly regulated press. But I never forget John Harris.
11 February 1990
When Nelson Mandela—also considered a high-profile terrorist—is released from the Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town, after twenty-seven years in jail, Harris’s face flashes through my mind. If only he could’ve known that escalating civil strife in South Africa, combined with international campaigns lobbying for Mandela’s release, had finally produced results.
27 April 1994
After three decades of white rule, South Africa holds democratic elections and for the first time, non-whites are allowed to vote. Nelson Mandela is elected the country’s first black president. I can almost hear Harris singing N’kosi, Sekelel’ iAfrika—“God Bless Africa”—the new South African anthem, along with his comrades.
Post-apartheid police records that had been hidden from the public for three decades are released, revealing that Harris had called the police three times to inform them that there was a bomb on the Johannesburg station platform; that he’d asked them to evacuate the station; and that his intention had been to damage railway lines, not to harm anyone. Conspiracy theorists questioned whether Harris gave the security forces enough time to clear the station or whether John Vorster, justice minister at the time, ordered the railway police to delay their response to extract maximum political capital from the explosion. We now know that they deliberately let the bomb go off, hoping to further discredit anti-apartheid activism by equating it with terrorism.
Ten years after Mandela became president of South Africa, John Harris, once reviled as a murderous terrorist, is eulogized in Pretoria’s Freedom Park. His name is officially recorded in the roll of honor for those who sacrificed their lives and their liberty to fight apartheid. At his grave, a tombstone is erected with the epitaph: “A True Patriot.”
Reviled, forgotten, revered.
Today, the public debate continues. Harris is labeled both as a terrorist and a true patriot.
When he was exonerated and even glorified as a “victim of political execution,” I felt a sense of relief, but I still struggle to understand his belief that he was morally justified in his actions. Many of us wanted to hasten the end of apartheid, and although he had the courage to fight against an evil regime, most of us whites kept our heads down. His use of violence, against violence, to end violence, was not an option.
All these years later, I still think about the pain he caused in his attempt to oust a repressive regime. The mystery of why he did what he did is impossible to unravel. It’s easy to box people and their actions into categories—good or evil, virtuous or immoral, but Harris’s actions made me reflect on the gray areas in between.
John Harris is the only terrorist I’ve ever met. At high school I learned from him, admired him, and later felt deep distaste for what he did. Sometimes, I imagine Mr. Harris changed his mind, ran back to the station platform, and dismantled the bomb—that ticking suitcase that did little to usher in democracy and social justice. More than anything, I wish that John Harris and the other bombing victims had survived unscarred. And that David had a chance to get to know his father.
Susan Bloch is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington. Her essay “The Mumbai Massacre” (Blue Lyra Review) received notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. Her writing has also appeared in Tikkun, The Huffington Post, Quail Bell Magazine, Entropy, Pif Magazine, The Citron Review, and the anthology Secret Histories: Stories of Courage, Risk, and Revelation, among others. You can find more of her work at susanblochwriter.com.
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Blue Lyra Review
The Mumbai Massacre
What Kids4Peace Can Teach Us About Peace
Strangers in the Bush
The Citron Review
Quail Bell Magazine
Between The Time
In The Hands of Children
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