A Just Defiance

The Bombmakers, the Insurgents and a Legendary Treason Trial

Peter Harris

Published: 5 April 2012
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 320 pages
ISBN: 9781846272875


1987, Pretoria. Four young black men have just been arrested for a horrific string of political murders. There's no doubt that they're guilty of everything they're accused of - and more. But in a society riven by brutal repression and racial tensions, are they assassins or freedom fighters? Peter Harris is the lawyer called upon to defend them and, as he constructs his case to save them from the death penalty, he comes to understand the violence they encountered growing up in the townships and the chain of events that led them to join the ANC, undergo training at Zuma's camps in Angola, and return to their homeland to execute some of the apartheid regime's most notorious figures. Harris intercuts the story of their trial with flashbacks to the squad's operations and a deadly counterplot to reveal a campaign carried out with ruthless efficiency.

About the author

Image of Peter Harris

Peter Harris was born in Durban. After practising law for many years in South Africa, he was seconded to the National Peace Accord in the early 1990s, after which he headed the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 election. Since then he has acted as a UN consultant in numerous countries and currently heads a large management consultancy in South Africa. This is his first book. More about the author


‘[A] remarkable book ... A wonderfully vivid and at times alarming account of the inner workings both of ANC 'operations units' and of the police, who used torture, murder and intimidation without compunction ... Harris has made this book far more than an account of a trial; it unlocks the connection, through this trial, between the government and the torturers, and the subsequent attempts of the police and the government at whitewash as the day of settlement drew near ... its significance is to reveal apartheid to have been far more brutal, ruthless and self-serving even than we had suspected. It is a very important book, as South Africa increasingly comes to grips with its past, and I have found it virtually impossible to put down.’ Justin Cartwright



‘A dark chapter in our history brilliantly brought to light’ Ivan Vladislavic

‘A JUST DEFIANCE is in part an account of an important treason trial, but it is much more than that. Harris is particularly good at detailing the psychological impact of spending months on death row. ... The book is a triumph, partly because of Harris's humility and essential honesty. He does not set up his ANC clients as 'struggle' heroes, but writes about them as ordinary men living in extraordinary circumstances. His writing is understated, laconic, and occasionally funny. ... The true measure of this outstanding book is that it deals mostly with murder, torture and general barbarism, yet is ultimately uplifting. Harris brings to life some of the most unlikely heroes of the last years of apartheid without even hinting that he has a decent claim to be considered one of them himself.’

‘A stunning work of non-fiction written by Peter Harris, the South African human rights lawyer, in the style of a popular thriller. The page-turning narrative wrestles with fundamental questions: were the men assassins or freedom fighters, terrorists or soldiers? The book is inspiring and deserves enormous acclaim.’ Richard Susskind

‘An honest account ... cleverly constructed. But what gives it real literary resonance is its portrayal of the liberal conscience, in a setting where the values of kindness, tolerance, compromise and rational exchange have less and less meaning. Its theme is a timeless one: that of ordinary human decency grappling with extraordinary times’

‘Brilliant ... What separates A Just Defiance from other stories of the apartheid era is that the author brings a humanity to the conflict both through his own growing attachment to, and understanding of, the four young men who sacrificed everything for "the struggle", and through his own vivid, wry and humane portraits of the characters on both sides of the political divide ... This is non-fiction, but it reads like a John Grisham novel ... A Just Defiance is crying out to be made into as gripping a film as it is a compelling read’ Graham Boynton

‘Fantastic, a great book, every bit as compelling as a John Grisham or a Scott Turow.’ Richard Susskind

‘Harris blows the cobwebs away and makes this a pacy courtroom drama, weaving in a compelling strand that follows the construction and journey of a bomb to its shocking destination. Harris is an ever-present but unobtrusive narrator, a lawyer caught in an upside-down universe where the government, courts and police stand for injustice.’

‘Harris has created a crucial snapshot of what it meant to confront the authorities under apartheid ...it is an important depiction of those days when desperation drove men on both sides to very dark and shameful deeds.’ Tim Ecott,

‘One of those books like Stasiland or Wild Swans, even, that breathes an improbable amount of life into history we all thought we knew about.’ James Fergusson, author of Taliban

‘The most wonderfully good book about South Africa I have read in a decade ... one of those rare creations that helps make one isolated but hitherto divisive experience a new patch of common ground for us all’ Peter Bruce, editor

‘This is not only THE most powerful book I have ever read out of South(ern) Africa, but one of the most powerfully affecting books I have ever read, ever. This book needs to be read by everyone who ever hopes to understand SA. An urgent, brilliant, vital piece of work’ Alexandra Fuller, author of DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT

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