Resistance Fighter, John Harris Served Anti-Apartheid Sport By Cheryl Roberts

1 Apr

This day (1 April 1965), 51 years ago is the day that resistance fighter, John Harris was executed by the apartheid regime, under Nationalist rule. A white man and Johannesburg schoolteacher, John Harris would remain the only white man ever executed by the Nationalist government during its apartheid reign.

Harris was a member of the all-white African Resistance Movement (ARM); sabotage was his crime according to the apartheid regime. Despite a psychiatrist testifying under oath that Johan Harris was challenged with mental health problems, his execution went ahead, despite the man being young and just 27 years old.

Johan Harris was also an anti-apartheid sports official. Prior to his arrest for sabotage, he had been to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland where he led evidence against apartheid sport and advanced the cause of anti-apartheid sport organised by the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. (SANROC).

Harris represented SANROC at the IOC, where SANROC called for the expulsion of apartheid South Africa from the IOC and international sport.

The first half of the 1960’s are best described as restless, fierce, challenging and brave as anti-apartheid sport stepped up its agenda to disrupt and resist apartheid and white-dominated sport. Anti-apartheid sport leaders such as Dennis Brutus, Reg Hlongwane, Chris de Broglio, MN Pather, George Singh and John Harris, and the wives and families of all these men sports officals, worked tirelessly at internationally exposing apartheid sport.

These sports leaders were banned, house arrested with their passports confiscated and imprisoned on Robben Island. One sports leader, John Harris was eventually executed by the horrendous apartheid regime. Harris stepped into the leadership of SANROC when Dennis Brutus was arrested and later imprisoned; this prevented him from traveling to the IOC in Switzerland, and speaking out against apartheid in sport.

It was the young, fearless, brave Johan Harris, just 27 years old with a young family, who took on the might of apartheid sport and its supporter, the apartheid regime and gave evidence to the IOC calling for the expulsion of apartheid South Africa from international sport.

Dennis Brutus had earlier been shot while attempting escape from apartheid’s security police, Reg Hlongane had fled into exile fearing security harassment and other leaders were confined to their homes. All this being done by the apartheid regime, to break the leadership of anti-apartheid sport, so apartheid sport couldn’t be exposed and expelled from international sport.

On his return to Johannesburg from Switzerland, John Harris was arrested. The charge was sabotage and planting a bomb. He went on trial; was found guilty and sentenced to death. John Harris was executed on 1 April 1965, leaving a family of his wife Anne and two small children.

However, Harris’ fearless journey to the IOC was not in vain. In 1964, the IOC announced that apartheid South Africa was suspended from the IOC. Four years later, in 1968, came the total blow. Apartheid South Africa was expelled from the IOC and victory was won for anti-apartheid sport.

This was no easy victory. It took bannings, security harassment, confiscation of passports, arrests and imprisonment, execution, exile journeys, for the world to see the horror of operations by the vicious apartheid regime. Anti-apartheid sport was decimated; its leadership left in disarray and in exile. The apartheid regime took lives but the victory was won by the oppressed.

Such was the strength and resilience of anti-apartheid sport that SANROC emerged in exile and worked vigorously at exposing apartheid sport. This is how the 1968 IOC expulsion came about. Meanwhile, back in South Africa, anti-apartheid forces were again agitating and gathering. This would lad to the formation of the anti-apartheid and non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS).

Although the vehement, adamant and disruptive organisation around anti-apartheid sport seems a ‘long time ago’, the era and commitment of people to disrupt and unsettle apartheid sport can never be and will never be forgotten. John Harris has a forever place in the anti-apartheid sports gallery and no one will ever diminish him from the Roll of Honour reserved for those who fought so bravely and resisted so strongly, to expose the apartheid regime and apartheid sport.

 1John Harris

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