Bombs and betrayal haunt would-be MP

The progress of a rising Labour star has aroused bitter memories of how he informed on South African activists 30 years ago

Paul Routledge,Ian Mackinnon
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:06

THEY were comrades once, fighting what they naively believed was a virtuous terrorist struggle to defeat apartheid in South Africa. It ended shabbily in death and destruction at Johannesburg railway station, mutual betrayal, and the hanging of a young white radical.

That was 30 years ago. The affair had been relegated to a footnote in the history of the country's long and bloody march to democracy. But when the story re-emerged in Britain last week, it stirred deep wells of bitterness and revived old hurts that could end the political career of one of Labour's rising stars.

John Lloyd, a self-confessed bomber of "symbolic" targets and now the party's candidate in the Tory marginal seat of Exeter, admits in the Independent on Sunday today that he betrayed Hugh Lewin, a fellow radical in the African Resistance Movement. Lewin, jailed for seven years, accuses him of being "a Judas Iscariot" who should "have the decency to piss off out of politics".

The widow of John Harris, the man convicted on Lloyd's evidence and hanged for planting the bomb at Johannesburg's central station which killed a 77-year-old woman and injured 23 others, believes he is "seeking public office under false pretences". Baruch Hirson, a former physics lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand and now a historian living in Britain, who was jailed for nine years on Lloyd's testimony, says: ''Such a man is not fit to hold public office."

For the moment, Labour is refusing to contemplate ditching Lloyd. But with a jubilant Conservative Central Office worrying away at the story, and an Early Day Motion in the Commons condemning Labour's endorsement of "a former terrorist" attracting 36 Tory MPs' signatures in one day, the outlook is far from good.

It all seemed so much simpler in the heady days of the radical Sixties. Lloyd, the son of a soldier in the Eighth Army, went to Natal University to read English and law. His ambition was to be a barrister. But in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, he was drawn into political activity, joining the Liberal Party while still a student. He was recruited into the self-styled African Resistance Movement by a young journalist, Hugh Lewin.

As terrorist outfits go, the ARM was small beer. Its most ambitious military activity was blowing up electricity pylons - until the events of 24 July, 1964. A phosphorus bomb went off in the grand hall of Johannesburg station. It had been planted by John Harris, an ARM man, probably the last one then still at large.

Peter Hain MP, who as a 15- year-old schoolboy read the address at the bomber's funeral, said yesterday: "John Harris was one of several family friends who sacrificed their lives or were imprisoned in the struggle for freedom in South Africa." He insisted Harris had phoned a warning to police and press "well before the explosion" asking for the concourse to be cleared. "They chose not to do so, and it has been suggested that the decision was taken up to ministerial level. The result was mayhem and loss of life which the government exploited to bring in even tougher police state laws, and John Harris was hanged."

When the station bomb went off, Lloyd was already in police custody, where he was being interrogated about the ARM. As his testimony on page 21 shows, the memory of that day is burned into his brain. He was "so shocked and horrified" that he agreed to turn state's evidence against his comrades.

He was given immunity from prosecution, and after his release he moved to London with his mother in December 1964. After journalism, he took a teaching job in Exeter. He was glad to be out of African politics. "You can never get away from politics in South Africa, in the worst possible sense," he said later. He soon discovered how true that was.

With Harris on Death Rrow, awaiting the outcome of a futile appeal, Jill Chisholm, a journalist and girlfriend of another accused, came to London to plead with Lloyd to retract his evidence.

"He had been pivotal in the case against John Harris," she said from her office at the South African Broadcasting Corporation. "I came to ask him to save Harris's life. He was not prepared to change his evidence or make any statement or any clemency bid at all. My impression was that he was concerned about how people would view him if he retracted his evidence."

Lloyd's perspective is quite different. "I was approached by a very hostile woman from South Africa who asked me to sign an affidavit saying my evidence against John Harris was untrue. I first of all agreed, and then I thought it through. Such a withdrawal would have been of no weight. I have since seen the evidence of the Harris appeal and my evidence was not cited once."

Harris was duly executed on 1 April, 1965, and the affair disappeared from the public gaze. Lloyd built up a new life in Exeter. He married his present wife, Jenny, and the couple had two daughters. He became head of English at a school in the city, and eventually, in 1974, joined the Labour Party.

In 1981, he was elected to Devon County Council, and in 1983 to Exeter City Council, where he is deputy chairman of the key policy committee. He realised his ambition to become a barrister in 1988, and set up chambers near Exeter Crown Court.

In 1990, he was chosen to stand against Sir John Hannam in the general election, and in an interview with the Exeter Express and Echo, spoke of being arrested for his political views. "I was arrested and detained without trial for about 120 days. I didn't think I was a revolutionary and I didn't think I could keep quiet after that, so I decided to leave." No mention of betrayal, no hint of his "terrorist" past.

But it did catch up with him finally. When he was re-selected to fight the constituency in August this year, someone tipped off Labour's national executive committee and he was summoned to Walworth Road to explain his history. His explanation proved satisfactory, and he was endorsed. He had already made a clean breast to his local party, which backed him unanimously.

That should have been that - until last month's Labour Party conference in Brighton, when an informant told the left-wing weekly Tribune.

Last week, the journal ran an "exclusive" saying that Lloyd was "refusing to stand down" despite being fingered as a betrayer of South African freedom fighters. The story was extensively leaked to national newspapers before Tribune came out. The Tory tabloids ran true to form. "Man with blood on his hands," yelled the Daily Mail.

Mark Seddon, Tribune's editor, said: "It is a very difficult one. We didn't run that piece to spike him. But it is a story." He argued Tribune might be doing Lloyd a favour by getting the story out well before the general election.

The paper will print an article this week by Brian Rostron, another South African refugee, supporting Lloyd's candidacy.

Lloyd says that he will stand down if local people wish him to, but "so far, all I have heard is love and support". Ann Wolfe, John Harris's widow, now 57 and remarried, is living in retirement in the Swiss town of Nurensdorf. She believes what Lloyd did was "ignoble rather than immoral".

His erstwhile comrades, jailed on his testimony, are less generous. Baruch Hirson, now 73, says: "The fact of the matter is that such a man is not fit to hold public office, particularly since he made no effort to apologise to any of us or to John Harris's widow. At least, for me, I'm still alive to talk to you. John Harris isn't. He took it remarkably bravely. He went to the gallows singing 'We shall not be moved'."

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