Falling down a flight of stairs – and later suicide by hanging – was commonly repeated by the apartheid regime as the cause of death of political detainees. CASSIEM KHAN contextualises this in light of evidence by independent pathologists in the inquest into the death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron.
THE Apartheid system presented itself as rational, logical, superior and, most importantly, legal. All its policies were formulated as laws and firmly placed within a tradition of Roman-Dutch law in Africa. Despite coming from different parts of Europe, white people were considered by this fascist system to be a homogenous group superior in faith, intellect, force and law compared to the indigenous African people, who were considered inferior in every facet of life. Every Apartheid law was made to preserve the white race, its purity, and its superiority and ensure its safety. White equalled Right. White equalled Might. Ideas that challenged this superiority were a threat to the very existence of Apartheid South Africa.
Following the first week of testimonies in the inquest into the 1969 death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron, the question of collusion between the security police, district surgeons, pathologists, prosecutors, and magistrates, including the magistrate presiding over the 1970 inquest, sounds plausible. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that all these white Afrikaner men sat around a table and agreed on a story. We are sure that they did not belong to the same WhatsApp group.
Yet one gets a distinct impression that the ‘fall down the stairs cause of death’ guided the testimonies of all who appeared in the 1970 inquest, including the senior state forensic pathologist and the presiding magistrate. A story nailed together by security policemen Sergeant JP Spyker van Wyk and Major Dirk Genis.
The first evidence is that no independent investigation was held at the crime scene, which is standard procedure. Any person that had direct contact with the deceased could not be part of such an investigation. Any potential evidence should not have been tampered with, and a photograph of the body and its surroundings had to be taken. Lt. Col. Deon Petersen, the investigating officer assigned to the new inquest, found no photographs and no investigating officer typically appointed from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). They did not think that a crime was committed.
The 1970 inquest findings reached the masses through the book The Killing of the Imam, co-authored by Barney Desai and Cardiff Marney. Here, we learnt that myocardial ischemia was the decided cause of death. I am sure that despite our misgivings, we somehow accommodated this idea. It just sounds so right, possibly even white. How can one fault such a scientific-sounding term?
It took Dr Itumeleng Molefe, the state-appointed forensic pathologist, to demystify this word. Myocardial ischemia occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle (myocardium) is obstructed by a partial or complete blockage of a coronary artery by a build-up of plaques (atherosclerosis).
To determine whether the artery was blocked, the forensic pathologist doing the autopsy on the September 28m 1969 would have had to open it up, especially in the event of an unnatural death like that of Imam Haron.
This was the view of Dr Segaran Ramalu Naidoo, the pathologist for the Haron family who took to the stand on the fifth day of the inquest, Friday November 11.
He and Dr Molefe, both leaders in their field and having conducted thousands of autopsies and familiar with the work of apartheid State Pathologist, Dr T G Schwar, pointed to shortcomings in his autopsy on Imam Haron. But the link to myocardial ischemia brought on by the fall down the stairs has been most puzzling. This type of assessment can cause considerable reputational damage to a pathologist. So presiding officer in the 1970 inquest, Magistrate JSP Kuhn, used the term myocardial ischemia in his judgement as the cause of death.
The pathologists also, at length, addressed the bruises on Imam’s body: from the causes to skin pigmentation, the period that a bruise remains and the discolouration of the skin that indicates where a bruise was and subsequently healed.
The 1970 inquest stated that Imam sustained these bruises due to a fall down the stairs at Caledon Square (now Cape Town Central) Police Station.
An in loco inspection at the stairs and the testimony of aeronautics engineer and fall trajectory specialist, Thivash Moodley, conclusively proved that there was no connection between the claim of a fall down a flight of stairs and the bruises Imam Haron sustained and their location on his body.
Drs Molefe and Naidoo concurred with this view but explained it from the point of the age and type of bruises.
It was clear that the fall down the stairs was invented; but not without precedence.
Falling as a cause of death was now embedded in apartheid-era judicial pronouncements.
Suliman Babla Saloogee, Ahmed Timol, Moses Mabelane and Imam Haron were the most prominent examples. This lie was commonly repeated, and later the lie of suicide by hanging became, in the cases of Dr Neil Aggett and Dr Hoosen Haffegee, the lie of choice.
Most people not classified as white in 1960s Apartheid South Africa feared the security police. White South Africa, however, considered the security police as knights in shining armour. They led the fight for the survival of their race and were a bastion against the Communist, Black African and later Muslim danger (rooi, swart and later slamse gevaar).
The security police decided the narrative and set the tone for preserving white supremacy. Everyone representing the apartheid state in the 1970 inquest fell in line with the lies of Spyker van Wyk and Genis.