CASSIEM KHAN reports from the Western Cape High Court, Cape Town on the first day of the inquest into the killing of Imam Abdullah Haron.
THE oft-quoted aphorism, ‘the wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine,’ came to mind on the first day, Monday November 7, of the much-anticipated inquest into the 1969 death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron.
It took 53 years to arrive on this day.
The 1970 inquest, held between February and March, saw a collusion of the magistrate, the prosecution, medical officers and the police acting with impunity in the interest of the apartheid system, making a mockery of justice, and leaving the pursuit of truth dead in its tracks.
Western Cape High Court Judge Daniel Thulare, in his opening address, stated the two issues that legal counsel will be presenting over the ten days set aside for the inquest: the cause or likely cause of death; and whether the death was brought about by an act of omission or commission amounting to an offence on the part of any person.
Advocate Lifa Mtyobeni, leading evidence for the National Prosecuting Authority, and Advocate Howard Varney, representing the Haron family, made extensive opening remarks and set the scene for the testimonies that will be sought to ascertain the cause of death and point to what amounted to an offence.
The first testimony was that of the investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Deon Peterson, Commander of the Cold Case Investigation Unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS) who, advocated Varney pointed out, ‘left no stone unturned in his investigation’.
Despite the 50-year hiatus, Lt Col Peterson started from scratch in August 2020. He was handed three files with information that was not verified and did not even include the 1970 inquest document. His testimony comprised over 2000 pages and included several affidavits and copies of documents from the various divisions of SAPS, Department of Home Affairs and the National Archives in Pretoria.
He was grinding this information together to determine the cause of death and exposing the acts of omission that comprised the bulk of his testimony.
He had to ascertain whether anyone involved in the incarceration, interrogation and the 1970 inquest was alive so they could be subpoenaed. Having established that no one was alive, he had to determine what the police records could reveal about the character and conduct of the torturers.
The court heard that Sergeant Johannes Petrus van Wyk, known as ‘Spyker’, had several charges of assault against him that spanned three decades. On the rare occasions that he was found culpable by the apartheid courts, at worst he paid a pittance as a fine. On the other hand, he received a commendation for interrogating detainees, especially those from the political left, such as the U Chi Chan, African Resistance Movement and APDUSA, because they were tough to break under interrogation.
In response to a question by Advocate Varney, Lt Col Peterson elaborated on how a crime scene should be handled and pointed out that standard police investigation protocols were not followed in the Imam Haron case.
What was clear was that a crime was committed but the alleged perpetrators, Major Dirk Kotze Genis and Spyker van Wyk, effectively controlled the crime scene.
Counsel for the Haron family in the 1970 inquest, Advocate Wilfrid Cooper SC, subpoenaed the Maitland Police station commander and exposed that the Special Branch, of which Genis and Van Wyk were members, were at liberty to do as they pleased at any police station. The nickname Spyker also came under review, and the inquest was promised that it would be revisited and would provide insight into the psyche of this notorious character.
Those present at the inquest, including Professor Muhammed Haron, were satisfied with the response of Lt Col Peterson and noted that the frustrations arising out of lack of cooperation hampered his work. One such instance was the Department of Public Works which failed to provide architectural drawings to prove whether the police stations in question were in any way altered in structure. Judge Thulare interjected to confirm and note this lack of cooperation.
This was one of several questions the Judge raised, for which he sought confirmation, clarification and further information. The Judge asked about the role of health professionals and whether anyone involved was still alive. He also inquired about their professional conduct during the visits of the Imam to the district surgeon.
What was clear is that the Judge came to preside over this matter well-read, well informed and committed to ascertaining the truth.
But what stunned the gallery in Courtroom 20 on the first morning were his opening remarks which are worth quoting in full:
‘In the Pedi royal house, from which the name Thulare comes, there is a saying that one should acknowledge what you do not know. In observance of these teachings, I asked a sister, who grew up on the Cape Flats and who I got to know when I came to the Western Cape: “What would you wish me to say in my opening remarks on Monday in the inquest?”
‘In appreciation of her words and thoughts which reflected her lived experience as a Muslim, I want to do justice to her and quote her verbatim, as in my view her remarks are an expression of ideas, feelings and expectations of not only the Haron family and those of other deceased comrades, and the Muslim community, but also the nation and the world.
‘In my view her remarks also set the tone for what lies ahead of us in the next two weeks. And I quote what she said:
“Life is pretty simple for Muslims. Do right by others and stand firm for justice. Where there are injustices, make amends. Seek to correct the wrongs by good actions that would please our Creator and all of creation.
“As Muslims we look for balance. We strive to make things right. There are clear instructions about what is haraam and what is halaal.
“The word taubah, in Arabic, lies at the heart of all our strivings. It is not merely about repentance or atonement of sins. It is more about restoring a pristine balance and making oneself right with the world; no excess, no deceit, no hiding. It is literally about being at one with our world.
“Taubah, in Arabic, is derived from the word meaning ‘to return’. It suggests a coming back to rightness and balance. Prayer is our constant reminder, or remembrance, of this fact. Taubah, when we have done wrong, or trying to rebalance social ills, is about a return…to what is right. We have no choice in this matter if we are sincere in our taubah.
“And this is what we ask in setting out the wrongs we have done to Imam Haron and his family. Things must be put right. No excess, no deceit, no hiding. Just put truth and justice back into society.
“This very simple act allows for healing, balance and regrowth. This is at the hub of all our sincere calls for social justice, for environmental justice and for a just world. Acknowledge the wrong, understand it and put the world to right. There can be no justice without truth. We must return to truth.”
Judge Thulare expressed his appreciation to the ‘Muslim sister’ for having given him this understanding. This sentiment, to a largely Muslim gallery, was well-received and appreciated.
Dhikr in memory of the Imam and for strength to the family: https://muslimviews.co.za/2022/11/07/fifty-three-years-later-a-new-inquest-into-the-killing-of-imam-haron/
* This article was amended at 20h30 on Tuesday November 8, 2022 to correct the spelling of ‘Pedi’, and to edit the transcript of Judge Thulare’s opening remarks.