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JUSTICE DELAYED

Durban anti-apartheid activist Hoosen Haffejee was murdered, finds judge who slams NPA for failing to pursue TRC cases

Durban anti-apartheid activist Hoosen Haffejee was murdered, finds judge who slams NPA for failing to pursue TRC cases
Anti-apartheid activist Hoosen Haffejee. (Photo: unfinishedtrc.co.za)

The finding at the reopened inquest into the death of dentist Hoosen Haffejee is another step forward for families waiting for the truth about the death of their loved ones in apartheid prisons.

Every day for the past 46 years, Sarah Lall has remembered the departed in her prayers. There’s always a special devotion for her younger brother, Hoosen Haffejee. On Wednesday, 13 September, she finally got to add a prayer of thanks.

It was gratitude for the end of proceedings at the reopened inquest into Haffejee’s death in detention in 1977 and also gratitude for a finding in the Pietermaritzburg High Court that’s given her clarity about the circumstances of her brother’s death.

Lall (78) and her surviving brother, Ismail Haffejee (80), have continued the family’s fight for justice for Hoosen Haffejee. He was found dead on 3 August 1977, hanging from the bars of a jail cell at Durban’s Brighton Beach police station with a pair of trousers around his neck, knotted with a handkerchief. 

An inquest in 1978 ruled his death a suicide. The family never believed the 26-year-old dentist, “the baby of the family” as Lall called him, took his life.

It would take more than four decades and threats of legal action against the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to force a democratic-era government to proceed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) recommendation for the inquests of cases of death in detention, including the Haffejee case, to be reopened and investigated. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Family’s interminable fight for justice for Dr Hoosen Haffejee overshadowed by protracted NPA investigations

On Wednesday, Judge Zaba Nkosi handed down his finding — two years after the case first came before his court in August 2021. He set aside the finding of the 1978 inquest and ruled that Haffejee did not die by suicide but was tortured till he suffered a cardiac incident and died at the hands of the apartheid security police interrogators. He found that Haffejee died in the late hours of 2 August 1977, not the early hours of 3 August 1977.

Nkosi gave a comprehensive summary of the evidence presented in his courtroom. He outlined how Haffejee had become politically active from an early age. He recounted testimony from Haffejee’s comrades confirming he was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle while he was in South Africa and during the years he spent in India studying to be a dentist. 

Nkosi also recounted the testimony of how Haffejee came to be in the crosshairs of the security police when a bitter ex-girlfriend, Matheevathinee “Mathee” Benjamin, gave him up to the Security Branch.

Tortured

On the stand in Nkosi’s courtroom, Benjamin confirmed that her deliberate actions put Haffejee under police surveillance, which led to him being abducted by the Durban Security Branch. He was taken to the Brighton Beach Police station so he could be tortured in a more secluded part of the city, the judge said.

Haffejee was tortured, beaten, humiliated and killed. His body was posed to resemble a suicide by hanging. Nkosi dismissed suicide as a cause of death after considering the evidence that Haffejee was in a physically weakened state in the hours before his death as well as the findings of a forensic pathologist.

Nkosi was scathing of the NPA’s delays in reopening the inquest. He said, “Since the winding up of the TRC proceedings, there have been inordinate delays in the pursuit of justice. Families have been left in limbo for years on end. It appears that until recently, there was a State reluctance to prosecute such matters.

“In Rodriguez versus the National Director of Public Prosecutions and others, the Supreme Court of Appeal strongly expressed: ‘The executive adopted a policy position considered by the State parties that the TRC cases would not be prosecuted.’ It is perplexing and inexplicable why such a stance was taken.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: NPA allowed manipulation of criminal justice system in TRC cases

The judge added: “Suspects, witnesses and family members have died [because of delays]. This inquest has come late for Hoosen’s parents and his elder brother Yusuf … What harm has been visited upon the Haffejee family and other families is incalculable and unforgivable.”

Haffejee’s two chief torturers were Captain James Taylor and Captain Petrus du Toit of the Durban Security Branch. Both are now dead.

Nkosi, though, said that while Taylor and Du Toit were the two members directly responsible for Haffejee’s death, all those who “turned a blind eye without raising the alarm” during the 20 hours that Haffejee was detained who were still alive or traceable should be investigated for possible prosecution.

Nkosi recommended Security Branch police officer Mohan Deva Gopal be investigated for murder by common purpose and possibly telling lies under oath and Veera Ragululu Naidoo be investigated to establish his whereabouts during the periods of Haffejee’s interrogation and death, and Brighton Beach police officers Derek Hugh Naude and Johannes Meyer to be investigated as accessories to murder by participating in cover-ups and false testimony during the reopened 2021 inquest.

Benjamin is recommended for prosecution for giving false testimony under oath, including denying that she gave keys to Haffejee’s flat to Gopal and claiming to have been threatened by the Haffejee family after Hoosen’s death.

The Haffejee family’s attorney, Anwar Jessop, welcomed the finding and said it was “thorough and had a historical approach that gives everyone a complete idea of what the struggles were like for the people who sacrificed their lives for the democracy we have today”.

Jessop said he would meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to build cases against those that Nkosi has recommended for further investigation.

“We need to push for this and we cannot forget how the NPA dragged its feet with delays and that within days of the NPA finally giving the announcement that the inquest be reopened that Taylor died before having to come before this court,” he added. 

The Foundation for Human Rights has been instrumental in supporting families in their cases stemming from deaths under the apartheid regime. Executive director Zaid Kimmie said it was a victory that the Haffejee inquest has been completed, but he pointed out that it was only the third finalised case among about 200 referred by the TRC to the NPA. 

Kimmie said: “The judgment today is gratifying but we need the NPA to act with greater urgency and transparency. The public has a right to know what they are doing with all the outstanding cases, because the contributions of those who sacrificed cannot go unmarked.”

Lall said it was “a happy day but also a very emotional one. My brother collapsed in court today and had to listen to the end of the judgment from hospital.

“I am also sad because my mother and my brother Yusuf didn’t live to see this day. But I’m happy that the world knows that Hoosen did not commit suicide and we know that it was Benjamin who got the ball rolling that got him killed.

“And yes, today I could say a prayer and  say, ‘Thanks be to Allah’.” DM

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