The "assassin" and the "patriot": Hendrik van den Bergh, John Vorster, John Harris and the Johannesburg station bomb, 24 July 1964

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During peak hour on Friday afternoon, July 24, 1964, a bomb exploded at the Johannesburg station. One of the injured, an elderly lady, died some days later in hospital. Her granddaughter sustained facial burns that permanently maimed her. Some twenty other persons were less seriously injured. The bomb planter, John Harris, was arrested on the same day, was brought to trial before the end of 1964, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. His plea of not being accountable owing to a temporary mental disorder was rejected. His appeal was also unsuccessful. On April 1, 1965 he was hanged. Ever since that date allegations have been made by, among others, Gordon Winter, Peter Hain, Terry Bell, Alan D. Elson and David Beresford that Hendrik van den Bergh, who was chief of the security branch of the South African Police at the time of the station bomb, and John Vorster, who then was minister of justice, had known about the bomb before it exploded, but had done nothing to prevent its explosion. According to these accusations Van den Bergh and Vorster were accessories to the crime for which Harris was hanged.

In this article historical criticism is used to prove beyond doubt that the allegations against Van den Bergh and Vorster are false. The author shows that both the South African government and its enemies in the anti-apartheid movement exploited the station bomb incident to make propaganda. He argues, using the station bomb as a case study, that historians have the responsibility to try to clear up the minefield of historical untruths generated by propagandists for and against apartheid.

Keywords: African Resistance Movement; anti-apartheid campaign; Hendrik van den Bergh; historical criticism; Hugh Lewin; John Harris; John Vorster; propaganda; sabotage; station bomb; truth

Lees die artikel in Afrikaans: Die "sluipmoordenaar" en die "patriot": Hendrik van den Bergh, John Vorster, John Harris en die Johannesburgse stasiebom, 24 Julie 1964


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    David Attwell

    This is an absorbing essay, but it is also problematic. The author is determined to elicit the 'facts' and constructs an argument that is convincing on its own terms. Essentially, the argument is that an empirical sifting of the records (an approach justified through historiographic self-positioning against 'post-modern' versions of history) shows that contrary to the views of journalists sympathetic to an 'anti-apartheid' position, Van den Bergh and Vorster did not know about the station bomb prior to the explosion; or, if Van den Bergh did know, he did not have enough time to make decisions or respond. As the author himself shows, this view is actually quite widely accepted, by former ARM members like Lewin, and later commentators (see Jonty Driver's recent book on Harris). It's not as if there is a single 'anti-apartheid position,' as is claimed.

    But here are two questions, one in the terms of the argument itself, the other broader: First, why dismiss as inconsequential the disappearance of John Lloyd's statement to the Security Branch prior to the explosion? Surely it's very likely (given Lloyd's later turning state witness and being very forthcoming in his court testimony about Harris's actions) that he had alerted the Branch to Harris's plans when questioned several days before the bomb went off? It was no doubt on the basis of information provided by Lloyd that Harris was arrested (it was not on the basis of Lewin's providing the name, since this happened when Harris was already in custody). Given the author's ability to track the sources, why is he reluctant to pursue this lacuna? Surely Harris was being followed? And is the disappearance of Lloyd's statement not in itself suspicious? There is an implication that if the Security Branch did not know about the bomb until it was too late, they should have known, given the information at their disposal. Not venality, then, but incompetence? This leads to the second question, which is more important. The article is remarkably reluctant to investigate the context fully, despite claims to the contrary. The context is that Vorster, in particular, but with the able assistance of Van den Bergh, did more than anyone else in the State to create the political climate that fed the appetite for sabotage in the Left in the these years. Nine-day detention; the absurdly wide definition of sabotage in the General Law Amendment Act; the increased penalties, including the death penalty being available even in cases of non-lethal sabotage; the legal cover provided to the Security Branch, who were able to torture with impunity, which they did. The author writes about the Branch revisiting Lewin and Lloyd in jail 'om to versoek' the name of the station bomber. Well, is beating them to a pulp the way one makes an enquiry? The article creates the impression that these men could be absolved because didn't know about the bomb--well, that view is myopic, I'm afraid. In the big picture, the 'knowledge' of these men was entirely complicit in the violence done by, and against, the State.

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