A teacher who led from the front to conscientise students recounted his tortuous treatment at the hands of the apartheid security police. CASSIEM KHAN reports on Yousuf Grabu’s testimony on Wednesday November 16 at the inquest into the death in detention of Ash Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haron.
PRESENT for most of the eight days of the inquest into the death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron was former Western Cape Education MEC, anti-apartheid activist, teacher and trade unionist, Yousuf Gabru.
Gabru is originally from Vrededorp, popularly known as Fietas. The people of this suburb in Johannesburg were one of the early victims of the forced removals under apartheid’s Group Areas Act.
Gabru wanted to study mathematics. However, apartheid laws made his entry into university difficult, and when accepted, they would not grant him access to study mathematics.
After studying in the United Kingdom, he moved to Cape Town and started teaching history at Salt River High School in 1975, even though he was qualified for mathematics.
Gabru was an activist teacher at the high school. Gabru, to quote Dr Yunus Omar, knew that ‘teaching is an acutely political act. It requires a critical outlook that is independent, fearless and sustained.’
He contributed to Cape Town teachers’ proud tradition of moulding ‘generations of critical, engaged students. Gabru attended a solidarity march, organised by his students, into the city centre of Cape Town following the 1976 student uprising.
Gabru proudly shared with the court that Imam Dr Rashied Omar, the current Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, was amongst the student leaders of the protest. Imam Omar and his fellow student leaders, including his brother Anwar, were arrested after this solidarity march. Anwar Omar was also arrested and, in 2019, made a documentary about the march and their days in prison.
Gabru and a few lawyers and teachers started gathering information about these arrested students. These students were provided with legal assistance by ‘one of the greatest sons of Cape Town’, the first Minister of Justice of democratic South Africa, Dullah Omar. It was this solidarity work that got Gabru arrested.
He was severely beaten, tortured and placed into solitary confinement by the notorious Captain JP Spyker van Wyk.
One Sunday afternoon van Wyk came to the police cell where Gabru was held to show his son ‘what a Communist looked like’. One wonders what his son has to say to former detainees today about the tarnished and dishonourable life of his father.
During his time in prison, Gabru was held over a balustrade at Caledon Square and threatened with death, saying that this was where they killed Imam Haron.
A turning point for Gabru was when the security police tried to force a ham sandwich down his throat because they knew Muslims do not eat pork. At this point, he felt he had lost his fear of the security police as they were devoid of all humanity.
His family did not know where he was imprisoned. His sister drove around at night, alone, to various police stations and would call out his name, hoping that he was inside and that he would respond to her. One night at Caledon Square Police Station, and during solitary confinement, he heard her call his name. He thought he was dreaming. Her voice and her visits helped him through this difficult period.
Upon release, he could not find work as a teacher.
Professor Shaikh Yusuf da Costa offered him a job at Crestway High School as a mathematics teacher and if were not for the generosity of da Costa, who continued to demand that the Department of Education pay Gabru, life would have been tough.
Separate from his testimony, Gabru shared the generosity of Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed during the 1980s, when Gabru was chairperson of the Western Cape Teachers Union. Shaikh Nazeem raised money for the many teachers who were fired and had no income.
During the 1970 inquest the police and its security police branch, health professionals and judiciary officials promoted the lie that Imam Haron was killed by falling down the stairs, thereby dishonouring their professions. Gabru, da Costa and members of the Teachers League of South Africa advanced the view that teaching as a profession was and can continue to be defiant in the face of intellectual dishonesty from those involved in the killing of the Imam.
If it were not for politically conscious teachers such as Gabru generations of young people would not have been conscientised to bring an end to apartheid.
- Click here for the link to the documentary on the march by Salt River High School students in 1976.