Jane Harris and the anti-apartheid movement
I was born in South Africa, which ensured a life of privilege, even though my family was not affluent. My parents were a fairly typical South African couple, i.e. not political, though not agreeing with treatment of other races. Somehow along the way my brother John and I became more aware of the brutal inequality in South Africa and both of us soon joined the Liberal Party, started by Alan Paton. On one memorable occasion the Liberal Party actually fielded a candidate for the election, but needless to say Mary Walker did not get anywhere.
My brother John was an intensely idealistic opponent of apartheid. In 1960 he became active in the Liberal Party and was soon elected to the National Committee. Soon afterwards he also became active in SANROC (the South African Non Racial Olympic Committee). He became Chairman when the previous Chairman Dennis Brutus was banned, arrested and then shot in the stomach while trying to escape from police custody.
As Chairman of SANROC John travelled to Switzerland in February 1963 and testified in Lausanne at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seeking South Africa’s exclusion from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics because of its racially discriminatory sports policies. On his return from Switzerland his passport was seized and, in February 1964, he was served with banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act. During this time he received numerous death threats, gunshots were fired at his living room window.
South Africa was indeed excluded from the Tokyo games, a first step in South Africa’s insolation from world sport for the remainder of the Apartheid years, an isolation which became a major contributor to the ending of Apartheid.
John’s banning order meant he was not able to meet with more than one person at a time. Extremely frustrated he joined an underground movement called the ARM, the African Resistance Movement, which was committed to carrying out sabotage of Government installations in an attempt to force the Government to rethink the existing unjust policy. There was absolutely no intention to harm individuals in any way.
Finally John was the only member left after all the other members had been arrested. He planted a bomb at Johannesburg Railway Station and gave extremely clear and repeated instructions that this was the case, and where the bomb was. This information was given to both the media and the railway police.
One of the ARM members who had been arrested beforehand informed the authorities about what was to occur before it took place and the Government cynically and deliberately chose to ignore the warning, counting on the backlash it would cause. Because of the explosion one woman died in the blast.
John was the only white person convicted of a political crime and was hanged, on 1st of April, 1965. As a family we all drove to Pretoria Central Prison at dawn, knowing that by the time we arrived John would no longer be alive. Not exactly easy for any of us. John had asked Ann, his wife, that if there were ever any memorial to him he would like to be remembered as “a true patriot”, and many years later we were able to do this.
In 2005 our entire family attended a moving ceremony at Freedom Park in Pretoria where John’s name is now inscribed there along with all the people who fought for justice over many years.
Why did John choose to enter the fight against racism? Had he kept quiet and remained the typical white South African he could have had a successful career and a comfortable life.
Some years later I went to live in London, where I worked with Amnesty. I belonged to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, but my South African experiences were still too raw for me to become directly involved.
In 1973 I came to Australia for a year, which became the rest of my life. Soon after my arrival I joined SADAF, South African Defence and Aid Fund, committed to helping the victims of Apartheid in South Africa.
Later this group became CAASA, Community Aid Abroad Southern Africa, and in the late 80’s we worked with the ANC representative Eddie Funde as the Mandela Foundation of Australia.
After 1994 David Thomas and I formed an informal group called the SSAFA, the Sydney South Africa Friendship Association. We meet whenever there is someone from South Africa who is able to brief us on current events in the country.
Over the past year my partner James and I have worked with Angus Leendertz and a small committee to produce this exhibition. We have liaised with South Africa, and the exhibition was displayed in Pretoria and Cape Town. More material has been added to broaden the scope and show the activities from other states.
One of the tragedies of the apartheid system has been the waste of life and the loss of so much potential from all races. John and many others gave their lives to bring about a democratic society and I am proud of this.
In 1996 I wrote a memoir about John, including photographs, describing our childhood and early adult life. We were very close but as the younger sister I sometimes had to know my place! His children never knew him and I wanted to try and give them a real sense of him. His grandchildren are now part of this history, and they too are interested in the family story.