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Haffejee inquest: unanswered questions

Dr Hoosen Mia Haffejee. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Dr Hoosen Mia Haffejee. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Aug 22, 2021


OPINION: The broader question is how does the NPA intend fast-tracking the reopening of apartheid-era inquests? Witnesses and perpetrators are passing on, writes Imtiaz Cajee.

A tumultuous week has ended for the family and friends of Dr Hoosen Mia Haffejee with the reopening of his inquest. This is only the third of its kind in democratic South Africa. (The first being that of Ahmed Timol in 2017 and Dr Neil Aggett in 2021).

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Security Branch Police officers abducted the 26-year-old dentist on his way to work on August 2, 1977. Twenty hours later, Haffejee was dead. Police claimed he hanged himself using his trousers attached to a grille door at the Brighton Beach police cell. He was the 45th detainee to have died in police detention.

A 1977 inquest verdict ruled that he had committed suicide and nobody was to blame for his death. This despite Haffejee having sustained multiple injuries and some 60 wounds found on his body, including on his back, knees, arms and head. I had seen grisly pictures of his body for me spelling signs of extensive torture.

Apartheid inquests investigating deaths in detention were a farce. Collusion between security police, state pathologists, private counsels and some magistrates and prosecutors covered up heinous crimes allowing police to continue operating with impunity.

This under the watch of their political masters whose silence endorsed this brutality. Evidence at previous inquests show that their unlawfulness was endorsed at the highest level.

The Haffejee family, like so many, went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996 with the hope of getting answers. They were bitterly disappointed.

Former Security Branch officer, Mohun Gopal, testified witnessing Captain James Taylor and Captain du Toit interrogating, assaulting and torturing Haffejee. He also testified that evidence at the inquest was fabricated. Taylor nor any of the other officers involved in Haffejee's matter applied for amnesty or any action was ever taken against them.

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Minister of Justice, Advocate TM Masutha, approved the reopening of the Haffejee inquest on 18 September 2018. In August 2019, within a year of the announcement, Captain James Taylor, accused of torturing Haffejee, passed away.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) then decided to halt the inquest on the pretext that there was a definite link between the deaths of Haffejee and Mr Bayempini Mzizi, a Inyanga (traditional healer) living in the Durban region, who also died at Brighton Beach 10 days later.

The Priority Crimes Litigation Unit (PCLU), set up in 2003 in the NPA, is mandated to investigate matters emanating from the TRC. Little or no effort was made in more than two decades to reopen any inquest let alone any other investigations.

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Instead they strategically decentralised TRC cases from the PCLU to other divisions, deflecting from their failure in investigating TRC cases.

The hurried decision was then taken by the NPA to combine the Haffejee inquest with that of Mzizi. It took threats from legal representatives from the Haffejee family to compel the NPA to continue and complete their investigation. It now appears that the Mzizi investigation is not completed and will not be heard.

Similarly, the death in detention of Ernest Dipale in 1982 was combined with the Dr Aggett inquest in 2021, only for it to be heard separately after the conclusion of the Aggett inquest. The Mzizi family needs an explanation from the NPA.

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The scene has been set for the upcoming weeks for the Haffejee family and friends to relive the horrendous ordeal of losing Haffejee. Evidence from similar fact witnesses will reaffirm the history of torture.

This is going to be difficult with tears and heartbreak. Unfortunately, this is necessary. The family has never healed after their loss and the painful wounds have only infested over the years.

Only a reversal of the suicide verdict, knowing full details of who and why he was killed will bring closure.

This is a tragic familiarity within many other families throughout the country. Fearless loved ones were killed by the apartheid regime.

Many South Africans will undoubtedly be hearing about another unsung martyr of South Africa, Dr Hoosen Mia Haffejee; a grim reminder to politicians that they hold political office because of the blood spilled by Haffejee and many others.

The broader question is how does the NPA intend fast-tracking the reopening of apartheid-era inquests? Witnesses and perpetrators are passing on.

Dockets are reportedly missing as in the Cradock Four matter. The Nokuthula Simelane matter has been on the court roll since 2013, at least two of the accused persons have allegedly died and the trial is yet to commence.

The judiciary (as clearly reflected in the judgments of the Supreme Court of appeal and the Full Bench of the South Gauteng High Court) has been scathing on the conduct of the NPA in the Rodrigues/Timol murder matter. Time will tell.

* Imtiaz Ahmed Cajee, nephew of Ahmed Timol is working on his latest book focusing on events post 2017 Timol inquest. He is a member of the Apartheid-era Victim’s Family Group (AVFG).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.