Bruises may solve 40-year mystery

When the inquest into the death of Hoosen Haffejee commences, photographs of the bruises on his body may rewrite the official record that has prevailed for more than 40 years. 

Haffejee, who died in police custody in 1977, officially died because of his own actions. But his family believes this version is a lie.

The Haffejee family has been waiting for the truth to be finally unearthed because they have always believed that it had been buried in a cover-up.

The family announced at the weekend that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has decided to reopen the inquest, 41 years after Haffejee died. Evidence put before the NPA, including photographs, has cast doubt on the official police version that there was no foul play in his death.

Haffejee, who was a 26-year-old dentist, was found in a cell with his trousers wrapped around his neck in the early hours of August 3 at Durban’s Brighton Beach police station. It was less than 24 hours after his arrest.

He had supposedly hanged himself.

His family and friends did not know whether he was politically active against the apartheid regime, or what he had done to attract the attention of the security police. The police said at the time that Haffejee had been planning to use explosives in a plot to overthrow the state.

Now, his siblings, Sarah Lall and Ismail Haffejee, are building a case for his inquest. It is the final images of Haffejee’s body that they will rely on to argue that he had been viciously tortured by security police — to the point where he would not have been able to loop the trousers around the iron grille of his cell, knot them and then use them as a noose around his neck.

Anwar Jessop, the attorney representing the Haffejee family, is collating the documents from the 1978 inquest as well as the current docket prepared by the Hawks and the NPA.

“You’ve got injuries to the knees, the elbow area, the back. How do you answer the question, when they say somebody had hung themself, of where did these injuries come from?” asks Jessop.

The evidence emerged after Imtiaz Cajee, the nephew of murdered anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, came across evidence in Haffejee’s case, as well as for others, including Matthews Mabelane, Nicodemus Kgoathe and the Cradock Four — Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli —while investigating his uncle’s death.

An inquest in 2017 found that Timol had been assaulted by the apartheid security police to the point where he was too weak to have jumped to his death, as the security police had alleged.

Cajee, who has seen the photographs of Haffejee’s body, says the injuries he sustained were more severe than those of his uncle.

A photographer had accompanied chief state pathologist Professor Gordon (first name unknown) to Haffejee’s cell a few hours after he had died. Gordon would testify before the 1978 inquest, which was presided over by magistrate Trevor Blunden, that there were up to 50 bruises on Haffejee’s body at the time he was killed, and many of them were inflicted during police custody. He also sustained an injury to his head. The police denied claims of torture.

Lieutenant James Taylor and Captain Pieter du Toit were two of the security branch officers who detained Haffejee on August 2. They testified that they never sought to hurt Haffejee, but that he may have sustained injuries by being forced into the van while resisting arrest.

Blunden found in favour of their claims and made a finding that no one was responsible for Haffejee’s death. He dismissed testimony from independent medical experts who examined Haffejee’s body for his family, including a Dr Cooper, who testified that “overzealous interrogation” by Du Toit and Taylor led to some of the injuries.

“No one seems to have had motive to kill him. On the face of it, his death in custody is an obvious embarrassment to the police and, to use a cliché which was often used during the course of this inquest, he was worth more to them alive than dead,” Blunden said in his findings.

But, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a police officer would refute this. Security branch member Mohun Deva Gopal told the commission that he had seen Haffejee tortured. He testified that Haffejee was stripped naked at the police station and tortured by Taylor with slaps and punches. Du Toit would later join Taylor in assaulting Haffejee. The torture grew more violent and lasted until midnight after Haffejee refused to talk, Gopal testified.

The next morning, according to Gopal’s testimony, he was informed by Taylor that Haffejee was dead.

Jessop is now looking for information about the whereabouts of Gopal, and does not know whether police officers involved in Haffejee’s case — including two police constables, Naude (first name unknown) and Shadrack Madlala — are still alive.

Naude is believed to be the last person to have seen Haffejee alive because, according to the 1978 inquest records, he is allegedly the only person who had the keys to the young man’s cell in the late hours of the night that he died.

There is one other valuable witness. A fellow prisoner and convicted murderer, Billy Dorasamy, had told Haffejee’s eldest brother, Yusuf, that he had seen his younger brother in a terrible state at the police station. Dorasamy was on cleaning duty when Haffejee was detained. He told Yusuf that Du Toit had summoned him to clean up Haffejee’s cell on two occasions. On the first, Haffejee had fainted and a bucket of water had been spilled. Dorasamy cleaned up the water and wiped Haffejee’s face to revive him. On the second occasion, Dorasamy told Yusuf that Haffejee was in a worsened condition, frothing at the mouth.

The NPA has not given details about whether Dorasamy — or any other potential witness — is alive, choosing to keep such information confidential for now.

Yusuf recounted this version in an interview with the Human Sciences Research Council in 2002. He said that Dorasamy had been too frightened to appear before the first inquest because he feared for his life and was still in jail.

Yusuf has since died, as have his parents. The family said his mother had spent the remaining years of her life asking what had happened to her youngest son.

Lall is now in her 70s. She said that Haffejee had been the baby of the family and his death still haunts them.

“Despite the passing of our parents, we demand that justice be served, irrespective of the lengthy time delays. We owe this to our parents and Hoosen himself to know that he did not die in vain and that those responsible for his death must be held accountable,” Lall said.

The burden had largely been on the family — particularly Yusuf — to investigate what had happened to their brother. Although the NPA has a mandate to investigate cases not resolved by the TRC, it has been criticised for delays that have seen years pass by and crucial witnesses — including apartheid policemen — die without being held to account.

NPA spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku said they began investigating Haffejee’s death on the evidence of Cajee. Hawks Warrant Officer Frank Kgamanyane was appointed to conduct the investigation.

“After meeting with the family of Dr Haffejee, he conducted a basic investigation and located a number of witnesses who knew or encountered Dr Haffejee prior to his death,” Mfaku said. “As a result of investigating a number of different leads from witnesses, medical and trajectory evidence was also obtained. The nature of the evidence at this stage is sensitive and cannot be divulged until at the reopened inquest.”

The NPA did not answer questions about to why it had taken so long for the inquest to be reopened.

Taylor, Du Toit, Naude and Madlala do not have amnesty from the TRC and Yusuf had said that he wanted these officers to be prosecuted.

The youngest Haffejee, if his injuries are as severe as the family believes, would have died painfully.

“The people who lost their lives in the name of freedom can never be forgotten. We cannot, in the sentiment of a new democracy, forget that a painful price was paid for our freedom,” Lall said.

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.
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