Detainee’s ‘suicide’ revisited

Ismail Haffejee and Sarah Lall with a portrait of their brother Hoosen Haffejee, who died in police custody in 1977. (Rogan Ward)

Ismail Haffejee and Sarah Lall with a portrait of their brother Hoosen Haffejee, who died in police custody in 1977. (Rogan Ward)

It has been 41 years but the photographs of the scene of Hoosen Haffejee’s death in a cell in Durban’s Brighton Beach police station have not lost any of their brutality with the passage of time.

A pair of trousers is wrapped around the handsome 26-year-old dentist’s neck. These were those with which he, a political detainee, was found by an inquest court to have hanged himself. At the time of his death, he had just undergone 20 hours of interrogation at the hands of the Security Branch.

Haffejee’s neck is twisted at an impossible angle, his body half upright, legs almost parallel to the floor, hanging from the lower third of the iron grill on the cell. The slightly built Haffejee’s body is covered in bruises, cuts and abrasions. His inner arms are deeply punctured with twin round marks as if somebody had taken a pair of long-nosed pliers or a riveting tool to them.

Advocate Shubnum Singh’s hands were rock steady as she pointed to the pictures on Wednesday. It was Human Rights Day and a week more than 40 years since Durban inquest magistrate Trevor Blunden found that Haffejee had hanged himself and cleared the police of any wrongdoing.

Singh, a prosecutor with the priority crimes unit of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), was in Durban this week to investigate the circumstances of Haffejee’s death and to try to have the inquest reopened.

Singh and Hawks Warrant Officer Frank Kgamanyane have located several witnesses whose evidence will be crucial in convincing the minister of justice to issue a certificate for the inquest to be reopened.

They met several others in Durban this week and were going to conduct technical tests in the cell where Haffejee died to prove whether or not he did hang himself.

The investigation began last October after the judgment in the reopened inquest into the death in detention of activist Ahmed Timol in 1971 found that he had been murdered.

The 1972 inquest into Timol’s death had cleared the police and found he had jumped to his death from a window on the 10th floor of the notorious John Vorster Square police station. Although the two Security Branch members found to have thrown Timol to his death are dead, Singh is preparing to prosecute former Security Branch sergeant Joao Rodrigues for murder, accessory to murder and perjury for his role in the cover-up.

Dockets have been opened for two other former Security Branch policemen, Seth Sons and Neville Els, who testified at the inquest.

Singh’s team has also begun to investigate the death in detention in 1981 of trade unionist and anti-apartheid activist Dr Neil Aggett. An inquest court found that he had hanged himself in his cell at John Vorster Square and that nobody was responsible for his death. Investigations into several other unsolved or suspicious deaths of activists in the apartheid era are understood to be in the pipeline.

Haffejee, a dentist at the King George V Hospital in Asherville, Durban, was detained by Security Branch captains James Taylor and Piet du Toit and several other operatives at about 8am on August 2 1977.

Haffejee had been under surveillance for several months before his detention. He was found dead in his cell at 4am the next day.

At the inquest, Taylor and Du Toit denied torturing Haffejee during interrogation, and the state pathologist’s report found his death consistent with hanging, despite the 60 wounds on his body.

Blunden ruled that Haffejee had committed suicide by hanging, and that the injuries on his body were not connected to his death.

But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) saw evidence in an affidavit from former Security Branch member Mohun Deva Gopal, who testified that he had been present when Taylor and Du Toit repeatedly assaulted Haffejee.

Gopal said the assaults became increasingly violent and continued until midnight as Haffejee, whom he described as very strong psychologically, had refused to divulge information. Gopal also told the TRC he and other officers had been told to fabricate a story that Haffejee had been injured trying to escape.

Taylor was subpoenaed to the TRC but denied all allegations of torture and did not apply for amnesty.

Singh said they had found “quite a few” witnesses, including a person who had been detained with Haffejee and tortured. The witness, now living in France, would be asked to provide an affidavit.

Singh’s team is trying to locate former policemen constable Shadrack Madlala and constable HD Naude, who had given evidence about the conditions under which Haffejee was held. They were also trying to find a convicted murderer, Billy Dorasamy, who had worked at the South African Police mechanical unit in Chatsworth and had been at the Brighton Beach police station on the day of Haffejee’s death.

The investigators are also trying to contact the family of Bayempini Mzizi, who was found dead in a cell at Brighton Beach 11 days after Haffejee. Mzizi, a suspected ANC underground operative, was found hanging from the cell bars. Around his neck was the sleeve of his jacket.

“What are the chances that two people detained at the same police station under section 6 of the Terrorism Act [hanged] themselves under such similar circumstances within such a short period?” Singh asked.

They want to make contact with any other detainees who were held at the Brighton Beach police station during the same period.

“We know that a number of people were tortured at Brighton Beach at the hands of the Security Branch. We need to talk to witnesses who were there and who may have seen or heard the interrogation,” she said.

Singh said the investigation had been made more difficult by the passage of time.

“A lot of the documentation has been destroyed. People are dead. The department of justice destroyed the inquest record after 10 years so there has been very little to work with,” she said.

For the inquest to be reopened, the national director of public prosecutions would have to present the minister of justice with a memorandum based on new evidence that had not been presented at the original inquest. She said that, if the inquest was reopened and police officers were found to be responsible for Haffejee’s death, the NPA would proceed with criminal charges.

“The Timol matter has opened up a path, opened up a can of worms. There are disturbing similarities between the versions the police gave to the courts in the two inquests and the reasons given by the courts in their findings in accepting that the two took their lives rather than face a prison sentence,” she said.

“If it was a suicide, it was a suicide, but we need to know whether this was the case or whether he was killed.

“Why would such a person choose death? Haffejee had everything to live for. He was 26 years old. His family had saved every last cent to send one child to medical university. Their hope died with him. Why would such a person take his own life? It makes absolutely no sense,” Singh said.

Haffejee’s sister, Sarah, still lives in the family home in Church Street, Pietermaritzburg, where a private postmortem was carried out on his body by Dr David Biggs, a pathologist hired by the family. A portrait of Haffejee is kept carefully in a dresser in the dining room, a constant reminder of the family’s loss.

Sarah said the bid to reopen the inquest by the NPA was a “great relief” to the family, who had given up hope that they would ever get the truth about how her brother died.

“Hoosen’s death really hurt this family. My late mom and my late brother, Yusuf, every day they looked at cuttings. My brother wrote letters and tried to have the inquest opened again. It was just a failure.

“That’s what led to his cancer. My mom aged overnight and nothing materialised.

“Now I’m so happy that Shubnum has approached us and that people are ready to help us out.”

Sarah said the family had been financially broken by the death of Haffejee. Her parents had dreamed of him practising medicine and had made great sacrifices to enable him to go to medical school.

“We are looking for closure. If my brother were living today, we would not have had the financial difficulties we have been through. Everybody depended on him. My dad couldn’t afford to send him to India to do dentistry. We had friends who loaned us the money and slowly it was paid off.”

Sarah said the family had suffered, knowing that the real circumstances of Haffejee’s death had been suppressed by the inquest court.

“It was very painful for us to know. It’s is very sad for my parents and my elder brother, who gave up his whole life trying to get some closure to this and got nothing. Nothing.

“We lost a very good human being. All we want now is closure, to know the truth.”

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