The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has agreed to reopen inquests into the apartheid-era deaths in detention of Dr Neil Aggett and Dr Hoosen Haffejee, in the face of threats of legal action from their families.
The national director of public prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, has written to the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng judge presidents, asking them to appoint judges to hear the two inquests, a week after she announced that the Haffejee inquest had been shelved.
Batohi’s about-turn came after lawyers for the Aggett family placed her on terms for her failure to follow up on the announcement by former justice minister Michael Masutha in April that he had authorised an application by the NPA for the inquest into Aggett’s death in detention in February 1982.
Lawyers for the Haffejee family, who live in Pietermaritzburg, also served Batohi with notice that they would go to court for relief should she not allow a new inquest into his death to go ahead.
Aggett, a trade unionist and activist, was detained in 1981 for his involvement with the African Food and Canning Workers Union and was found dead under mysterious circumstances at the John Vorster Square Security Branch headquarters on February 2 1982.
Haffejee, a dentist, died in detention at the Brighton Beach police cells on August 3 1977, 24 hours after being picked up by members of the Security Branch outside his Overport, Durban, flat. An inquest court found that the 26-year-old Haffejee had hanged himself with his jeans. His family believes that he died as a result of torture and that the hanging was staged.
New investigations into their deaths follow the reopening of the inquest into the death in detention of South African Communist Party activist Ahmed Timol. The inquest magistrate found that Timol was murdered and did not commit suicide, as was found by a 1972 inquest. Security Branch clerk João Rodrigues has been charged with murder, while charges are being investigated against two others involved in Timol’s torture.
Moray Hathorn, the lawyer for the Aggett family, confirmed that they now also expected the inquest to be heard. “[Batohi] had indicated she has requested a judge to be appointed to hear the matter. We are waiting for the minister to put that into effect.”
Last month, Hathorn wrote to Batohi and threatened to go to court over her failure to act on Masutha’s decision to reopen the Aggett inquest. “This case … has been plagued with ongoing delays, not to mention deliberate gross political interference. It has taken some two years and four months for the decision to reopen to be made, and the family will countenance no further delays,” he wrote.
Hathorn gave Batohi until August 5 to issue the request for a judge to be appointed to hear the case, failing which urgent legal action would be taken.
NPA spokesperson Bulelwa Makeke said Batohi had decided to take a “holistic approach’’ and look at the deaths of other detainees under similar circumstances to try to obtain evidence. However, she had acknowledged that this approach “presents challenges’’ and had written to the justice ministry to reopen the inquests.
“The NPA is nevertheless still committed to looking into the circumstances surrounding all 69 deaths in detention during the period 1963 to 1990, in an effort to bring closure to all these families, to the extent possible,’’ Makeke said.
Imtiaz Kajee, the nephew of Ahmed Timol, welcomed the decision to reopen the two inquests, saying that the delay was caused by a lack of political will for apartheid-era crimes to be prosecuted that had stemmed from the era when Thabo Mbeki was president. Kajee said there had been a “lack of will to reopen TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] cases”, which had resulted in “political interference” preventing them from being investigated.