CASSIEM KHAN attended the closing arguments on April 24-25, 2023 of the reopened inquest into the killing of Ash-Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haron. He points out that the closing arguments exposed the false narrative that has been on the record books for 53 years.
A generation of anti-Apartheid activists learnt about the brutality of the Special Branch of the South African police by reading the book The Killing of the Imam. The book is an account, a reconstruction of the arrest, interrogation and death in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron, by the authors Barney Desai and Cardiff Marney. Imam Haron worked closely with Barney Desai, a member of the banned Pan Africanist Congress of Azania to support the families of political detainees and further the aims of banned political organisations to end the Apartheid system. Barney Desai relied on his memory and knowledge of his friend’s life, their joint activities, letters the Imam had written and smuggled out of prison and the 1970 inquest. In this humble way, he paid homage to the martyred Imam.
The reopened inquest was held because the death of the Imam 53 years ago was brought about by the direct acts of omission of members of the Special Branch that amounted to murder. The reopened inquest followed a request by the family of the Imam to have the 1970 inquest findings reversed. The legal team for the family and the National Prosecuting Authority advocates relied on experts to revisit and reconstruct what transpired during the 123 days of detention; Barney Desai would have appreciated the new information that was so well presented by Advocate Howard Varney, who appeared for the family and Advocate Lifa Matyobeni who appeared for the state. With new information, Barney Desai would have felt compelled to write a new edition of his book.
The November 2022 testimonies of the reopened inquest, served as a reference for the heads of the arguments presented. Varney inserted titles that resonated with the community members that Imam Haron served. These titles included “Bias of the Magistrate and State Prosecutor, Alleged Fall, Much to Hide and Cover Up.” The nature of iconic figures such as Imam Haron is that they belong as much to the people as they do to their families. By capturing the sentiments of the community Imam Haron served Varney acknowledged the feelings of the community and not just the family.
The reopened inquest is an opportunity for those South Africans who want to advance the idea now that things were better under Apartheid. Better how and better for whom? There was no load-shedding under Apartheid because everyone did not have access to electricity. The roads, hospitals, security establishment, water and sanitation and the education served the needs of the white minority at the expense of the Black majority. Apartheid policies and practices sought to dehumanise and humiliate individuals based on their pigmentation. Its migrant labour system and Acts such as the Mixed Marriages Act broke up families, and its Group Areas Act destroyed entire communities. Imam Haron publicly condemned the Group Areas Act as inhumane and un-Islamic. This activism led Imam to cooperate with various political leaders to abolish the Apartheid system. These activities resulted in the Special Branch taking an interest in him.
The Special Branch members were the defenders and enforcers of the Apartheid system and operated with impunity. Everyone involved in maintaining the system, such as politicians, health professionals, magistrates and ordinary uniformed police, understood that they had to be subservient to the Special Branch. Varney referred the court to previous inquests where this central terrifying role of the Special Branch was highlighted. Examples from the inquest confirmed this rule of fear. The Apartheid Minister of Justice at the time responded to a question in parliament about the arrest of the Imam by defending the Special Branch members actions, whilst the magistrate and prosecutor in the 1970 inquest accepted the Special Branch’s fictitious story of a fall down the stairs. The district surgeons and state pathologists allowed the Special Branch members undue access when they were conducting the medical examinations and even during the post-mortem of Imam Haron.
Despite the reign of terror of the Special Branch and the collusion of white officials in fabricating a story that Imam Haron died as a result of one fall down the stairs, the truth emerged. In this reopened inquest investigators, trajectory specialists and forensic pathologists relooked at the evidence and proved a cover up and exposed the false narrative that is on the record books for 53 years. No photographs were taken at the crime scene. The Special Branch investigated themselves and took their own statements. The nature of the injuries on the body proved that it could not have come from a fall down the stairs and the size, colourisation and location of injuries proved that they were sustained over a long period of time.
The state prosecutors explicitly listed four Special Branch members as the suspects and that their actions were not only acts of omission but were premeditated. The family correctly asked the court that all legal and health professionals be shamed by posthumously striking their names off the professional councils on which their names are listed. Significantly, the family of Imam Haron asked that the court NOT prosecute the only surviving policeman, Constable Johan Burger.
Burger testified that he was not aware of the brutality of the Special Branch. He noted that no one questioned the authority of the Special Branch and everyone acknowledged the special position they held in the country. Advocate Varney went to great lengths to explain how Burger perjured himself in this reopened inquest. Based on his perjury, one could ask if he ever told the truth and whether his concern for Imam Haron that he shared earlier with the family was at all genuine. There is no one else that can confirm Burgers claim that Imam Haron was on good terms with him. Did Burger participate in the assault of Imam Haron as a way to advance his career and gain the respect of the Special Branch? Was Burger the one that kicked the life out of Imam Haron, as evidence suggest that Imam was kicked? Burger had unfettered access and the opportunity to do so.
The inquest was about seeking the truth. Burger, the only policeman that was present in those last hours of the life of Imam Haron may know more than what he claims. The family of Imam Haron is asking for Burger not to be prosecuted. Fortunately, it is up to Judge Thulare to act in the interest of justice and not be swayed by religiously-inspired magnanimity in his judgement. His judgement, and especially the manner in which he responds to the perjury of Burger, will also set a precedent of how outstanding inquests will be dealt with.