From November 7 to 18, the Western Cape High Court will reopen the inquest into the cause of Imam Haron’s death while in police custody in September 1969. Lawyer Odette Gendenhuys recently delivered an address titled ‘Searching for the Truth: Re-inquest into the death of Imam Haron’ at the Claremont Main Road Mosque on the reopening of the inquest. This is the edited version of her speech.
I will start by saying something about the process of inquests and the role of being the Haron family’s legal representatives. I will then speak about searching for the truth via the avenue of legal justice.
An inquest is not a criminal trial, in which a person or persons are facing criminal charges such as assault or murder.
The law provides that where the death of a person was not due to natural causes, an inquest may be held as to the circumstances and cause of such death.
Inquests are sometimes held where there is not sufficient evidence to institute criminal proceedings. The purpose of the inquest then is to establish whether there is such sufficient evidence available to lay criminal charges against a specific person or persons.
The obligation of an inquest court is to reach a finding as to whether the death was brought about by any act or omission which on the face of it involves or amounts to an offence on the part of any person or persons.
Inquests are court processes which take place in terms of the Inquests Act, rules of court and rules of evidence.
Our role as the legal representatives of the Haron family is to assist them to present the best evidence in a way which complies with the law, the rules of court and the rules of evidence. I must emphasise that this is a team effort.
At the head of our legal team are two advocates, of whom advocate Naefa Kahn is one. There are also two attorneys on the team.
On September 27, 1969 Imam Abdullah Haron was found dead in his police cell at the Maitland Police Station.
That fateful day was just over 53 years ago. Imam Haron's death came after 123 days of being cut from his family, his friends and the outside world.
During that time, he was only in the presence of members of the notorious security branch of the South African Police.
The death of Imam Haron, made world headlines.
He was a political detainee, held in solitary confinement. He was known for his religious, social justice and political work. By holding an inquest into his death, was a clever move on the part of the apartheid state. It was a formal process.
The Haron family was represented by advocates Cooper and Kies.
After hearing evidence over a number of days, the inquest magistrate found that the cause or likely cause of death was some form of a heart attack.
The inquest magistrate also found that a likely contributing cause was the impact of “an accidental fall down a flight of stone stairs, the trauma of which superimposed on a severe narrowing of a coronary artery”.
In terms of the law, an inquest magistrate has to find “whether the death was brought about by an act or omission involving or amounting to an offence on the part of any person”.
In the 1970 inquest, the magistrate found: “A substantial amount of the trauma was caused by an accidental fall down a flight of stairs. On the available evidence I am unable to determine how the balance thereof was caused”.
At the time, and since then, the legal sleight of hand of the magistrate has been crystal clear. He followed a process, he heard witnesses.
Yet, the evidence which had been placed before the magistrate which caused clear doubts about the “courteous” manner in which the security police treated, interrogated and handled the Imam, was disregarded as irrelevant by the magistrate in 1970.
This evidence, given by the security police themselves, included evidence of very long hours of interrogation, of days of interrogation, and of the deterioration of the physical and mental health of Imam Haron. The evidence also included evidence of bruise wounds, which could not be explained by a “fall on stairs”.
The law allows for the Minister of Justice to request a court to reopen an inquest if he believes it necessary in the interest of justice to do so.
The Minister may make such a request on the recommendation of the National Prosecuting Authority.
The Haron family set about gathering evidence to show that it will be in the interest of justice that the inquest be reopened.
This evidence was presented to the National Prosecuting Authority. The National Prosecuting Authority also did its own investigations, whereafter it made a recommendation to the Minister that it would be in the interest of justice to re-open the inquest.
The re-opened inquest will take place in the Cape Town High Court from November 7 to 18 2022.
It will be in open court, which means that anyone will be able to attend the proceedings; and on behalf of the family, we extend such an invitation to this congregation.
The inquest will be heard by Justice Thulare, a judge appointed during South Africa’s democratic order. The purpose of the 2022 inquest is not to prop up the apartheid state (as had been the case with the 1970 inquest), but to search for truth.
We have all but established that all the security police who had been responsible for Imam Haron's conditions under detention, are dead.
They can therefore not be called to the inquest next month and be interrogated about what exactly they did to Imam Haron and whether he did fall on some stairs.
Yet the inquest will continue the process of searching for the truth, and that process may never be completed.
What we do hope to find, is justice. And what will justice look like in this context?
It will be a finding by the inquest court that it is likely that Imam Haron’s life on this earth came to an end by unlawful means used by the security police.
We will never know that truth about which security policeman did what, but we will have justice in knowing that the official history can be told differently.
The Quran provides guidance on different forms of justice: natural justice, ethical justice, distributive justice, rectificatory justice, etc.
Rectificatory justice deals with crime and punishment, and sometimes people understand this as the only form of justice.
While no individual security policeman or policemen will be punished after the forthcoming inquest, we believe that it is as important to find justice in the retelling of history and providing some closure for the family.