John Harris, Gordon Winter and the station bomb

Piet Swanepoel and General Johann van der Merwe comment on the Harris case

In late August Politicsweb published a review by Jeremy Gordin of David Beresford's new book "Truth is a Strange Fruit: A personal journey through the apartheid war." At the centre of the book is the story of John Harris of the African Resistance Movement who was hanged in 1965 for planting a bomb on the concourse of Johannesburg Station which killed one and injured others. This article provoked a response from all sides of the historical divide which Politicsweb extracted and published here.

The question around the Harris bomb is whether he gave sufficient warning to the police to enable them to clear the station concourse, or not. In Inside Boss (1981) the former journalist and spy Gordon Winter said that in a private interview with him General HJ van den Bergh of BOSS had "admitted that the Railway Police had alerted him about the anonymous telephone call it had received at 4.18 saying a bomb had been planted. HJ had got this warning by 4.20 and had used his hot line to call Justice Minister John Vorster." Winter further claimed that JJ Viktor of the security branch had been responsible the brutal interrogation of Harris, which had left him with a broken jaw.

This version is strongly disputed by Viktor and other former members of the security services. Politicsweb asked Pieter Swanepoel, formerly of Republican Intelligence and the National Intelligence Service and one of the commentators on Gordin's article, for his view of Winter's version of the events. This and a further comment on the case by former police commissioner General Johann van der Merwe were published in The Police Gazette: Un-official Newsletter for SAP-Veterans edited by Hennie Heymans. They follow below:

Comment by Mr Pieter Swanepoel (ex-RIS & NIS) and author of Really Inside Boss:

The fact that a lie has been repeated umpteen times does not make it "common cause". I prefer to believe general Viktor. You ask what the truth, as I see it, is about Harris and his warning about the bomb. Well to start with, it has always been my belief that a man who plants a bomb anywhere and then phones the Police to tell them about it, does so purely to attract the Police to the scene so that they will be the first to be destroyed.

Gordon Winter, who wrote his book in 1981, claims to have known Harris well. He writes that evidence by a state witness that Harris was a violent man, was not true. "He was, in truth, a softie and dozens of his friends who live in Britain, will, I am sure, confirm it". Strangely enough, Winter allowed this softie friend to be tried and never thought it prudent to offer this knowledge about him for the benefit of the court. Winter provides the following description about the placing of the bomb:

"The court did not believe that Harris had only meant the bomb blast to be a symbolic protest which would be witnessed by hundreds of people safely herded outside a police cordon. The court was not interested in Harris's insistence that he had put two gallons of petrol in the bomb so that the cordoned-off crowd would witness a massive sheet of flame and would be able , as he put it, ‘to visualize it quite clearly'".

Winter writes that the warning about the bomb was phoned to a senior official of the Johannesburg Railway Police at "just before eighteen minutes past four". He was told that the bomb was set to explode at 4.33p.m. In other words the Police would have to clear the concourse within 15 minutes. Could any "softie" in his right mind think that the police would necessarily believe the warning from an anonymous person, and understand it? Remember the warning was in English and most railway policemen were Afrikaans-speaking.

Winter claims that the evidence heard at the trial that the bomb was placed under a bench was incorrect. He claimed that the girl, Glynnis Burleigh, wrote a book about the experience in 1974. She wanted publicity for the book and Winter writes that he took her to the spot where she was when the bomb exploded and had a photo of her taken. She showed him that the bomb had in fact been placed right out in the open, "but this evidence came far too late to save John Harris". Winter claims that he wrote a story about the matter. It was published in the Johannesburg Sunday Express on 15 December 1974. (It would be interesting to read that story. Could you get hold of it for us?).

The truth, as I see it, was that Harris was an unfeeling and reckless person. His fellow members of the African Resistance Movement had all been arrested on the 4th of July 1964 or had fled the country and he was probably motivated by a desire to ‘outshine' them. In the event they went out of their way to make him into a hero. In my research book "The New African" I included five pages of quotes from that journal in which they tried to do that. The tragedy (for all the parties at that time), about Harris, was that he was not a communist, he was not an Africanist, he was not black, a liberal, who, with his associates, were all united in a strange desire to crush the Boers. The fact that they were financed by the CIA to publish their journal will always serve as an impediment to include them in the ranks of those who were the heroes of the "struggle".

Comment by General Johann van der Merwe (former commissioner of police):

In the case of the Johannesburg bomb incident where 22 persons were seriously injured, including one baby daughter who sustained serious burn wounds, and an elderly lady killed, the following facts are not disputed:

(a) The suitcase containing the explosives and timing device had been left on the new Johannesburg Railway station by John Harris in a place where the explosion would have caused massive death, injuries and destruction.

(b) The explosive device in the suitcase was timed to go off at 16h33.  At approximately 16h18 a person phoned the Rand Daily Mail and the "Die Transvaler" and informed them about the suitcase containing the explosive device left at the new Johannesburg Railway Station and which was timed to explode at 16h33

(c) Harris was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Subsequently deliberate and malicious lies were published to the effect that the Security Branch and General Hendrik van den Bergh were aware of the suitcase containing the explosive device and that they wilfully failed to take any steps to prevent the explosion in an effort to manipulate the incident for political ends.

Apart from the fact that during the trial of John Harris no shred of evidence was submitted to substantiate these wild allegations, the stupidity of the allegations is clearly emphasized by the followings facts:

(a) If the intention of John Harris was that this incident should serve merely as a symbolic act of protest against apartheid he would not have used real explosives.

(b) If, further, the intention was that only the Railway Stationed should be damaged, there were several other options which would have excluded the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.

(c) The mere fact that the Rand Daily Mail and "Die Transvaler" were phoned only 15 minutes before the explosion clearly indicates that there was no intention whatsoever that the explosive device should be defused before the time set for the explosion. It is quite obvious that this was a cold blooded, calculated and barbaric act to draw members of the police, whether it is Railway or South African Police, to the scene so that they could also be killed or maimed in the explosion. This was a well known technique of Umkhonto we Sizwe and members of Mkhonto we Sizwe substantiated this fact during the TRC process.

General Johan Viktor, at the time of the incident a lieutenant in the Security Branch, never interrogated John Harris.  Johan Harris had been interrogated by General Gerrit Erasmus, at that stage also a lieutenant in the Security Branch. These facts are being substantiated by General Erasmus and several of the former members of the Security Branch who had been involved in the investigation of this incident. It is once again obvious that in all the instances where wild allegations are being made at this stage, the persons responsible for these allegations either are completely ignorant about the facts or otherwise are fabricating these allegations in such a clumsy and inept manner that only a lunatic will believe it.

Source: The Police Gazette: Un-official Newsletter for SAP-Veterans, Vol 1 No. 14, September 5 2010

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