30 July 2014

Collection of the month: The John Harris collection (AL3273)

24 July 2014 saw the 50th anniversary of the anti-apartheid bombing by John Harris at the Johannesburg train station. He became the only white person to be hanged for a political offence during apartheid.

Police photograph of John Harris, 1964. Archived as SAHA collection AL3273_D1_043bBorn in 1937, teacher and sportsman John Harris, became actively involved in the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) in 1960 and was soon elected to the National Committee. As chairman of the South African Non-racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) he travelled to Switzerland in 1963 to testify at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), seeking South Africa's exclusion from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics because of its racially discriminatory sports policies. His passport was seized on his return, and a year later he was served with banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act.

He 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. The bomb he planted on 24 July 1964 killed Ethel Rhys and injuring 23 people. He was arrested, following the confession by one of his colleagues, John Lloyd. Harris was convicted of murder and hanged on 1 April 1965, aged 27.

Materials comprising the John Harris collection at SAHA consist of Harris's police docket, trial records, prison and media files donated by his son David Wolfe; his Security Legislation Directorate (SLD) file obtained through a Promotion to Access of Information Act (PAIA) request, and a collection of letters written by Harris to his sister Jane whilst in prison (1964-1965). Cover of John Harris's prison register. Archived as SAHA collection AL3273_D1_001

The materials contained in the police docket kept on John Harris (series A), the John Harris trial records (series B), his court exhibitfile (series C), prison files (series D and D1) and media file (series E) form the bulk of the collection. Copies of the police investigation file and the court transcripts were obtained from the SAPS Museum in Pretoria and the prison files and court exhibit file from the Department of Correctional Services Archive at Pretoria Central Prison. Most of the documents are photocopies of the original documentation. Materials in the court exhibit file and the two prison files have been digitised.