CASSIEM KHAN provides an analysis of the closing arguments at the reopened inquest into the killing in detention of Imam Abdullah Haron.
The closing arguments were heard in Courtroom 20 on April 24 and 25. Significantly, the inquest reminded us of apartheid’s brutality during Freedom Month, just two days before Freedom Day on April 27.
Many courageous and freedom-loving compatriots, including Imam Haron, died in police custody. Others were killed in cross-border raids and on the streets, and the bodies of many who fought for our freedom were never recovered.
Father Michael Lapsely, Judge Albie Sachs, and others survived assassination attempts, whilst thousands of detainees suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of solitary confinement and torture. They served, suffered, and sacrificed their lives for our freedom.
The legal counsel for the family of Imam Haron, Advocate Howard Varney, concluded his presentation to the court by quoting an appropriate poem written by Victor Wessels:
FOR THE FALLEN
He fell in severed isolation
and died alone among policemen,
unattended by a single friend
a fighter fell
tell his death
The reopened inquest was intended to reveal the truth about Imam Haron’s death. The Security Branch (SB) perpetrators of the murder of Imam Haron told their lies in the 1970 inquest. The magistrate, prosecutor, uniformed police, and health professionals all supported and encouraged the murderers to tell their falsehoods.
The reopened inquest presentations are about omissions that resulted in the death of Imam Haron. Imam Haron was denied medical attention by the SB members. Magistrates who visited him in his cell ignored his complaints of pain, and health professionals failed to provide him with proper medical care. But these were the apparatchiks, the blindly devoted apartheid supporters. They did not issue orders, nor were they ideologues or political leaders.
The reopened inquest has not addressed the significance of Imam Haron being the first, if not the only, religious leader killed by the apartheid system. There has always been, and rightly so, criticism that Muslim religious leaders could have done more to prevent his death in detention. In this new political era, one should ask what the religious establishment, as a whole, has said and done to recognise, commemorate, and even atone for this heinous crime. The Dutch Reform Church, now known as the Reformed Church, was the official church of the apartheid regime. This Reformed church can help apartheid-era SB members unburden themselves and begin telling the truth about their crimes and who gave the orders.
The reopened inquest focused on the interrogation, torture, and fatal blows at the police stations in Caledon Square and Maitland as if it were a locally planned and executed crime. Much has been said about the personalities and actions of SB members Sergeant Johannes Petrus Francois ‘Spyker’ van Wyk and Major Dirk Kotze Genis, as well as their unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel Carel Johannes Freysen Pienaar, who was determined to lead the cover-up and fabricate information about Imam Haron’s death.
The Hawks, or the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, lacked an understanding of the political context in which this killing occurred, as well as the significance of the killing of a Muslim leader.
Imam Haron’s surveillance began around 1960 and spread to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. This time and space lens should indicate that Imam Haron’s activities were not local, but came directly from the SB headquarters in Pretoria. The reasons given to the 1970 inquest for Imam Haron’s arrest provide the answer to the question of his significance to the SB. This included his contacts with banned organisations, using opportunities for further education abroad to recruit fighters for the liberation movements, and channelling funds for domestic liberation activities. This made him a formidable enemy of the apartheid regime, rather than the generous, warm-hearted local Imam and family man we want to remember him as.
The security risk and threat to the apartheid state posed by a Muslim leader who spoke Arabic and interacted with Palestinian resistance leaders he met in Cairo as well as Canon John Collins of the Defence and Aid Fund in London was better understood in Pretoria than by a local thug like Spyker van Wyk.
Who directed the interrogation from Pretoria, and what threat were they attempting to avert? This is the context that Hawks investigators did not look for in the many redacted documents they obtained from the National Archives during the reopened inquest. The Hawks investigators were unfamiliar with the political, international solidarity, and armed struggle context.
The reopened inquest correctly focused on the torture and the myth of falling down the stairs. What happened to Imam Haron during his 123-day incarceration is now known; the reopened inquest paid little attention to what threat this one man posed to the apartheid state that the SB felt compelled to kill him. Until this is determined, there is a real possibility that only the surface was scratched. Our attention should now be focused on determining the true motive for his murder, and the answers lie in relentlessly pursuing it in apartheid SB records. General Johan van der Merwe, the last commissioner of the apartheid police, was determined to protect records and officers.
At the Imam’s funeral on September 29, 1969, Victor Wessels also said: ‘He died not only for the Muslims. He died for his cause – the cause of the oppressed people.’
We must teach the next generation that Imam Haron’s commitment was to the oppressed as a whole, not just the Muslim community. We should speak of his bravery in contemplating armed resistance. We should express our gratitude for his concern for the families of political detainees. Let us continue to tell the story of his struggle in May, the anniversary month of his detention, and every month thereafter.
This article was first published in the May 12, 2023 print edition Muslim Views.