Luthuli inquest could be reopened

Albert Luthuli died when he was hit by a train. But was there more to his death? (UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

Albert Luthuli died when he was hit by a train. But was there more to his death? (UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

The Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) have begun a probe into the circumstances around the death in 1967 of ANC president general and Nobel peace prize laureate Inkosi Albert Luthuli.

Luthuli, who had been banned from addressing public gatherings and placed under house arrest by the apartheid regime, died after being hit by a train near his home in Groutville, near KwaDukuza on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast, on July 21 1967.

An inquest found his death was an accident but his family and his comrades have held suspicions that he was murdered by state agents and the killing covered up.

On Friday the team investigating several suspicious deaths during the apartheid era met Luthuli’s family at Groutville to discuss the attempt to have the inquest reopened.

Last year Luthuli’s daughter, Dr Albertina Luthuli, called for a fresh investigation into the death of her father.
Luthuli, who returned to South Africa from exile in 1991, after which she worked as a medical doctor and served as an ANC member of the provincial legislature, called on potential witnesses to come forward to help to answer the unexplained questions.

Her call was echoed by KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu and retired judge Thumba Pillay, both of whom questioned the haste of the inquest to come to a finding of accidental death.

The inquest failed to consider statements from a child who had seen a white man walking near Luthuli shortly before he was hit by the train. The family also questioned how Luthuli could have met his death this way while under constant observation by Security Branch members enforcing his banning order and house arrest. Luthuli had been a major thorn in the regime’s flesh, having taken the ANC’s struggle into the international arena.

Advocate Shubnum Singh, of the NPA’s priority crimes unit, confirmed the meeting with the family was part of a process to reopen the inquest.  The NPA needs to present the minister of justice with fresh evidence for this to happen.

Last year’s murder finding in the inquest into the death of ANC activist Ahmed Timol, reopened after four decades, has given new impetus to attempts to have suspicious deaths of anti-apartheid campaigners investigated afresh.

“We have held an initial discussion with members of the Luthuli family to explore the idea of an investigation into the circumstances around the death of Inkosi Luthuli and the possibility of re-opening the inquest,” Singh said. “Things are at a very early stage, so we cannot say more than that.”

The investigative team on Friday also met forensic experts at Durban’s Brighton Beach police station to inspect the cell where political detainee Dr Hoosen Haffejee allegedly hanged himself in August 1977.

An inquest court absolved the security police of responsibility for Haffejee’s death. He had been interrogated in a room near the cells for almost 20 hours after he was detained.

The new investigation into Haffejee’s death has already uncovered fresh witness testimony into his death in Brighton Beach’s Cell 2.

Last Friday the cell, no longer in use, was packed with beds and other household possessions belonging to an officer at the station. Green rubbish bins had to be moved to get to the cell, a replica of which will be built by forensic experts. They will recreate Haffejee’s death to ascertain whether or not he hanged himself.

Haffejee’s body was found hanging from the bottom of the door grille, with his trousers wrapped around his neck. His body was covered in more than 60 wounds, sustained after he was snatched on his way to work as a dentist at King George V Hospital in Asherville by a Security Branch team, which had been monitoring his movements for months.

The investigators have already uncovered information that Haffejee was set up by a former lover who had informed on him to the Security Branch, who then bugged his flat in Overport, Durban, and placed him under observation.

The woman later married one of the Security Branch members involved in Haffejee’s detention and interrogation. The man has since died.

She has now made a statement to the investigation team, as have a doctor and former detainee, now living in France, who was tortured along with Haffejee at the Brighton Beach police cells.

Haffejee wasn’t the only person found hanged at that police station. Less than a month after his death another detainee, Bayempini Mzizi, was found hanged in his cell. 

Staff at the police station told the Mail & Guardian several police members had hanged themselves at the station since the 1980s, and a cleaner had frozen to death after being accidentally locked in its cold room overnight.

The airless room across the courtyard from Cell 2, in which Haffejee was interrogated, is now a records office. Located at the end of a short corridor next to the police station’s power room, it is now home to a civilian clerk and thousands of brown police dockets piled in shelves around the walls.

The Hawks are also investigating the death of activist Suliman “Babla” Saloojee in 1964. Saloojee, a member of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), was detained and tortured by the Security Branch. An inquest found that the cause of Saloojee’s death was unknown.

Saloojee, a close friend of Ahmed Kathrada, had been served with a banning order and had been sought by police about his involvement in assisting other ANC and TIC activists to flee the country.

Saloojee’s family and comrades believe he was thrown to his death from the seventh floor of the Johannesburg headquarters of the Security Branch in Grays Building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, after being severely tortured. Police claimed he jumped to his death.

Singh said the NPA was interested in speaking to anyone who might have witnessed the events leading up to Saloojee’s death.

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