John Harris and the Joburg station bomb: The real timeline

On BBC TV Peter Hain repeats, as fact, the questionable claim that the SAP were given ample warning and chose to do nothing

The Johannesburg station bomb and a BBC TV programme

On July 24, 1964, a bomb made mainly from sticks of dynamite and petrol exploded in the main concourse of Johannesburg railway station, killing a grandmother, disfiguring for life her 17-year-old granddaughter, and injuring others.

The bomb-maker was John Harris, a member of South Africa's small Liberal Party (1953-68) and a member also of a small sabotage group, the African Resistance Movement (ARM), whose members had been committed not to use violence against people.

Harris was hanged on April 1, 1965, after being found guilty of murder. The author of the article below is Maritz van den Berg, a friend of Harris who lived in Pretoria, attended every day of his trial, and visited him regularly in Pretoria Central Prison until the day before his execution. Maritz was a member of the Liberal Party in Pretoria, but not a member of the ARM sabotage group. He emigrated to Britain in 1966.

In a recent BBC TV commentary on the state of contemporary South Africa, the Kenyan-born, South Africa raised, but now British based, politician Peter Hain repeats the legend that the South African police deliberately blocked action on a telephone warning transmitted by Harris to newspapers in Johannesburg and the South African Railway Police. The programme, "South Africa: The massacre that changed a nation" - was broadcast in Britain on BBC2 on Wednesday 24 April 2013. It is due to be screened internationally on BBC World on Saturday 4 May and Sunday 5 May.

The bomb exploded somewhere between 8 and 13 minutes after the warning was given by Harris. His telephoned warning was the subject of intense discussion and scrutiny in an article including different comments on Politicsweb on 27 August 2010, titled "'John Harris was not a hero'".

This was followed by an article on Politicsweb on 7 September 2010 containing separate statements by three former senior security policemen, under the title "John Harris, Gordon Winter and the station bomb".

These articles were critical of unexamined assumptions stated online as fact by the South African journalist, Jeremy Gordin, and in a book by the former British journalist, David Beresford, Truth is a Strange Fruit (Jacana, 2010).

No attention was given to these criticisms by Peter Hain MP in his BBC programme.

The Hain family, who lived in Pretoria, were close friends of Harris, and because both parents were banned by the apartheid government at the time, 15-year-old Peter Hain, at the burial service recited the words from Ecclesiastes 3:3: ‘A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up".

In 1972 in Britain, Hain was sent a letter bomb that failed to explode because of faulty wiring. In 1976, he was tried for, and acquitted of, a 1974 bank robbery in London, after he had allegedly been framed by the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS).

- Paul Trewhela

Countdown: John Harris's bomb and execution

Maritz van den Berg

The police raids which resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of many members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM), and to the planting of a bomb at Johannesburg station, began in Cape Town on 4 July 1964.

Early that morning the ARM activist Adrian Leftwich was arrested at his flat in Lemon Lane, Cape Town, and later the same day so was Lynnette van der Riet, who had been with Leftwich when the Security Police called, but had been allowed to leave. Over the next few days more detentions followed in Cape Town: Leftwich's comrades Spike de Keller, Anthony Trew, Eddie Daniels, Alan Brooks and Stephanie Kemp.

Adrian Leftwich died in Britain on 2 April this year.

Mike Schneider, who had managed to evade the Security Police, raced to Johannesburg and warned ARM members in the city that Adrian Leftwich was telling the Security Police everything he knew. The Johannesburg group came to quick decisions. Ronald and Hilary Mutch (who had British passports) motorcycled across the border to Botswana; Mike Schneider took an ARM escape route to Swaziland with Rosemary Wentzel; and Hugh Lewin decided to stay and face the consequences.

At 5.30 am on Thursday 9 July, with his comrades safely on their way out of South Africa, Hugh Lewin called at the home of John Harris, who had been recruited into the ARM in 1963, and had so far been inactive. Lewin told Harris that command of the ARM now passed to him and to John Lloyd, who was temporarily away in Natal, attending a wedding. He also told Harris where the ARM's cache of explosives, timers, instruction manuals, etc was stored. Later that morning, at 10.30am, the Security Police arrested Lewin at his office and, later on the same day, another ARM member, Roman (then known as Raymond) Eisenstein.

On Sunday 12 July, John Harris recovered the explosives cache from the cupboard in Witwatersrand University where it had been stored by another ARM member, Dennis Higgs, and transferred the material to a luggage store in Johannesburg Station.

On Tuesday 14 July, John Lloyd returned from Natal. John Harris telephoned him, they met for a snack, and Harris told Lloyd (who had joined the ARM in December 1963 and played only a minor role, acting as driver in one or two missions) that command of the ARM now rested with the two of them. They discussed various sabotage possibilities, but came to no decisions, either then or at a further meeting on July 17.

On Tuesday 21, July John Lloyd was questioned by the police but not arrested, whereupon he told Harris that he wanted to lie low for a while as he was now being watched. Harris accepted this, and started that day to make a bomb consisting of eight sticks of dynamite, five gallons of petrol - which made the bomb too heavy to carry, so he disposed of three gallons into his car tank - two detonators, and a timer.

On Thursday 23 July, John Lloyd was arrested.

On Friday 24 July at 4.33 pm - peak hour on a Friday afternoon in Johannesburg, with throngs of people pouring into the station on their way home from work - an explosion tore through the waiting cubicle above platforms 5 and 6 of Johannesburg Station, leaving shattered glass, blood and lacerated bodies. 

Mr B J Vorster, the Minister of Justice, appeared at the station very grim-faced indeed. Later that evening several of the previously detained ARM members, including Hugh Lewin, were brought to the station to view the bloodstained scene. Then Lewin was taken to The Grays, the much-feared Security Police Headquarters on the corner of Von Wielligh and Main Streets, and dragged into an interrogation room. He glimpsed John Lloyd slumped in a chair in an adjoining office, "flushed, mouth open, looking haggard and beaten", as he described it in a letter in 1995. Lewin was badly beaten and gave the interrogators John Harris's name as the last remaining ARM member still at large. At this stage he was quite unaware of any connection between Harris and the bomb blast, which he simply did not connect with the ARM.

At about 11 pm that evening Lieutenant H Muller and Sergeant J M Strydom arrested John Harris at his home, where he was sound asleep, and took him to The Grays, where he was subjected to a savage assault. After being taken to Pretoria Local Prison, where many political arrestees were being detained, Harris - either on the night of his arrest or the following night - informed Paul Trewhela, in a neighbouring cell, that his jaw had been broken, and the famous plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Dr Jack Penn, had been brought into prison to wire him up.

The most precise identification of the assailant (there may have been more than one) is by Hugh Lewin, who as noted above had already been interrogated and assaulted, and was in a room beneath where this was happening, and heard what was taking place. In his memoir, Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison, Barrie & Jenkins. London, 1974 - banned in South Africa, and later issued in an expanded second edition, Bandiet out of Jail - Lewin identifies a security policeman, Erasmus, as "the man who had beaten up Harris.... his fists full of blood, particularly the right fist, one with a large ring on, messy with blood." (pp.38-39).

Early in the morning on Saturday 25 July John Harris guided Major W H Brit of the South African Railway Police, the Officer in charge of the case, and Lieutenant W J van der Merwe, to 33 Oxford Road where they found 82 sticks of dynamite, detonators, timers, batteries, rubber gloves and a book on electrical circuitry.

On the same day the morning newspapers in Johannesburg carried the following reports:

1 Die Transvaler reported that a bomb had gone off in Johannesburg station at 4.33 the previous afternoon. It stated that the newspaper had received a phone call at 4.27 pm that afternoon from someone asking in excellent ("suiwer") Afrikaans to speak to the Editor. He was put through and told the person who answered: "Dit is die African Resistance Movement wat praat. Daar is 'n bom in die hoofsaal van die stasie. As iemand aan hom vat sal hy ontplof. Dit sal om 4.33 ontplof. Waarsku die stasie". die transvaler then telephoned the Station Police and informed them. 

2 The Rand Daily Mail reported the following sequence of events: (a) At 4.27 pm the previous afternoon the newspaper received a telephone call saying: "Listen carefully. This is a very important message. A time-bomb set for 4.33 will explode in the main concourse of Johannesburg Station this afternoon". The message was repeated and the caller rang off when asked to identify himself. (b) At 4.30 pm the Mail telephoned Colonel H Venter of the Security Branch in Johannesburg and told him of the call. (c) At 4.35 pm a member of the public telephoned the Mail to say a bomb had exploded on the station. (d) At 4.37 pm the Mail again telephoned the Security Branch to report the explosion.  

On Monday 14 September John Harris appeared on formal remand on charges of murder and sabotage, having made a statement admitting guilt before a magistrate on 11 September. The case against him opened in Pretoria on Monday 21 September. 

On 12 October John Harris confessed in court to planting a suitcase with dynamite and petrol in it next to a bench in the Johannesburg Station concourse at 4.05 pm, and then driving to the Jeppe Street post office and "telephoning the station and two newspapers to be cleared so that nobody would be hurt". This admission was contained in the confession he had written while in detention. Before Harris's statement was read out in court, the trial judge, Mr Justice Ludorf, asked Mr K E N Moodie QC (for the State): "Is this a confession?" Mr Moodie replied: "Yes". The judge then asked Mr Namie Phillips, senior counsel for the defence: "Are you objecting?" and Mr Phillips answered "No". 

Evidence on the timing of this sequence of events, given both before and after the above confession in court, included the following:

1 On 22 September, Mr J H Openshaw of the Rand Daily Mail told the court that he received a call "soon after 4.20 pm" [note: this differs from the time given in the RDM news report of 25 July, above] on 24 July from an anonymous telephone caller who told him to listen very carefully as what he had to say was very important. The caller said that a bomb timed to go off at 4.33 pm had been placed in the main concourse of the station, repeated the message, and hung up.

2 Also on 22 September, Mr J J van Rooyen of die transvaler told the court that he received an anonymous phone call "at 4.27 pm" on 24 July from a man speaking good Afrikaans who said: "Dit is die African Resistance Movement wat praat. Daar is 'n bom in die hoofsaal van die stasie. As iemand aan hom vat sal hy ontplof." He then rang off.

3 On 12 October, Capt J Vermeulen, police staff officer in Johannesburg, told the court that he received "a mystery call at between 4.25 and 4.27 pm" on 24 July from a man who did not identify himself and said: "This is the African Resistance Movement. Can you hear me ? There is a bomb somewhere in the main hall of the station. It will go off at 4.33 pm. Don't touch it". Under cross examination he denied that the caller had said the bomb was near the main concourse, or that that station should be cleared.

In response to these testimonies the senior defence counsel, Mr Namie Phillips, said only that John Harris (who had already formally confessed to planting the bomb at 4.05 pm) would state that the time of his telephone call to the police was more like 4.20 pm than 4.25 pm. For the rest he raised no fundamental objections to the times given, and there the matter rested.

The trial ended on Friday 6 November. Mr Namie Philips made a plea in mitigation based on three points: (a) That JH's mental condition was such that "here is a man who is not wholly normal"; (b) That John Lloyd had testified that JH had not intended to kill anybody; and (c) That JH had not acted for any motive of personal gain but only to create a spectacular political demonstration. No reference was made to the timing of the three warning telephone calls. Mr Justice Ludorf rejected Mr Philips' arguments and pronounced sentence of death.

An appeal was lodged, and on 2 February 1965 Mr H Hanson QC argued to the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein that Mr Ludorf's judgement should be overturned because (a) The Defence had established that JH was unable to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the crime, owing to mental disease; (b) The State had failed to establish that JH's mental state was such that he was capable of formulating an intention to kill; (c) The passages from a neurological journal relied upon by Mr Justice Ludorf had not been referred to by any witness and were therefore not evidence; (d) And finally that, should the court find JH guilty of murder, it should find that his mental state had so impaired his judgement that the sentence should be a lesser one. Again no reference was made to the timing of the three warning telephone calls.

The appeal was rejected on Monday 1 March.

John Harris was executed in Pretoria Central Prison on 1 April 1965.

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