When reading about South Africa and the end of apartheid I saw the same big names repeated over and over, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Walter Sisu, just to name a few. These names are synonymous with South African heroism and the struggle against apartheid. I was looking forward to getting to meet a lesser known hero of the battle against injustice. I got my wish when we interviewed Peter Harris, the defense attorney for the famed Delmas Four.
Mr. Harris is everything one could hope for in a hero. He is strong yet modest, outspoken yet calm, reluctant for the spotlight yet firmly aware of the side he has chosen and fully devoted to his cause. Before we met him I had expected him to be the kind of person who was reluctant to take sides and was simply thrown into the fight. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. During the dark era of apartheid he showed no reluctance to take a stand and speak out about the evils of an immoral system. He did not seem at all bothered by the notoriety he gained as a white anti-apartheid activist.
It is rare to meet a person with a moral compass like Peter Harris. Many people are either bystanders, who may be concerned but don’t take a stand, or battle happy generals who charge to the forefront of a struggle and make their stances known. Peter Harris wears no general’s uniform. He has no four-star rank pinned to his lapel or a ceremonial sword at his side. Yet Peter Harris is a determined soldier, willing to risk all for the betterment of his country. At the same time, he is content to remain out of the spotlight. While he is not as well known as Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the work he has done and his selfless service to his country, in my opinion, are just as important and heroic.
Peter Harris is a humble man who seems to not enjoy the limelight that surrounds him. During apartheid he represented the Delmas Four and saved these young men from being hanged. At the time Mr. Harris was a defense lawyer for many ANC members. He was committed to fighting against apartheid.
In the beginning of our interview with Mr. Harris he seemed to answer our questions quickly. As the interview progressed and he realized that we had well-researched questions, his answers became more in-depth. As I listened to him, I noticed that he never gave himself credit for what he had accomplished. He simply said that he knew which side he was on.
I was struck when Peter Harris told us that he is still haunted by the trial. He described how, the taking of innocent life by his clients, the torture the Delmas Four endured and the discrimination that occurred before and during the trial will never leave him. In my opinion Mr. Harris is a hero. I admire his humility. He doesn’t see himself as a hero or a savior, just a man doing his job.
I don’t know what I was expecting when we walked into the conference room to interview Peter Harris, but it was nothing like what actually occurred. An author and lawyer, Peter Harris is a kind and humble man who was both articulate and informative.
Though the interview itself was interesting, it was the closure that truly struck me. We have a tradition of ending each interview by telling the interviewee what touched us about the conversation. Up until then I had become accustomed to polite nods and smiles as responses to our reflections, but Peter Harris was different. He truly took in our words and responded with additional information. It turned into more of a relaxed dialogue because of his willingness to respond. I am so thankful for that unexpected ending. In the future, I hope to emulate the quality of seeing and hearing those around me.