‘The last days in the life of the Imam, an anti-apartheid guerilla: 28 May to 27 September 1969.’ Judge Daniel Thulare, the presiding judge in the 2022-2023 inquest into the killing of Imam Abdullah Haron, aptly selected this title for his judgement on October 9, 2023, which is worthy of reflection. CASSIEM KHAN highlights the key findings.
A GUERILLA is a member of a small group engaging in irregular armed resistance against a larger regular military force. During the struggle for liberation against the racist Apartheid government, being a guerrilla was considered an honorific and was adorned through many liberation songs. The mere mention of the word inspired and gave hope and confidence to the oppressed masses in many anti-colonial struggles. Much like the word muqawama or fedayeen does for the Palestinian people resisting Zionist occupation.
Imam Haron was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured for over 123 days and finally killed on September 27, 1969. The judgement provided a detailed account of the life, activities, imprisonment, torture and cover-up of the killing of the Imam. He was arrested for his fundraising activities in support of the families of political prisoners and for recruiting young men to undergo military training to engage in guerrilla warfare to bring down the Apartheid system.
The judge acknowledged the contribution of Imam Haron to the struggle for liberation, whilst sadly, many today believe that life under Apartheid was better. Many bemoan the loss of his life whilst highlighting his service to humanity. They would have preferred Imam Haron concentrate on lesser and irrelevant issues such as whether cheese was halaal, a hot topic at the time. Should the Imam have sat on his hands, done nothing, not spoken out against the oppression and should he have just hated the oppression in his heart? His silence would have been an act of cowardice and unbecoming of a Muslim leader.
On the May 7, 1961 at the Cape Town Drill Hall Imam Haron described the Group Areas Act as an inhuman, barbaric and an un-Islamic law and as a complete negation of the fundamental principles of Islam. He told the audience that the laws were designed to cripple his people educationally, politically and economically and that the people could not accept that type of enslavement. [Muslim News, May 12, 1961]
The judge recognised the role of the Imam as being at the forefront of the struggle, not just politically involved or an armchair revolutionary. Many responded to oppression from positions of relative personal safety that required no sacrifice. The title of guerrilla provides the context within which the Imam’s revolutionary activities led him to the glorious path of martyrdom, and this is what has to be celebrated and commemorated.
Families and community members demanded the ‘truth’ about the death in police custody of Imam Haron. The truth of how and the truth of why he was killed. Through the use of one word, guerrilla, the judge explained the truth of why he was killed. Imam Abdullah Haron was killed because, as a member of Poqo, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania at the time, he was fundraising and recruiting for the building of a guerrilla army. Judge Thulare referred to Ebrahim ‘Ebi’ Desai (incorrectly as the brother of Barney Desai) who accompanied Imam Haron to Egypt. Uncle Ebi, another unsung hero, years later informed some exiles in Zimbabwe of the Poqo cell to which he and Imam belonged and about their training in the Nyanga bush. Despite his PAC-Poqo affiliation Imam Haron cooperated with all political formations.
The 117 deaths in detention between 1963 – 1990 reveal much about the interrogation techniques of the Security Branch. Many detainees were killed within days of their detention. The Security Branch either wanted to disrupt an active political or guerrilla cell and thought that detention without trial was a useful tactic to remove key members from operating. On other occasions there was an urgency to obtain information and severe torture was used resulting in the murders in detention. Ahmed Timol (died after five days) , and Hoosen Haffejee (less than two days) are examples of young men killed within a few days of their detention. Imam Haron was killed after being detained for 123 days.
The case of Imam Haron is unique in that beatings were continuous and had spikes in severity which became known when there was a need for medical attention or complaints to the magistrate. Three periods were particularly noted by Judge Thulare. Once in July 1969 to extract a statement, a second in early September – after it became clear that Imam fabricated the statement to buy time – and the third in late September resulting in his martyrdom.
Many guerrilla movements adopt a strategy that gave their members, when arrested, three days within which they should try not to divulge any information. This allows the movement time to reorganise and protect the remaining members of the cell and afford the detainee the possibility of torture being reduced. This agreement may not have been in place in the case of Imam Haron and he held out for as long as he could. It is on the three fateful nights of the September 17 to 19, 1969 that the Security Police took Imam to an undisclosed venue outside of the Cape Peninsula and severely tortured him. The injuries sustained during this period resulted in his death. After doing battle for four months, this valiant Imam-father-soldier-guerrilla had fallen. The people of Cape Town speculated that this undisclosed venue was, in fact, in Tulbagh, a rural town, that experienced an earthquake on September 29, 1969, the day Imam Haron was buried.
When we go before Him God will ask, ‘Where are your wounds’? And we will say, ‘I have no wounds’. And God will ask, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’ – Reverend Alan Boesak
Imam Haron has a story to tell God, and God will certainly be pleased with Imam Haron. The truth about his wounds, the evidence of his last stand over 123 days is now well documented. In the re-opened inquest, forensic pathologist experts Dr Itumeleng Molefeand Dr Dr Segaran Ramalu Naidoo, provided the evidence. The Imam’s injuries spoke out loud for him on the nature and extent of his torture. The torture included:
- being repeatedly punched with fists and kicked with booted feet on his rib cage;
- being repeatedly prodded or pressed either with the knuckles, with the point of a truncheon or similar object, whilst standing against and facing the wall or lying on his stomach or on his lower back and whilst lying on his back or whilst standing with his back against the wall, on his stomach;
- being repeatedly given vicious strokes with a truncheon or similar object on his thighs from the front, back and sides;
- being repeatedly kicked and thumped upon or stamped on, either whilst standing against the wall or lying on the ground, including on his inner thigh, calf and on his legs;
- being repeatedly kicked or struck or thumped with a truncheon or similar object on his tendon and on his shoulders;
- the strokes with a truncheon or similar object on his calves are also probable; and
- being kicked or punched on his thighs and his ankles.
The Inquest Act requires the judge to determine the following: The identity of the person killed, the date of the death, the cause of the death and whether it was brought on by an act of omission involving or amounting to an offence.
The 1970 inquest identified Imam Haron as the deceased, September 27 as the date of his death, myocardial ischemia as the cause of his death and no one caused the death, which was as a result of a fall down the stairs.
Judge Thulare found that the 1970 judgement by Magistrate JSP Kuhn as laughable and that the magistrate had no real desire to establish and reach the truth, and thus his findings were set aside.
Judge Thulare made the following order:
The cause of death of Imam Abdullah Haron is attributable to the cumulative effect of injuries under torture, in particular a combination of severe systemic physiological stresses, including crush injury syndrome precipitated by complications of blunt soft tissue injury, with the possibility of a pre-existing coronary artery disease as a contributing factor.
The Security Branch of the South African Police are held responsible for the acts and omissions leading directly to the death of Imam Abdullah Haron. The officers primarily responsible for brutally torturing the Imam to death are:
- Lieutenant Colonel Carel Johannes Preysen Pienaar. He died on July 5, 1990.
- Major Dirk Kotze He died on February 1, 2003.
- Major Kotze. His date of death is unknown.
- Captain Ebanis Jogiemus Johannes Geldenhuys. He died on December 24, 2012.
- Sergeant Johannes Petrus Francois ‘Spyker’. He died on November 12, 1990.
- Sergeant Andries van Wyk. His date of death is unknown.
The Judge referred the names of the Security Branch members responsible as well as the following uniformed policemen and the state prosecutor to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a decision to prosecute. They are Johannes Burger the only surviving member of the police. He perjured himself in this inquest. Sergeant Petrus Jacobus Rademeyer who died on September 27, 2015, Captain Pieter Louis Malan who died on July 1, 1982 and Sergeant Smit whose date of death is unknown, and the Prosecutor, JS Van Graan.
The conduct of District Surgeon Dr Petrus Jacobus Viviers, Dr D’Arcy Charles Gosling, Dr Kosseaw and Dr T G Schwar deserve serious rebuke and Judge Thulare referred them to the South African Medical and Dental Council for its attention.
Justice Thulare provided the political context for the arrest, imprisonment, torture and killing of Imam Haron. Through the testimonies of Drs Molefe and Naidoo, the truth of how Imam was killed was revealed and the lies of falling down a flight of stairs is now in the dustbin of history. Those responsible were clearly identified.
It is now up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to act against the perpetrators listed and to prosecute Johan Burger. He should stand trial and answer those contradictions that he presented to this inquest. The Medical and Dental Council should posthumously rebuke their members meaningfully and publish this rebuke widely.
In light of Judge Thulare referring to Imam Haron as a guerrilla, the Department of Military Veterans should posthumously honour the Imam in a manner befitting his contribution to the armed struggle and the liberation of the South Africa.