28 February 2013

Family letters added to the John Harris collection (AL3273)

View the John Harris CollectionA valuable collection of 60 hand-written letters from John Harris to his sister Jane whilst in prison has been donated by Jane Harris to SAHA in October 2012. These letters have now been processed as series G of the existing SAHA Collection AL3283: The John Harris collection.

John Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) who was elected to its National Committee, joined the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a militant anti-apartheid resistance movement founded by members of the LPSA. From its first operation in September 1963 the ARM continued with the bombing of power lines, railroad tracks, roads, bridges and other
vulnerable infrastructure until July 1964 without any civilian casualties. On 24 July 1964 Harris planted a bomb at the Johannesburg train station, killing Ethel Rhys and injuring 23 people. He was arrested, convicted of murder and hanged on 1 April 1965, aged 27.

While the letters, written from 15 September 1964 to 23 March 1965, reflect Harris's day to day existence in the Pretoria Prison it also give insight into his state of mind during the trial and the time leading up to his execution: "My problem now is a fairly straight-forward (but not necessarily easy) one of not crossing bridges, of keeping up morale, & doing the limited range of positive things which are open to me and mainly discussions with lawyers.

"I do like writing to you two. I feel I can just chat away" and this is exactly the manner in which he conveys everyday news of letters he had received and people who had visited. He often writes to his sister, herself a teacher, about teaching and as an avid reader he often discusses the books he had been reading. There are times when he writes on a daily basis and it becomes evident just how important this correspondence with his sister has become.

He stresses in almost every letter how grateful he is for the on-going love and support of his family and also uses the letters to convey important messages regarding the well-being of his family:

One can to a fairly large extent absorb the blows & keep facing the cold winds with some strength (even when the blows are tremendous & the winds piercingly icy) as long as one has the innermost support that can only come from one's immediate family, & from no others in the world. And that I've got from Ann (& David) from Mom & Dad, from you two [Jane and Drew].

The tone of the letters vary according to his mood:

"I'm trying to maintain a sort of compartmentalised existence, living in the present & enjoying what I have in the way of books, food, letters and so-on. This is the rational thing to do & for the most part I manage it fairly well. Of course my spirits do oscillate, & on the downswing, life can seem rather depressing"

And towards the end of the correspondence, as the trial progresses he talks of a "Monster Sluggish Depression".

He writes the last letter to his sister a week before his walk to the gallows on 1 April 1965.