A play in London about the only White political activist to be hanged for his part in the resistance to South Africa’s apartheid regime (John White, pictured above) stirs up deep emotions for Peter Hain, who recalls his family’s involvement in the struggle.
It was quite something viewing a cathartic event 60 years ago from my South African childhood re-enacted in a stunning new play, The Only White.
Written by Gail Louw and performed brilliantly in April at Chelsea Theatre, London, it took us back to 24 July 1964 when a bomb exploded on the Whites-only concourse of Johannesburg’s main railway station.
I still remember, aged 14, hearing the news on my bedroom radio in Pretoria and rushing to seek reassurance from my anti-apartheid parents, not imagining for a moment that they would be involved but needing to hear them say so.
A few days later, Ann Harris, with her six-week-old son David, turned up unexpectedly at our front door from her home in Johannesburg, explaining that her husband John had been arrested and was being held in Pretoria local prison.
Both were teachers, close family friends and fellow activists in the Liberal Party – by then the only legal anti-apartheid group, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and other groups having been banned, their leaders on Robben Island or locked up elsewhere.
Ann was distraught, explaining how she had been refused permission to see John. But she had been told that she could bring food for him each day and collect his laundry.
Mom and Dad, with typical generosity, suggested that she stay with us until his release.
They assumed that John, who had been under police surveillance after being issued with a banning order months before, could not possibly have been involved in the station bombing and would be released in a week or so.
Ann and baby David moved in. But, instead of a short stay, they were with us for nearly 18 months and became part of the family.
Then, a month after the explosion, came the news that an elderly woman sitting nearby had died and John Harris was charged with murder.
Ann had admitted to my parents what she had known all along: that John was indeed responsible for the bombing.
Although Mom and Dad were upset and condemned without qualification what John had done, they remained convinced that he never intended to harm anybody. He had meant it as a spectacular demonstration of resistance to tightening state oppression.
Indeed, as confirmed in evidence at his trial, he had telephoned a 15-minute warning to both the police and two newspapers, urging that the station concourse be cleared. But the warning was ignored.
Two decades later, it emerged that the decision not to use the station loudspeaker system to clear travellers from the concourse had gone up through the notorious head of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS), Hendrik van den Bergh, to the justice minister, John Vorster.
John Harris was a member of the African Resistance Movement (ARM), with other close friends in the Liberal Party, who felt that non-violent means had reached the end of the road and that the sabotage of installations such as power pylons was the only way forward.
My parents had themselves been confidentially sounded out to join the movement. But, quite apart from the serious moral questions raised by violence, Mom and Dad considered such action naive and counterproductive, believing it would simply invite even greater state repression without achieving anything tangible.
John Harris’s trial opened on 21 September 1964 in the same Pretoria Supreme Court chamber as, a year before, Nelson Mandela and his underground leadership comrades had been sentenced to life imprisonment.
At the outset came a terrible blow: John’s station bomb co-conspirator, John Lloyd – another family friend and Liberal Party member – was to be the main prosecution witness.
Lloyd did not merely give evidence in corroboration of John’s own confession (which would have carried a life sentence for manslaughter), but, damningly, went much further, insisting that John’s act was premeditated murder. The consequences were to be fatal, for the judge accepted Lloyd’s version.
However, Lloyd (the flatmate of fellow ARM member and friend Hugh Lewin, who had been arrested on 9 July) had been detained on 23 July, the day before John carried out his part of their project. It was not established whether the security services thereby had advance notice of the station bomb, but Lloyd’s initial statement to the police mentioning John Harris, and the plan to plant a bomb at a station, was made at 12.45pm on 24 July, nearly four hours before the explosion.
It may therefore have been that the security services had even greater forewarning than John himself gave by telephone. If so, like the decision to ignore that warning, it suited their purposes to allow the bomb to explode as an excuse for the clampdown that followed.
Sentencing him to be hung, the judge stated that Lloyd’s evidence proved incontrovertibly that John indeed had ‘an intention to kill’ and so was guilty of murder.
Lloyd was released as part of an immunity deal, by which he avoided being charged as an accomplice, and flew to London with his mother, refusing repeated pleas to retract his ‘intention to kill’ evidence – and years later presenting himself as an anti-apartheid hero to the citizens of Exeter where he’d become a practising solicitor.
Just before 5am on 1 April 1965, John Harris ascended the 52 concrete steps to the pre-execution room next to the gallows at Pretoria Central Prison to face the grisly, medieval ritual of being hanged by the neck until dead.
He was singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ when the hangman checked all was ready and pulled the lever, plummeting him through huge trapdoors.
Fourteen hundred kilometres to the south, on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners, gruellingly digging limestone from the quarry, paused to stand and observe a minute’s silence ‘for a great freedom fighter’, the only White political activist to be hung – over one hundred blacks were.
The station bomb triggered a frenzy. Never before had Whites been attacked in this way. As my Dad had prophesied, the security services were quick to exploit the resulting panic. The bomb gave the apartheid government exactly the pretext they wanted to enforce an even more oppressive regime, and systematically to discredit and destroy the Liberal Party, which became illegal a few years later.
Having long been targets of the Pretoria security forces, my parents were now the principal targets of the whole state and its compliant media. Instead of being one of many enemies, it was almost as if we were the enemy,
In September 1964, my Dad was handed a banning order with a special clause inserted giving him exceptional permission to communicate with his wife – for my Mom had been banned a year before. As a married couple, they had to be given an Orwellian exemption from the normal stipulation that banned persons were not allowed to communicate in any way.
Then Dad’s employment as an architect specialising in hospital-laboratory design was blocked by the apartheid government, and our family was forced to travel to exile in England.
Steaming out of Cape Town on an ocean liner in March 1965, I remember looking out over the deck railings, feeling queasy as the ship heaved heavily in the Cape rollers, and glimpsing Robben Island, grim behind the cold spray, imagining how Nelson Mandela was surviving in his bleak cell, where he was then into the third of his long 27 years in prison.
The Only White dramatically brought all that trauma back – and as for witnessing actors playing my late parents and my 14-year-old self, that was a real emotional rollercoaster.
Lord Hain’s memoir A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’ was published in Africa by Jonathan Ball, and in the UK by Icon.