A play in London about the one White political activist to be hanged for his half within the resistance to South Africa’s apartheid regime (John White, pictured above) stirs up deep feelings for Peter Hain, who remembers his household’s involvement within the battle.
It was fairly one thing viewing a cathartic occasion 60 years in the past from my South African childhood re-enacted in a surprising new play, The Solely White.
Written by Gail Louw and carried out brilliantly in April at Chelsea Theatre, London, it took us again to 24 July 1964 when a bomb exploded on the Whites-only concourse of Johannesburg’s major railway station.
I nonetheless bear in mind, aged 14, listening to the information on my bed room radio in Pretoria and speeding to hunt reassurance from my anti-apartheid dad and mom, not imagining for a second that they might be concerned however needing to listen to them say so.
Just a few days later, Ann Harris, together with her six-week-old son David, turned up unexpectedly at our entrance door from her dwelling in Johannesburg, explaining that her husband John had been arrested and was being held in Pretoria native jail.
Each have been academics, shut household buddies and fellow activists within the Liberal Social gathering – by then the one authorized anti-apartheid group, Nelson Mandela’s African Nationwide Congress and different teams 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. However she had been advised that she may convey meals for him every day and acquire his laundry.
Mother and Dad, with typical generosity, urged that she stick with us till his launch.
They assumed that John, who had been beneath police surveillance after being issued with a banning order months earlier than, couldn’t presumably have been concerned within the station bombing and could be launched in per week or so.
Ann and child David moved in. However, as a substitute of a brief keep, they have been with us for almost 18 months and have become a part of the household.
Then, a month after the explosion, got here the information that an aged lady sitting close by had died and John Harris was charged with homicide.
Ann had admitted to my dad and mom what she had identified all alongside: that John was certainly liable for the bombing.
Though Mother and Dad have been upset and condemned with out qualification what John had achieved, they remained satisfied that he by no means supposed to hurt anyone. He had meant it as a spectacular demonstration of resistance to tightening state oppression.
Certainly, as confirmed in proof at his trial, he had telephoned a 15-minute warning to each the police and two newspapers, urging that the station concourse be cleared. However the warning was ignored.
Twenty years later, it emerged that the choice to not use the station loudspeaker system to clear travellers from the concourse had gone up by means of the infamous head of the Bureau of State Safety (BOSS), Hendrik van den Bergh, to the justice minister, John Vorster.
John Harris was a member of the African Resistance Motion (ARM), with different shut buddies within the Liberal Social gathering, who felt that non-violent means had reached the top of the highway and that the sabotage of installations akin to energy pylons was the one manner ahead.
My dad and mom had themselves been confidentially sounded out to affix the motion. However, fairly aside from the intense ethical questions raised by violence, Mother and Dad thought of such motion naive and counterproductive, believing it might merely invite even higher state repression with out attaining something tangible.
John Harris’s trial opened on 21 September 1964 in the identical Pretoria Supreme Court docket chamber as, a 12 months earlier than, Nelson Mandela and his underground management comrades had been sentenced to life imprisonment.
On the outset got here a horrible blow: John’s station bomb co-conspirator, John Lloyd – one other household pal and Liberal Social gathering member – was to be the principle prosecution witness.
Lloyd didn’t merely give proof in corroboration of John’s personal confession (which might have carried a life sentence for manslaughter), however, damningly, went a lot additional, insisting that John’s act was premeditated homicide. The implications have been to be deadly, for the decide accepted Lloyd’s model.
Nevertheless, Lloyd (the flatmate of fellow ARM member and pal Hugh Lewin, who had been arrested on 9 July) had been detained on 23 July, the day earlier than John carried out his a part of their venture. It was not established whether or not the safety companies thereby had advance discover of the station bomb, however Lloyd’s preliminary assertion to the police mentioning John Harris, and the plan to plant a bomb at a station, was made at 12.45pm on 24 July, almost 4 hours earlier than the explosion.
It could subsequently have been that the safety companies had even higher forewarning than John himself gave by phone. If that’s the case, like the choice to disregard that warning, it suited their functions to permit the bomb to blow up as an excuse for the clampdown that adopted.
Sentencing him to be hung, the decide acknowledged that Lloyd’s proof proved incontrovertibly that John certainly had ‘an intention to kill’ and so was responsible of homicide.
Lloyd was launched as a part of an immunity deal, by which he prevented being charged as an confederate, and flew to London along with his mom, refusing repeated pleas to retract his ‘intention to kill’ proof – and years later presenting himself as an anti-apartheid hero to the residents of Exeter the place he’d turn into a practising solicitor.
Simply earlier than 5am on 1 April 1965, John Harris ascended the 52 concrete steps to the pre-execution room subsequent to the gallows at Pretoria Central Jail to face the grisly, medieval ritual of being hanged by the neck till useless.
He was singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ when the hangman checked all was prepared and pulled the lever, plummeting him by means of large 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 face and observe a minute’s silence ‘for an excellent freedom fighter’, the one White political activist to be hung – over 100 blacks have been.
The station bomb triggered a frenzy. By no means earlier than had Whites been attacked on this manner. As my Dad had prophesied, the safety companies have been fast to use the ensuing panic. The bomb gave the apartheid authorities precisely the pretext they needed to implement an much more oppressive regime, and systematically to discredit and destroy the Liberal Social gathering, which turned unlawful just a few years later.
Having lengthy been targets of the Pretoria safety forces, my dad and mom have been now the principal targets of the entire state and its compliant media. As an alternative of being one in all many enemies, it was nearly as if we have been the enemy,
In September 1964, my Dad was handed a banning order with a particular clause inserted giving him distinctive permission to speak along with his spouse – for my Mother had been banned a 12 months earlier than. As a married couple, they needed to be given an Orwellian exemption from the traditional stipulation that banned individuals weren’t allowed to speak in any manner.
Then Dad’s employment as an architect specialising in hospital-laboratory design was blocked by the apartheid authorities, and our household was compelled to journey to exile in England.
Steaming out of Cape City on an ocean liner in March 1965, I bear in mind searching over the deck railings, feeling queasy because the ship heaved closely within the Cape rollers, and glimpsing Robben Island, grim behind the chilly spray, imagining how Nelson Mandela was surviving in his bleak cell, the place he was then into the third of his lengthy 27 years in jail.
The Solely White dramatically introduced all that trauma again – and as for witnessing actors enjoying my late dad and mom and my 14-year-old self, that was an actual emotional rollercoaster.
Lord Hain’s memoir A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Quantity One’ was printed in Africa by Jonathan Ball, and within the UK by Icon.